It was Andrea Jones, a photographer and friend, who I have worked with on a number of projects over the years, who suggested that I might like to join her in doing a book on trees. For Quintessence, a 'packager' (a company who puts together a book to go out under a publisher's name); they do good quality books and Andrea had worked with them before, so it seemed a good project to join forces on. So, it has now just been published by Frances Lincoln.
I have never been much a 'tree person' though, my focus usually having been on what grows under them, or around them, or indeed if in the Tropics, on them (or indeed in Devon where the epiphytic fern Polypodium vulgare) is capable of sheathing branches as lushly as any fern or orchid in Singapore. The more I thought about it though, I realised that I did actually know more about trees than I thought I did, and crucially, that they had been such a major part of so many of my life experiences.
The book has been an opportunity to write in an incredibly free way. There was a lot of trust and very little direction from Quintessence, which can be a liberating feeling for an author. The core and bulk of the text is a telling of information, interesting to me, and I hope to the reader! Trees as objects of human devotion, as ecological beings, as economic resources, as sources of food, as things of beauty. When a friend asked me about the criteria for choosing the, 96 (I think!) species, I had to admit that it was on the very pragmatic basis that I could find enough interesting to write the entry lengths (625 or 1000 words) and still carry the reader with me. The other fact had to be the possibility of Andrea getting somewhere to photograph them, within the inevitably limited travel budget.
I had to ransack my memories of trees, and once I started to really delve, there was so much to recall. The swamps of Louisiana we visited, about ten years ago I think, with vast Swamp Cypress growing directly out of the water. Valley Oak in California, with impossibly long branches stretching out into that amazingly beautiful savannah ranch country of the edges of the Central Valley. Cryptomeria in a quiet, steeply-sided valley, just an hour from Tokyo's Shinjuku railway station (the world's busiest), their trunks almost impossibly straight and tall.
There have been more prosaic memories too, although for the foreign tourist the sights, noises (and indeed smells) of city life in somewhere like India can never be prosaic: all human life can be seen beneath the majestic Rain Tree and Pipal: circling traffic, begging sadhus, cricket-playing boys, stallholders selling, trade unionists protesting, or the destitute just lying there. I do like the democracy of seeing beautiful trees in 'ordinary' places, and some urban tree planting can create wonderful juxtapositions: Gingko and Dawn Redwood in shopping streets, a young Wollemi Pine next to the skateboard park in Hereford.
Researching the species and the places where it might be possible to photograph them was an exercise in itself, its outcomes very much a record of different cultural attitudes to trees. In Europe there are very good ways of finding out where there are notable trees. Britain has the AncientTree Hunt website, a remarkable website which you can search by county and species to bring up, say, all the notable (biggest and oldest) oaks or monkey puzzles in Gloucestershire. Each entry gives size, estimated age, whether it is on private property or not, with a point marked on a map – and sometimes photographs too. It is one of those sites where members may update themselves, which makes me think I should try to get some our local, but unrecorded, good trees on to it. For further afield there is Monumental Trees.
Beyond Europe it is a lot more difficult. Notable trees are not as well recorded in North America as you think they might be. Researching good specimens brings us up against the sad fact that many notable trees have been destroyed or vandalised: a well-known golden spruce in British Columbia was chopped down by a psycho in 1997, the tallest Swamp Cypress burnt down by someone high on crystal meth in Florida in 2012. Arboreta and botanical collections often have very good specimens of course, with labels on, and attentive staff, but as Andrea pointed out, we didn't want every picture to be of a specimen in a “tree zoo”. Singapore was indeed the place where I insisted Andrea go to get a good range of tropical trees. There is again, a very good database for good trees, run by the National Parks authority, and a long history of urban garden making.
As I got into writing the book, I realised that trees have so often been the background and the context for my closer to the ground horti-botanical exploration, I had so many memories of them. These memories often linked to other circles of context, as trees through their longevity and scale, inevitably impinge more on the human consciousness than shrubs or perennials: they become creatures of folklore, centrepieces for communities and repositories of memory.
Researching the book also emphasised just how destructive the human race has been, and in many places continues to be. Whilst few tree species have become extinct (in fact, I can't think of any), many have been massively reduced in number, and many older specimens lost to the greed for timber, and the need for farmland. Although we are used to the scale of destruction of the last few hundred years, much of the world lost its trees to much earlier phases of clearing. It seems an odd fact that every culture seems to find some ancient trees to venerate, many cultures also seems to treat trees en masse as an endless resource, or something undesirable in the way of a more productive use of the land. One of the strangest stories in the book concerns the Polylepis, a tree so obscure that it lacks an English common name - this is a species cleared extensively so long ago, by pre-Inca peoples in South America, that it is actually difficult to piece the story together.
Humans it seems, find it difficult to cope with anything with a longer lifespan than ourselves. So we tend to see trees as permanent, and forests as always having been there, or of always having had the appearance and composition they do now. I had an interesting conversation the either night with some colleagues in Oslo, about the vast forests of spruce and pine around the city. Apparently most of them were planted.... and much of the southern part of Norway once had lots of oak, which is now quite uncommon. They felled and sold the oak in the 18th century, to the British, who needed them to build ships, our ancestors having felled most of our own, and not thought of replanting them until too late. One thinks of the Easter Islanders, who felled all the trees on their remote homeland, only to trap themselves on their remote homeland by no longer having timber to build boats. A warning to the hubris of the whole human race.
My favourite tree in the book?
The Longleaf Pine, I think. I remember hearing Janisse Ray talk about the tree at Athens University in Georgia, years ago. I've since visited Longleaf forest a few times, but haven't really explored them as much as I'd like. Their story is one of incredible destruction, followed by a restoration movement which is slowly gaining ground in the South. I like to think perhaps our kitchen table is recycled Longleaf (vast quantities were exported). It is a fascinating story, one of hope and recovery, one I'd like to follow up more.
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