4 out of 5 stars
A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.
It is said that an oak grows for 300 years, lives for another 300 and then takes 300 years to die. Those, of course, are the lucky ones, most live around 150 to 200 years. The oldest oak in my part of the world, Dorset, is the Wyndham’s Oak near Gillingham and is 10m wide. I’ve not seen it yet, one day though. However, I don’t have a tree nearby that I have the same affinity with that James Canton does. but there is some tree in my locale that I take time to walk by and admire as the seasons grind past each year. I love the way that they constantly change through the days as the light transforms the way that they look.
Canton’s tree is called the Honywood Oak and is a magnificent tree. It has a girth of 28 feet and is thought to be around 800 years old. It is one of the last survivors of the 300 or so oaks that were once in the 130-acre park at the Marks Hall Estate. One of the others left has the fantastic name of the Screaming Oak. Just imagine if most of them were still there and hadn’t been cut down. He was to spend two years of his life with this tree.
Getting your head around a tree that can still be alive around at 10 times your life span takes some doing. They are almost timeless; to think at oak speed means slowing ourselves down to the speed that this tree operates at. Appreciating the imperceptible changes that take place to the tree over the year, without contemplating it in the context of minutes and seconds or the latest social media notification, takes a fair amount of self-control, but it was something that Canton managed to do. In fact, it was something that he needed to do as this oak became something of a crutch in supporting him through an emotional time dealing with a breakup.
But there is more to this than his time spent with this particular tree. It is often considered to be our national tree and it had helped shelter us, we have built boats and ships from it and even further back in our history it had a strong spiritual and ritual element especially those that had mistletoe growing in the branches. He speaks to knowledgeable people who know much more about the local woods that he could ever know and takes the time to glean details from them.
Tentatively I close my eyes.
A calm creeps over me as though a blanket has been wrapped around my shoulders.
A numinous peace descends.
When I open them, there is only the oak framed before me, the grey bark ridged and still, so still. I feel bewitched.
An obsession with a particular tree could be seen as being slightly dysfunctional, but in these strange times in 2020 people have been taking the time to walk out in their locality and connect with places, woodlands and people have begun to reconnect with the natural world once again. If I am looking for a particular peace then I know I will find it alongside water and in among trees. I have a particular affinity for the oak too, as my name is derived from the French for oak, le chêne. I really liked this, the writing feels natural and at other times intimate. I liked the diary format that was used in some parts of the book, it didn’t feel overbearing, just fitted right in with the wide topics that he is writing about in his exploration of oaks in our culture and folklore. If you have a thing about trees then this would be one to read.