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.

15 thoughts on “A Change of Heart

  1. Dear Joe,
    What a beautiful blog! I too love trees though I am not handy. Hollow trees are also homes for birds and when they fall, for native animals. Without the right kind of eucalyptus koalas can’t survive. So I loved your paean to trees!
    Love
    Robin

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    1. Dear Robin, Thank you for your generous comment. When you are next in London, I invite you to visit and touch my favourite oak in Richmond Park. She is now entering her 800+ season and her springtime green canopy is already looking splendid. Love, Joe

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      1. Dear Joe,

        I would love that! Who knows when we will be permitted to leave Australia? Perhaps next year!

        Love to you and Rohan,

        Robin

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  2. Hi Joe
    I agree trees are so special. Being out amongst them affects me by calming me and making me feel good – an almost spiritual feeling.
    Four nights ago we went to a concert by Graham Wardrop ( and Martin Curtis). Graham is not only a great classical guitarist, he composes thoughtful lyrics, music , and makes guitars.
    The song that stayed with me was called “In Death I sweetly sing”
    Words something like Strong and silent in life, cut down…….in death I sweetly sing.
    He got 6 flats ? of sitka spruce and that is what he uses for making the top sounding board of his guitars

    from the internet
    “Viva fui in silvis sum dura occisa securi dum vixi tacui mortua dulce cano” is inscribed on the fingerboard of a 16th-century viola da gamba made by Kaspar Tieffenbrucker. It translates, “I was alive in the woods; I was cut down by the cruel axe. While I lived I was silent; In death I sweetly sing.”

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    1. Dear Heather, Thank you for thoughtful comments. I particularly enjoyed the paradox of the lovely music of the violin and the cruel chopping down of the tree that made it. Love, Joe

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  3. Lovely blog Joe, it made me think ‘from mighty oaks’… so many meanings and uses. From tree hugging to provide hope and inner strength, shelter and growth for nature, strength to hold buildings, music for every emotion possible and as you say beauty in so many forms for centuries.

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  4. Dear Joe,

    There are (of course!) many strands and themes within your blog. As always I pick up on one that jumps out for me. I read an article very recently about the importance of healthy woodland containing trees at all stages of their life cycle, including the decay and death … from which, as you point out, other life forms emerge and flourish. So it is important to leave the fallen branches and even whole fallen trees in situ, which is what they rightly decided to do in the management of Richmond Park. Nature thrives with a bit of ‘untidy’ and we humans need to stop imposing our tendency for neatness.
    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/may/05/secrets-of-dead-wood-how-old-trees-hold-key-to-new-life-aoe?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other
    But even in the prime of its life, an oak is an amazing eco-system, supporting hundreds of insect species as well and birds, mammals and fungi …

    But you know me … I could go on (and on … and on … and on …) about such subjects.

    Thank you for another lovely blog.
    JJ
    X

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    1. Dear JJ, Thank you very much for your two letters. I agree, oaks are just wonderful as the radio programme so elegantly describes. Of course, I write about ‘well managed’ woodland. It is horrible when one hears about woods or forests being mismanaged – even in the UK. There should be, or perhaps there is, an oak-alert movement where in no time people can be marshalled to protect trees under threat. Love,Joe

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  5. Thanks Joe, this piece prompts thoughts about comparative longevity – humans, trees, the planet…. We look at an ancient cathedral or historic boat and think of the people who built them, not often remembering or even realising that some of the wooden elements were around 300 years earlier, communicating with each other. (through their roots)
    Ian

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    1. Dear Ian, Thank you for your comments. I do say in the blog that the oaks used to build the frame for thé Notre Dame roof in the twelfth century were already 200 years old when they were felled. Yours, Joe

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  6. Yet again Joe your blog pulled a few strings in my heart. You manage to cover in a few lines my love of trees, history and craftsmanship. Not forgetting my love of Paris..
    Do you know the oldest tree in Paris, a yew, is on the opposite bank from Notre dame. It probably saw notre Dame built.
    Back home I live next Whytham Woods belonging to Oxford University where they are studying the forest and its habitat.
    They don’t have to put up with rubbish littering visitors like in Richmond.
    Indeed it is open to the public but you need a permit with has very strict rules like not picking up anything and keeping to the path.
    Thé bluebells in it at the moment are ravishing..

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