Sometimes I do things I can’t explain, perhaps more precisely I can’t justify. This blog tells of just such an instance. It might be the result of being cooped up for three months but that would probably be too simple. The fact is that I have just adopted a tree which, when I can, I go to see and to say my ‘hellos’, touch its bark, marvel at its size, strength and longevity, and, if I have time, spend a moment imagining what it will have witnessed over its seven hundred years.
During the lockdown the number of pets that have been bought in the UK has soared – for many, a puppy who offers unconditional love can hardly be bettered. For me, after around 500km of recreational walks on which there has been much observing, my newcomer is a giant oak. I have not become an indiscriminate tree lover, it just feels reassuring to be close to a living organism, such as my oak, that has survived for centuries and inevitably weathered adversity.
In recent years there have been hints that I might be able to gain support from something other than a human being, in this instance from a tree. However, it certainly was not how I felt as a child. My relationship then with trees was rather conventional. The appeal of a loved box tree at the bottom of our garden was very straightforward. It was my favourite because it was easy to climb, not too tall and the curved branches near its top provided somewhere I could sit. There, in my ‘crow’s nest’, everything seemed visible and all without a thought that the tree had special powers.
In my late fifties, things began to change. Although on the first occasion it was not a ‘personal’ relationship with a tree, but one experienced vicariously, it made me think. Just over twenty years ago my wife, Rohan, adopted a giant London plane that was growing near our house. She was being treated for breast cancer and on the advice of a counsellor would touch her tree – her symbol of health and longevity – at least once a day. The support she drew from her ‘tree-of-life’ was very real. At the time I didn’t understand the strength of the relationship but now when I pass her plane I stop to think and to thank.
The next step occurred when I adopted not a tree but a beautifully carved, three-thousand-year-old standing stone close to our house in Brittany. For years, whenever I have driven or cycled past ‘my’ 3-metre high ‘menhir’, I have stopped and touched it. Making close contact in this way with something so very old and venerable, although inanimate, became important, but exactly what was going on has never been clear.
Finally, to my special new friend. On our recreational walks since lockdown I have become more and more taken by the indigenous Richmond Park oaks – all the English oak – Quercus robur. They are there in their thousands; some saplings, some in their prime, some so old that they have shrunk down to the size of large bushes, and some now lying dead on the ground with their skeletons used as homes for umpteen insects and other tiny living forms.
Of the oaks standing in the Park, well over a thousand are ‘veterans’ and of these a third are more than five hundred years old. These older trees have a survival story to tell – they were saved by Henry VIII. In order to build boats for his navy, which included his warship the Mary Rose, oaks were felled in their thousands. However, to ensure the survival of oak forests he decreed that one in every forty trees should be spared. Moreover, those saved should be at least forty years old – it is not until oaks reach forty that they can produce acorns and so reproduce.
My special oak, which now stands alone, will have been one of the ‘Saved-by-Henry-VIII’ vintage. As an 800-year-old, and probably the oldest tree in the Park, it would already have been 200 years old in the early 1500s at the time of Henry’s big cull. At present its vast canopy is heavy with leaves (see illustration) and such a seasonal display will not have changed for centuries.
On foot, the six-kilometre round trip to see my special friend and then return home takes well over an hour. It is a mystery how such a tree could make a difference to me but it does, and my trek each week for our rendezvous now feels almost compulsory. As for explanations, I have none. One day I would like to know more but at the moment, why does it matter?
The illustration is a photo of my special oak friend in Richmond Park. Despite being over 700 years old and probably half the size it was in its prime, its canopy of leaves remains lush.
For help with writing this blog I would like to thank Sarah, Rohan and Vivien.