The Beech Boys

Nothing quickens the blood like a beech forest in May.

Perhaps it’s just me, but something about the beechy shade of green pairs particularly well with the limpid May sunshine.

Beech is a gregarious sort of a tree and the avenues are sprinkled with holly and oak, as well as the last of the bluebells.

Up above, caterbugs put on aerial acrobatics from fine strands of trapeze webbing anchored to the leaves.

Down below, the ground is crunchily paved with last year’s fallen beechnuts, every one industriously cracked by the squirrels who are always darting out of sight.

You get the feeling that the beech, queen of the forests, enjoys life with a lightness of touch.

What am I bringing into being that will outlast me?

What am I bringing into being that will outlast me?

Of course, it’s impossible to know, but it’s a reasonable bet that my writing will outlast me. Certainly the writing that’s kept in the BBC archives and (still can’t believe this) in the British Library.

My notebooks will probably outlast me. And any of my other digital writing stored on servers with a life-expectancy of greater than 50 or 60 years. That’ll all outlast me.

To a certain degree, my reputation and memories of my existence will outlast me, but probably not for long. My birth certificate will outlast me.

I work for a few organisations that will probably outlast me. Every morning I wake up and do my bit to perpetuate systems of control that will probably outlast me: capitalism, democracy, the British legal system.

I’m contributing my fair share of carbon emissions: their effect will outlast me.

It’s odd to remember that what is mine will outlast me – what does it mean to be ‘mine’ long after the referent has passed away?

In what sense are any possessions ‘mine’? What we call possession can only ever be temporary. To the survivor, the spoils. So too with the planet.

Abstract concepts have a habit of outlasting individuals of course – that’s how we have somehow conspired to cede ownership of Britain to the Forestry Commission, pension funds and the Crown Estate. But these fictions are held together only by a collective delusion.

For the same reason, I find it hard to credit the land to similar fictions like ‘God’ or even ‘Mother Earth’. Are there no corporeal entities who will outlast us in possession of this soil?

But of course there are: the trees.

In this country, there are more specimens of a single tree species – the ash – than there are specimens of homo sapiens. We are short-term tenants on this land and the landlords – in the most literal sense of the word – are our arboreal lessors.

Even the most flippant of trees lives their life on a time scale almost inconceivable to humans. The horse chestnut is considered flighty with a life expectancy of only 300 years. There are yew specimens that were sinking their roots into the soil when the Romans first arrived.

And yet deforestation is ‘the second largest anthropogenic source of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, after fossil fuel combustion’. Seems rough treatment for the terrestrial biosphere that absorbs about a quarter of all our profligate carbon emissions.

Tree cover in Britain stands at 13%, rising, but still far below the European average of 37%. Last year, the government committed to increase woodland cover by a further 2%; its own Committee on Climate Change called for a 9% increase.

Britain is on loan and the debt is coming due. We would do well to get to know our landlords and call them by their names. Be good tenants.

There is a tree in a cow pasture near where I grew up (W3W: plotted.brain.forgotten) whose roots make a sublimely relaxing sun lounger.

Until last week, I never knew it’s name. Now I know: it’s an oak, one of a family strung out along the hedgerows, but its siblings don’t make such fine company.

In some ways, it makes complete sense that it took us 10 years to be properly introduced. That’s tree-time. But now I have a dependable friend to share the sunset with. And I know from the calls of half a dozen different birds that I’m not alone.

Whosoever plants a tree
Winks at immortality!
Felix Dennis, poet and planter of trees

Lime Leaves Loves

Lime trees wrap their greenery in a metaphor. The buds, with one small and one large scale, look like mini boxing gloves, spoiling for a fight. But they unfurl with the light into perfect heart-shaped leaves for loving.

The flowers are hermaphrodite so, perhaps understandably, the lime tree is well-known to aid fertility. And, like the toughest love, lime wood doesn’t warp. It’s still used to make piano keys.

Pick the leaves for a summer salad, particularly when covered in aphid poo, which makes them all the sweeter.

Horse (Chestnut) Play!

It’s a great time of year to be a Horse Chestnut. Many other trees are yet to don their leafy cover, and you are already bustling with green, and holding your blushing flower-candles high.

The Horse Chestnut is generous, offering not one but five or seven leaflets to a stalk. By Autumn, those pink-white flowers have been pollinated into the back to school bounty of those famous conkers. Don’t try eating them.

Introduced to these lands from Turkey in the 1600s, the Horse Chestnut is unlikely to be confused with anything else in our garden. The Sweet Chestnut sounds like a younger cousin, but isn’t even distantly related, and is more likely to be the older.

The three largest Horse Chestnuts are all to be found in Great Britain, proving once and for all that migrants can flourish wherever they land.

No Place Like Holm (Oaks)

I left it late to climb a tree in April, but here I am, high up in a holm oak, with what appears to be a dislocated jaw.

The holm oak is an evergreen, native to the Eastern Mediterranean. It was brought over here in the late 1500s and isn’t fussed about sea spray, which explains why there are a number scattered along the clifftops here in Bournemouth.

The leaves are glossy dark green, and the younger ones are spiny like the leaves of the holly – which explains why this oak is called ‘holm’, an old form of ‘holly’.

As a climber, this tree is a safe bet, with thick branches and helpful forks to wedge in. Snapped upper branches are evidence of recent high winds. The dense leaves make the holm oak a perfect hideaway for miscreants and ne’er-do-wells. After all, an Englishman’s holm is his castle.

