This blog arises out of my love of wood and my reverence for trees, sentiments that developed when Rohan and I spent a weekend in a cottage in Dorset. I was twenty five and having just qualified as a doctor, was doing my first job as a house surgeon. That weekend we were the guests of my boss at the hospital – Professor Bryan Brooke – a man of great sensitivity who was widely admired for his skill as a surgeon and a teacher.
Between talks, walks, and cooking he showed me round his workshop. Away from surgery he was a carpenter and cabinet maker and it was his relationship with wood that proved an inspiration. He told me of the wonders of wood, each type with its own unique qualities. He stressed how being ‘in touch’ with wood was important and at one moment pressed me to touch and smell a recently sanded plank on which he was working – a moment I have never forgotten. He particularly loved oak, partly because of its colour and grain, and partly because of the tree which he saw as majestic. He told me how, thanks to the oak’s great strength and its resistance to insects, fungi and water, whatever he made now could last for over a thousand years.
My father had no interest in carpentry and it was through Bryan’s enthusiasm that woodwork became a life-long hobby making cupboards, wardrobes, tables, boxes even toys – two dolls’ four-poster beds for my nieces. For most of my work I used pine, only later could I afford oak. Even so, when buying pine I would slip round to the oak section just to touch, sniff and admire.
One of the paradoxes of my hobby was that for years while I was working with pieces of timber, I never considered that the wood originally came from a felled tree. In those early days, whenever I saw a fallen tree I would feel upset. Indeed, for years I have identified with trees in distress. Discovering the trunks of two young saplings snapped by a local hooligan ‘for fun’ and without an apology was just horrible. And finding one of nature’s once-upright giants lying on its side uprooted after a storm was even sadder. More recently, and similarly depressing, has been walking in Richmond Park where there are thousands of oaks of which many are over 400 years old and finding the undergrowth littered with fallen trunks and branches. But in the aftermath of an event in Paris in April 2019, these feelings are very much a thing of the past.
On that Spring evening it was impossible to escape the saddest of scenes that were being shown around the world. On screen were flames rising high from the roof and spire of Paris’ Cathedral of Notre Dame. This is an architectural icon of France and as it burned and later collapsed people of all ages could be seen standing, staring at the flames dumbstruck and crying.
The fire had started in the mediaeval oak frame that supported the roof’s lead covering and that also stabilised the cathedral’s massive stone walls. These beams, which came from mature trees cut down between 1160 and 1170, formed one of the oldest parts of the building. Of note, the area under the roof was known as the ‘forest ‘ of Notre Dame.
Standing outside the burning cathedral Emmanuel Macron announced that the cathedral would be rebuilt, claiming all would be done in five years. Plans for the work would be put out to tender and although nothing about the new roof’s design was stipulated, many hoped it would simply be put back as it was. Immediately questions arose as to whether France could find the thousand or so oaks needed.
The State decided to embark on a meticulous reconstruction and a thousand oaks were soon identified, some with trunks as long as 20 metres. Next, felling began. I would have expected films of giant trees being cut down to arouse my emotions but that was not the case. Commentating on a scene in a film a forester was asked how he felt when he saw one of his trees felled and his reply was a wonderful surprise: « Forests are eternal, felling one tree is just part of the process. This tree, like many others, will live on for hundreds of years in ‘the forest.’ Could there be a greater honour?»
It was this comment that changed how I think about trees as they die. In well-managed woodland, such as the oak forests of France and the woods of Richmond Park, the feeling of eternity now prevails. What a relief it is to see fallen oaks as now the homes of umpteen creatures and soon to be the lush soil in which acorns will take root. How lucky we, and they, are!
The illustration shows the burning roof of Notre Dame on the night of the 15 April 2019. The cathedral is surrounded by scaffolding through which you can see that the roof has fallen and the exposed oak struts of the collapsing spire are aflame.
For helping me write this blog I would like to thank Nicola, Elona, Oliver, Jean-Yves, Rohan and Vivien.