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Seeing the Wood . . .

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Some books grow on you. Others help you grow.

In January 1990, aged 24 and not long out of drama school, I landed a job: six months touring an Alan Ayckbourn play round secondary schools in northern Germany. The work was surprisingly rewarding – we soon discovered that German teenagers were, for some reason, hungry for 1970s British class comedy – but downtime was a problem. There was nothing to do.

Our digs tended to be rural B&Bs in the flat, unpromising hinterland between Hamburg and the Danish border, where villages were small and morosely agricultural; few had shops or pubs, and if they did the life in them rarely exceeded one, usually unfriendly, local. My German was passable but not up to enjoying television, and there was nowhere to buy English books. So on my days off, I had a choice. Stay indoors, staring at the paintwork – or go for a walk.

I walked. It was January, it was Germany, and it was the countryside. All there was to look at were empty, muddy fields, and trees. A mass of trees, winter-black, wet and indistinguishable. At first I saw them only in a disconnected, can’t-see-the-wood sort of way, but then, soon, I became more curious. What kind of trees were they? What were their names?

Memories stirred of primary-school lessons pressing leaves between blotting paper, of acorns and catkins laid out on the Nature Table: that tree there, that was an oak; that spiny evergreen was a holly, obviously. But what was that other one, the one with the sticky black buds? Or that one, with bark that glistened like a garnet under water?

In February, my brand-new boyfriend came over from England to visit, and I told him about my walks and the nameless, intriguing trees. A week after he’d gone back home, he sent me a letter, and a book. The letter asked me to move in with him. The book, chosen because it was small enough to fit in an ordinary A5 envelope, was a pocket guide to trees.

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Some books grow on you. Others help you grow.

In January 1990, aged 24 and not long out of drama school, I landed a job: six months touring an Alan Ayckbourn play round secondary schools in northern Germany. The work was surprisingly rewarding – we soon discovered that German teenagers were, for some reason, hungry for 1970s British class comedy – but downtime was a problem. There was nothing to do. Our digs tended to be rural B&Bs in the flat, unpromising hinterland between Hamburg and the Danish border, where villages were small and morosely agricultural; few had shops or pubs, and if they did the life in them rarely exceeded one, usually unfriendly, local. My German was passable but not up to enjoying television, and there was nowhere to buy English books. So on my days off, I had a choice. Stay indoors, staring at the paintwork – or go for a walk. I walked. It was January, it was Germany, and it was the countryside. All there was to look at were empty, muddy fields, and trees. A mass of trees, winter-black, wet and indistinguishable. At first I saw them only in a disconnected, can’t-see-the-wood sort of way, but then, soon, I became more curious. What kind of trees were they? What were their names? Memories stirred of primary-school lessons pressing leaves between blotting paper, of acorns and catkins laid out on the Nature Table: that tree there, that was an oak; that spiny evergreen was a holly, obviously. But what was that other one, the one with the sticky black buds? Or that one, with bark that glistened like a garnet under water? In February, my brand-new boyfriend came over from England to visit, and I told him about my walks and the nameless, intriguing trees. A week after he’d gone back home, he sent me a letter, and a book. The letter asked me to move in with him. The book, chosen because it was small enough to fit in an ordinary A5 envelope, was a pocket guide to trees.

