Beechcombings: The Narratives of Trees, by Richard Mabey

The oak may have built the Royal Navy, but there's another candidate for Britain's sacred tree
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In early spring 1904, the socialist visionary Edward Carpenter was deeply moved by an isolated, still leafless beech tree: "Suddenly I was aware of its skyward-reaching arms and upturned fingertips, as if some vivid life (or electricity) was streaming through them into the spaces of Heaven, and of its roots plunged in the earth and drawing the same energies from below." For Richard Mabey Carpenter's reaction is symptomatic of a significant shift in attitude towards the beech, one of the most familiar English trees and inextricable from the landscape of the south-east. The Wild Wood of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (1908) derived from a real beechwood, above Cookham Dene in the southern Chilterns. In E M Forster's marvellous story, Other Kingdom, the author's characteristic theme of escape from stifling convention appears as a young woman's metamorphosis into a beech tree.

Mabey sees such attentions to beeches as part of the reaction against materialist/imperialist Victorian Britain. As he says in a splendid peroration, among our trees the beech is "the moody relative given to turns and spells under the weather, and then surprising us with astonishing acts of creativity and resilience".

Earlier generations prized the oak more highly. With its wood the British built ships, and also sturdy frames for their houses. John Evelyn in his influential Sylva (1664) spoke of the oak as the great bulwark of our country's "Wooden Walls". By contrast, the beech provided humdrum fuel and was used by Buckinghamshire furniture-makers, but seemed rather less integral to the spirit of the nation. Mabey finds the epithet "lovely" bestowed on the tree by the great naturalist Gilbert White (1720-1793) something of a turning point. The beech is indeed lovely, and as the British became transformed into an urban, industrial people, loveliness became of ever greater importance to them. "As the oak tends towards angularity, a certain abruptness in the way its branches jut and turn, so the beech drifts towards sinuousness."

The beech and the oak are, of course, related, both members of the family Fagaceae. The beech can grow to 100ft and have a girth of about 20ft. It does not produce flowers and seeds before the age of 40 and sometimes, in thicker woods, not before 80. Its coming into leaf is one of the great sights of the natural year so rapidly does it take place. Yet Richard Mabey has studied this almost instantaneous projection of green with loving patience, after tying tapes round twigs: "The burgeoning leaves are simply pumped up with water. But they take two days to inflate, from the first split in the brown husk of the bud to the full spread. A little longer than the hatching of a dragonfly, but with something of the same style."

Beeches have been in Britain since about 6,000 BCE but extended their territories in the first millennium BCE. They tend to dominate any wood they establish themselves in; beech woods proper, those inspirers of the great cathedral-builders, are not particularly hospitable either to plant life on their floors or to birds and insects. Yet co-habitants do exist within the trees, and Mabey quotes from his own first-published piece of nature-writing to describe a woodwarbler in early May singing on a beech sapling, "its throat shaking with every note of that falling, clear-water song, and seeming in the filtered sunlight to be the same translucent green as the young beech leaves".

Mabey grew up in one of the beech's great strongholds for three millennia, the Chilterns, and throughout the book we return to places near his native Berkhamsted. It was in this corner of Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire (the name of the latter may derive from the Old English for "beech") that he turned boyhood enthusiasm and youthful idealism into dedicated adult pursuit, involving the writing of books with a quite incalculable effect on British approaches to nature. Mabey has always sought to make readers both more factually informed and more imaginatively empathic. Inevitably, Mabey wanted a wood of his own, and in the early 1980s he acquired Hardings Wood, Wigginton (near Berkhamsted), which he made into a community project.

When Mabey first became aware of the Great Storm of 16 October 1987, he took off to Hardings Wood. Happily it had barely suffered; every beech was intact. But elsewhere the storm, which appeared to have struck trees randomly, irrespective of age, health or species, proved "a cataclysm of beeches". Mabey believes that with this tragedy a new kind of relationship to trees has come about, a realisation that these great, strong, living beings are not immune from disaster and misery. Yet 20 years on, beeches have amazingly, and often beautifully, Mabey observes, replenished themselves. It seems only right that this rich and rewarding book, encouraging fellow-feeling with all members of the natural world, should end affirmatively.

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