Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Meetings with remarkable trees by Thomas Pakenham

It is perhaps a bit odd to be reviewing this book now. It first came out in 1996, and the paperback edition I read was a Christmas present from my wife in 2003. The trigger was a new year’s resolution to systematically read all the books I have been given that remain unread – a shockingly large and varied collection. I am so glad I have finally got on to this delightful book, which is also the occasion of the first of what I hope will be a substantial series of reviews of books connected in some way with walking.

Thomas Pakenham’s book is apparently the first book of tree portraits since Jacob Strutt’s Sylva Brittanica of 1826. This gives a clue to its character – it is a personal selection of 60 remarkable trees from around the British Isles. They are trees which are large, old and possessed of a strong personality. Pakenham says that his only criteria were that the trees should be alive (or dead on their feet) and photogenic.

Each tree has a short chapter to itself: a photo and a page or two or text. The photos are stunning and really bring home the sculptural and architectural qualities of large trees. The text is, sensibly, not to a standard pattern and covers some or all of: a physical description, the history of the tree, myths and stories which surround it, and perhaps a poetical or literary reference. Some of this shows the author’s learning, but it is lightly done. The only weakness – indeed the only weakness of the whole book is that some of these short chapters end with a whimsical punchline.

One surprise for me was that the measure of the size of a tree seems to be its girth rather than its height. So a really big tree for Pakenham is one with a 30ft girth – the top might have fallen victim to lightning , but this is still a big tree. A friend told me the other day that to some extent girth and height are alternative growth strategies for trees: trees planted in a wood compete for light and push upwards, while those planted in parks and fields have the luxury of spreading themselves. This seems to be born out by Pakenham’s examples.

Perhaps the major message of the book – beyond the wonder and glory of fine trees – is that we take them for granted and pay them little attention, even though many are significant historical monuments. Pakenham describes a visit to see the Fredville Oak (in Kent), one of the two largest common oaks in Britain, with a 40 foot girth, and tall to boot. It was featured in Strutt’s book of engravings and known in the early nineteenth century as “Majesty”. Enquiring at the local pub, Pakenham found that nobody had even heard of it. Nor, presumably, was there a sign or a plaque.

So, a delightful book, a joy to read, which has certainly opened my eyes to the trees I pass by on my walks. 

Thomas Pakenham – Meetings with remarkable trees, Cassell Paperback 2001. First published 1996 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson.

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