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The oak and the ash

25 November 2016

Jamie Cable reviews a study of trees’ place in our culture


The Long, Long Life of Trees
Fiona Stafford
Yale £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30



THOSE of you who enjoyed Katherine Swift’s The Morville Hours, or Richard Mabey’s recent works, will love this impeccably researched exploration into our multi-dimensional relationship with trees.

Fiona Stafford devotes each of 17 chapters to a different species, unpacking the cultural associations and symbolism of each. She observes from a distance, linking our deepest desires, or “half-forgotten things”, with our gardening choices and attitude towards different common trees. I imagined some tales being told with a wry smile, as if Stafford were siding with the trees against the folly of man.

The chapter on cherries is typical. We follow the catastrophic decline and tentative recovery of Britain’s cherry orchards. We share in Captain Edmund Blyth’s open-air tree cathedral, at Whipsnade, which re­­members his friends and comrades lost in the First World War.

The sensuous fruit, “a heavenly reward for a virtuous life”, is gently pointed out in vari­ous Renaissance works of art, and, at a more prosaic level, we learn that eating a few cherries before bed can help to induce sound sleep by virtue of their melatonin content.

In the hawthorn chapter, we gambol through the art of hedgelaying, the Glaston­bury thorn, and superstitions strong enough to divert motorway slip-roads to avoid harm to a specimen. Hawthorn hedges contribute to the unique character of rural Britain. Stafford describes uprooting hedges as “much more unsettling than meeting an old friend who has shaved off his beard; more like the sense of loss that can come with chemo­therapy — a sudden exposure of unpre­cedented vulner­ability”.

The appeal of this book lies mainly in its helping us to understand more fully our companionship with trees — something we already feel in our guts, which is celebrated in stories, songs, and poetry. But it is also about the practical, and I came away enriched by nuggets of information.

The resilience and flexibility of ash wood led to its framing the Morris Traveller. Before that, during the Second World War, when iron and steel stocks were running low, Geoffrey de Havilland designed the Mosquito bomber to be made from the plentiful
timber. These days, we are reminded that the fungus Chalara fraxinea, and the emerald ash-borer beetle, threaten to devastate our ash trees.

This lyrical book, however, ends on a positive note with the apple tree and our ongoing desire to return to paradise and start again.


Jamie Cable trained at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. He is Head Gardener at Croxteth Hall, Liverpool.

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