I’ll leave it to the Woodland Trust to explain why you might want to explore this pleasing oak for yourself:

In ancient Greece the leaves of the holm oak were used to tell the future and they were also used to make crowns to honour people. The acorn was seen as a sign of fertility and wearing acorn jewellery was believed to increase fertility.

The Tomb of the Unknown Arbour

This photograph is a sideways look at the distinctive bark of a maiden sweet chestnut standing in an otherwise harmless green in Wanstead, East London. The tree is nearly 6 metres all around, making it a veteran, perhaps 275 years old. What were you doing in 1744?

One tree that won’t be making it into the next century was found sprawled across the high street in the early hours of the weekend. 50mph winds were too much for the pavement roots. Wanting to write some sort of eulogy, I asked the tree surgeon / coroner what kind of tree she was. He drew a hand across his stubble and shook his head. ‘I know, but I don’t know the name.’

The Hollow Pond: A Run

It was one of those March evenings where the sun lingers longer than you expect for a land that’s still expecting winter.

I had been writing all day, under the influence of a single dried psilocybe mushroom. In contrast to my sedentary workflow, I enjoyed the feeling of my legs pushing away the ground and graffiti.

I ran alongside Eagle Pond with its magisterial views of the Crown Court, dodging between two boys on push bikes, and brushing the shoulder-slung handbag of a schoolgirl who veered digital drunk into my path.

As I ran into the forest, the water table rose to meet my trainers with a soft spring. Mud sops and splashes. My eyes and feet worked together deftly, skipping over roots, sinking into the sand, to the edge of the mythological Hollow Pond.

The pond is the afterlife of a gravel pit and you can easily imagine how its undulating dunes and hidden beaches inspired a song by Damon Albarn.

It’s Swallows and Amazons in Central London, paradise for fisher fowl. The swans make perfect mirrors of themselves in the water. Moorhens and coots dip and defend their territory. Canada Geese make a fuss on the shoreline.

Two laps of the skirt of sand that rifts and riles the waterside: I pause on a beachy spit, lie on the scratchy ground and stare out at a forested island, a puff of traffic just beyond the tree line. Fractal oaks against the sundown. A crescent moon hanging among twisted ribbons of cirrus.

Looking around at the amphitheatre of trees, the beech, the oak, the willow and the birch, for a moment I wonder why we can’t see sense sometimes, and I think of a friend who is a very long way away.

On the other side of a lapping inlet, another man is drawn to the water’s edge, where he holds a telephone conversation. I decide to run another lap of the pond, and surprise a woman with a red scarf as I crest a bank of gravel. ‘Glorious evening,’ I say. She looks up from her phone. ‘Yes, it’s lovely.’

Domesday Trees

I’m not the first to notice that trees are operating on a completely different time scale to us puny humans.

Take this wild cherry, for example, just now coming into blossom in the park outside my house. She’s about as old as I, and yet still doesn’t have her own BBC radio sitcom.

Some trees – most trees – live lives that are unfathomable on our human scale.

What could I possibly have in common with a Norman gent of the Middle Ages? And yet, only twenty minutes’ cycle from my blossoming park is the Domesday Oak, a portly 8 metres in girth, perhaps trodden into the ground by one of the conquerors themselves.

There’s a yew in Wiltshire that’s been carbon dated to 2,000 BC.

We gaze in awe at the Pyramids, Stonehenge and other man-made wonders of the ancient world, but forget the astonishing ancient bark living and breathing beside us still.

‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Nothing beside remains, Shelley might have written, except a stand of oak trees, a churchyard yew, a scattering of larch, a copse of juniper and pine, a mighty beech and a 6,000 tonne quaking aspen.

34 Trees, 2 Magpies, and Me

There’s a small park less than a minute from my house. Squeezed between residential side streets and the A4032, it boasts no unbroken vistas, no soaring heights, nor even, in winter at least, a single startling flower bed.

This is, instead, a landscape for tree watching.

I count 34 living in the park and in the neighbouring playground. All but three have long since left their leaves to litter the lawn and their deciduous branches hold still in the dry air.

The sun splits the empty branches of a London Plane, and chases the shadows across the grass towards me.

In the playground stands a palm, its pineapple crown surprised to be here. Side by side in evergreen solidarity are a pine and a mature holly.

The pine’s cones have fallen barren below their mother, but the needles are shelved out of my reach, and well beyond my powers of identification. Scots or Black. No idea.

The gentle waxy leaves of the holly, on the other hand, wreath her unmistakeable berries. At her feet is a prickly child, keen on the shallow sunlight of the open parkland.

The sound of construction filters across from the street beyond the Plane. The workmen are from a company called Maple. The litter on the bench beside me is a bottle branded Oasis. Trees, huh.

But I’m not alone. A pair of magpies strut their way over the grass, turning over dead leaves, looking for lunch. The shoots of next month’s daffodils, meanwhile, go about their quiet business in the soil.

The dual carriageway bawls a background sludge of white noise, but I can still hear twittering hidden in the holly, while the magpies chatter companionably among themselves.

I’m less than a minute away from computers and phones and notifications and emails, but I could be on a different planet entirely.

I’ve only been here half an hour, but I could be a different person entirely.

My fingers grow cold, my Thermos runs dry. Sometimes we go outside to return indoors.