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15th November 2016

Book review: The Long, Long Life of Trees

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Keith Alexander, ATF trustee, reviews Fiona Stafford’s book, the Long, Long Life of Trees, described by the publishers as ‘a lyrical tribute to the diversity of trees, their physical beauty, their special characteristics and uses, and their ever-evolving meanings.’

Fiona Stafford is professor of English at the University of Oxford, and her book is primarily about trees in our culture, including English literature, songs, paintings and myths. An introductory chapter is followed by short chapters on yew, cherry, rowan, olive, cypress, oak, ash, poplar, holly, sycamore, birch, horse chestnut, elm, willow, hawthorn, pine and apple –  a rather eccentric mix of species, with exotica such as olive featured but not more familiar trees such as beech, sweet chestnut, pear or plum.

This is a book for a tree enthusiast, and the literature references are extensively explored. However, the rather skimped nutshell accounts of other aspects of the trees are generally better covered in the many other tree books. I would have preferred the author to focus solely on cultural aspects. I found her lack of taxonomic understanding irritating (species and varieties are not the same thing) and it would have been better not to refer to Oliver Rackham’s mistaken hypothesis about ‘oak change’.  Acute Oak Decline would also have been better omitted than misreported, and leaf-mining insects (in horse chestnut) are not a disease! Furthermore, some of the illustrations could be better reproduced.

However, there are important insights here too; the strength of hollow trees (yew), phoenix trees (olive), decay enriches the soil (oak), heartwood decay (ash) – all things that it is encouraging to hear from an author with such a different background. It was also interesting to read her comments on the issue of natives versus introductions – horse chestnut ‘had settled so successfully in England that it now seemed more native than many of the natives’ and ‘any questions about rights to residency seem to be missing the point’. While scientific accuracy may be an issue, this book is not intended as a scientific publication, more a celebration of trees in literature and our culture. I wholeheartedly support anyone so inspired by trees that they feel the need to write a book, to share their love of trees with others. I shall finish this brief review with a few quotes that speak for themselves:

‘A single oak is a playground and entire natural community in itself.’

‘A drink in the Royal Oak, with all its richly grained tables and low-hanging beams, may not after all offer a momentary step back into the past, but rather a glimpse of the future.’

The Long, Long Life of Trees (hardback) was published by Yale University Press in September 2016 at a recommended retail price of £16.99.

Posted by: Keith Alexander Keith Alexander is a professional invertebrate ecologist who specialises in the fauna of decaying wood and particularly the rarer and more threatened species associated with ancient and veteran trees.

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