*

Trees, by Alastair Fitter, came out in 1980, published by Collins in its ‘Collins Gem’ format (‘small, but packed with stuff’). The first of these little books, each just 3 x 4 1 –2 inches, had appeared almost exactly a century earlier, with the advent of the Collins Gem Diary, and was such a hit that Collins had been churning them out ever since. My pocket guide was one of the first in the format’s 1980s revamp, with body text in a Gill-ish sans font, a clean, single-photo cover design and, crucially, full-colour illustrations of each of the 229 tree species listed in the contents. The publishers considered these illustrations so important that the title page gives their creator, David More, equal billing with Fitter. It was the right decision. The book begins ‘“Tree” is one of those useful words that have no precise definition yet are immediately understood.’ Well, that may be true, but using words to describe what makes a species of tree recognizable isn’t so simple. Take the English elm (Ulmus procera). Fitter describes its leaves as ‘small, rounded, rough-surfaced, dark green’, but if it hadn’t been for the illustration opposite, I’d barely have been able to tell an elm leaf from an unripe plum. Size matters. The Gem really was a pocket-sized pocket guide, so I could take it out on walks and thumb through those vital illustrations until I saw something that might be a match. In my German winter, when the deciduous trees were still leafless and baffling, I focused on how to tell the needles on a spruce (‘stiff, sharp’) from a fir (‘aromatic, dull’), or the scales on a cedar (‘white-streaked’) from a cypress (‘smell of parsley when crushed’). From the state of the pages, this clearly took a lot of thumbing. My walks were more profitable now, but winter dragged on. March came and went, then April; still the icy weather. I was homesick, tired of snow, driving the van from village to village, cured meats for breakfast and never a vegetable to eat except potatoes and creamed sweetcorn. I began to long for green: green salad on my plate, green leaves on the trees. In the last weeks of the job, the tour took us south and east. Finally, gratefully, spring unspooled before us. It was the second week of May when our van reached Berlin, the last stop on the tour. Berlin is a city that honours chestnuts. Its avenues and parks were exuberant with them, horse (Aesculus hippocastanum) and sweet (Castanea sativa), all in full, glorious leaf like lime-green chandeliers in the spring sunlight, candled with spires of pink-flushed, foaming flowers. The whole of that final week I walked beneath them, tilting my face up towards the canopies, bathing in the great wash of green. I rang my new boyfriend. Yes, I said; yes thank you, I would like to move in. The Wall had fallen, I was going home, and I could name trees.

*

Is the naming of things the first step in knowing them? Is the word ‘tree’, as Alastair Fitter said, ‘immediately understood’? In the film Tolkien (2019), David Jacobi plays an elderly linguistics professor who tells the young, pre-Hobbit J. R. R. that the single word ‘oak’ contains a multitude of meanings. Oak: that tree you climbed as a child. Oak: a tree you’ve never seen, where a king once hid. Oak: a timber used to build houses, ships, sideboards. Oak: British hearts of. For him, the act of naming a tree ‘oak’ is a key that unlocks richness, and when I first turned through the pages of the Gem guide, I agreed: naming a tree meant you knew it. That was all there was to know. Gosh, but I had a lot to learn. Luckily for those who want to learn about trees, there are plenty of books that can help. Probably the first English language book on the subject was John Evelyn’s Sylva, or A Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesty’s Dominions, published in 1664 and an immediate hit. Half practical guide to growing trees for money, half celebration of notable individual trees, new editions were regularly published right up until the early twentieth century, and it set the mould for much of what has followed: 300-odd years later, Meetings with Remarkable Trees (1992) would pull the same trick, pairing Thomas Pakenham’s photographs of ancient specimen trees with his loving pen-portraits. In its oddly schizophrenic attitude – Cut ’em down! / Let ’em live! – Sylva is typical. Humanity can’t seem to decide whether trees are a commodity to be used and discarded, or beings to be venerated and protected. Either way, the faster we cut down trees, the more people seem to want to read about them. In 2015 the journal Nature said that 15.3 trillion trees are lost to felling each year. That same year Random House in Germany published a chatty but (you’d think) niche round-up of current forest science, The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben. An instant bestseller, it would go on to be translated into forty languages.

