The Wisdom of Trees by Max Adams, book review: An obscure branch of knowledge, quirkily laid bare


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The Independent Culture

Max Adams, a biographer of Admiral Collingwood, is also “a teacher of tree history” and a woodland manager.

This second string to his bow (“traditionally made of a section of yew”) has generated this fascinating, if quirky, exposition of all things woody. We learn much about the astounding natural engineering of trees. Leaves, for example, act as “solar panels” that deciduous trees shed before the arrival of winter gusts. Adams is equally informative about man’s exploitation of wood, which “over the last few thousand years [was] the equivalent of our great DIY superstores”. Surnames deriving from “woody occupations” include Barker, Cooper, Hooper, Arkwright (chest maker), Turner, Woodward (wood manager) and Pallister (fence repairer).

For many centuries wood was the prime material used in housing, transport and shipping. Ensuring a supply of “hearts of oak” was an obsession of Admiral Collingwood, who roamed the countryside with a pocket full of acorns. Arguably, a type of processed wood was even more important in human technology than the raw material. “Before the invention of coke, charcoal was the only fuel that could achieve the necessary temperatures – in excess of 1,400°C – to make… the axe, sword and plough.”

Adams reasonably argues that the builders of Stonehenge “thought like woodsmen and adopted a woody solution” to move the vast stones on giant wooden wheels. Strangely, however, he does not substantiate this point by revealing that it is a woodworking technique (mortise and tenon) that holds the structure together.

The book is punctuated with revealing “tree tales”. Oaks release insect repellent in the form of tannins. The elm’s density made it ideal for use in wooden pumps, though the manufacture of long cylinders from elm trunks was notoriously arduous. “The word ‘boring’, as in tedious, comes from the negative reputation of the job.”

Adams’ passion occasionally verges on sentimentality (“I harbour the animalistic delusion that beech trees… are the frozen statues of a long-lost race of giants”). It can also be baffling: “Fire gives one the feeling of belonging to a crowd and yet at the same time of being utterly alone.” Worse, the book falls short as an identification guide. Despite numerous full-page illustrations of leaves and seeds, taken from John Evelyn’s 1664 book Sylva (and therefore copyright free), whole trees are not pictured. Rather, the book is a celebration of the plant from which it is made.

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