The Glorious Life of the Oak by John Lewis-Stempel

4 out of 5 stars

English Oak. That regal tree. It is our cherished national tree as well as being the most common. It is loved by many and is deeply rooted in our identity. Other countries seem to think that it is theirs though; in 2004 Congress named the Oak, America’s national tree, it was considered sacred by the Romans and the Druids and three of the Baltic States have it as their favourite too.

We are fortunate that in the UK we have more ancient oaks that all of Europe put together. For example, the Bowthorpe Oak in Lincolnshire has a girth of more than 13 meters and is estimated to be more than 1,000 years old and there are loads more like this, all with their own stories to tell. Oak trees have been here a long time too, a single oak can support hundreds of different species and creatures. It has been used to build ships of war, and cathedrals of peace. In ages past it has been used to make tables to eat from, the bark used for leather and entombed those that have shuffled off from this mortal coil. It is said that an oak tree takes 300 years to grow, 300 years to mature and 300 years to die.

Oak trees make a fine home. The wood is straightforward to work when it is green and as it ages it shrinks and gets stronger pulling the frame in and strengthening it. An oak frame will outlast all the people in it and the stones that surround the house. It can feed us, you can make coffee from the acorns and as a fuel burns hot providing warmth.

Oak has always had a strong meaning for me as my surname is originally derived from the French, Le Chêne and my wife was originally a Le Quesne; Jersey French for the oak. I was really looking forward to reading this book from Lewis-Stempel about one of my favourite trees. As usual, he doesn’t disappoint either, it is full of anecdotes and snippets of information and written in his fine lyrical way and is a fine companion to his book on owls.

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