*

Reader, I married the Gem-giver, then had two sons with him. Eventually we bought a house, one with a piece of land big enough to plant a vegetable garden. And, as it turned out, trees. My husband was an actual living tree-hugger: as a little boy let out of doors, he would run beaming to the first tree he saw and wrap his arms around the trunk. By now I was a journalist, had a couple of bees co-habiting in my bonnet about climate change and food security, and wanted space and time to try growing enough food to feed my family. Martin Crawford’s magisterial Creating a Forest Garden: Working with Nature to Grow Edible Crops (2010) was a natural fit. Forest gardens – where crops grow as part of a matrix of trees, shrubs and herb layers – are an ancient way of producing food in semi-tropical regions. In the 1990s Crawford adapted the practice to suit temperate climates, planting a one-acre forest garden in Devon that now produces, he says, enough to feed nine people, while requiring only minimal management and no outside fertilizers. Having spent a winter double-digging manure into 80 square metres of traditional veg garden, that was an appealing proposition. We went to visit Crawford’s site – imagine the garden of Eden, except damper – and then bought the book. It’s sitting next to me now, heavily Sellotaped across the spine, and almost the exact opposite of the Gem guide. Big (27.5 x 22cms), hardback, heavy: the only pocket this would fit would be Brobdingnagian. The cover shows lovely, tree-y things to eat like plums and hazelnuts, plus what I now know is the flower of that odiferous woodlander, wild garlic. Inside, roughly a third of the book discusses how a forest garden works, and how to plant and plan your own. Almost all the remainder is an intensely detailed guide to the growing habits and needs of hundreds of shrubs, perennials and trees. Result? Total greed: I wanted them all. And so the planting began. We started with Italian alder (Alnus cordata), a pioneer tree that eats poor, wet soils for breakfast. Literally: bacteria that live in its roots absorb atmospheric nitrogen and turn it into various forms of soluble nitrates – basically, a full English for plants. Even better, the book said, any spare nitrates the alder produces are transported by fungal threads in the soil to lower-nutrient areas, where other plants can then tuck in. As a gardener, I already knew that these threads – or mycorrhiza – wrapped around the roots of individual plants and helped them access nutrients in the soil. But this was my first brush with the intriguing notion that they benefited all the plants in an area. It seemed some trees, together with their fungal friends, were actively improving their own environment. For protection from wind (Crawford, like all good gardeners, knows the stunting effect of wind on both people and plants), we next created a shelterbelt, hiving off a semi-circular area of pasture to the north and planting it with 200-odd trees. Species-wise, we spread our bets: holm oak and Scots pine to filter the wind in winter; red oak and English to do the same in summer; hornbeam, sweet chestnut and hazel to coppice for rods and poles; silver birch and spindle to nurse the slower growers; bog myrtle, goat willow and weeping willow to dry out the wet spots; wild cherry and apple for fruits for us; berried holly, rowan, hawthorn and guelder rose for fruits for the birds. The young trees were just little sticks, a foot or so high; for the first year or two, the ex-field looked like a twig cemetery. Unsure how to nurture tree babies, I read Chris Starr’s Woodland Management: A Practical Guide (2005) and dutifully followed his advice: watering by hand during the first droughty summer, weeding around the young roots, scattering buckets of chicken manure pellets, loosening tree ties, retying tree ties, pruning out ill-placed branches in winter. Hard, hard work, but, I felt, important. The trees grew, as trees do. Our family changed, as families do. The boys grumped their way through adolescence; my husband’s father died, slowly; my father died, suddenly. By then, Home Wood stood tall, the silver birch already 5m, the hybrid poplars 9m or more. We scattered my dad’s ashes under three young oaks, looking south across a sunny glade. There was hardly any wind, and his ashes lay quiet; the trees had done their job. I stood there thinking how, in planting them, we had done exactly the right thing. I knew trees’ names and now I knew how to look after them. I was in control. And then our son disappeared . . .

The story of Isabel Lloyd’s life with trees will continue in Issue 76.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 75 © Isabel Lloyd 2022


About the contributor

Isabel Lloyd is co-author of Gardening for the Zombie Apocalypse: How to Grow Your Own Food When Civilization Collapses – Or Even if it Doesn’t (2019).

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