What the Trees Say

Quiver Tree Forest, Namibia; photograph by Beth Moon from her book Ancient Trees: Portraits of Time (2014). A collection of her color photographs, Ancient Skies, Ancient Trees, has just been published by Abbeville.
Beth Moon
Quiver Tree Forest, Namibia; photograph by Beth Moon from her book Ancient Trees: Portraits of Time (2014). A collection of her color photographs, Ancient Skies, Ancient Trees, has just been published by Abbeville.

In 1664 John Evelyn, diarist, country gentleman, and commissioner at the court of Charles II, produced his monumental book on trees: Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest Trees. It was a seventeenth-century best seller. Evelyn was a true son of the Renaissance. His book is learned and witty and practical and passionate all by turns. No later book on trees has ever had such an impact on the British public. His message? A very modern one. We are in desperate need of trees for all kinds of reasons. Get out there with your spade and plant one today.

Despite the catastrophes that crippled London in the next two years—the great plague and the great fire—Evelyn lived to see the book reprinted four times. A century later it was reissued with elegant copperplate illustrations and an exhaustive commentary to bring it up to date. Later editions of the book (renamed Silva) have followed, and many authors have tried to write in the spirit of Evelyn. But somehow Sylva has always remained head and shoulders above its successors. That is, until the present. The two new books on trees under review are both outstanding. In different ways their authors share many of Evelyn’s best qualities.

Fiona Stafford’s The Long, Long Life of Trees treads closest in the footsteps of Sylva. Evelyn, it is true, was more adventurous in his choice of trees to be described in detail. He covers an astonishing range: a tally of thirty-one genera, which include newly introduced trees from the American East Coast, like red oaks and Weymouth pines, as well as trees that were seen as exotic in England, such as the cedar of Lebanon and the Irish strawberry-tree. Stafford plays safe by choosing a mere seventeen genera, which represent the common trees of gardens and woods and hedgerows throughout Western Europe as well as North America: oaks, sycamores, chestnuts, hawthorns, and so on. But there is nothing humdrum about her descriptions.

Stafford is professor of English at Oxford University and writes about novels, poetry, art, and the environment. In her own way she is as learned as Evelyn, and she is a gifted writer. What do trees mean for her? She owes this book, she says, to her “sense of wonder” at trees. She admires their physical beauty. She is astonished by their gift for survival. And most of all, perhaps, she is struck by their extensive cultural associations. She reminds us that it’s easy to…


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