Thursday, August 15, 2019

Summer of Tree Books: Meetings with Remarkable Trees

The third entry in my Summer of Tree Books is a unique reading experience. As for dimensions, the book is coffee-table book size: 11 ½ inches by 9 ½, and although it’s not a hardcover, it’s laminated and fairly hefty. I read the entire thing in one sitting during a flight to Boston. From the inside flap:

“With this astonishing collection of tree portraits, Thomas Pakenham has produced a new kind of tree book. The arrangement owes little to conventional botany. The sixty trees are grouped according to their own strong personalities: Natives, Travellers, Shrines, Fantasies and Survivors.”

If you recall, this description was of great interest to me, the idea that a tree could have a personality and share similarities in this way with other types of trees. I was expecting the book to be a rather dry read, with the respite of beautiful photos to keep you going and I was wrong about one of those things. The book did, indeed, have lovely photos (in some cases, full spreads such as this one), 

but it was anything but dry. For each tree that Thomas Pakenham visited during the five years he sought them out, he wrote something of the tree’s botany, or history, or reputation. Or something of all three. There were stories about how a particular type of tree came to be in non-native area. There were stories of eccentric tree planters and the sociological connections certain groups have had to certain trees. We learn that like humans, trees have different lifespans that are affected by situation and chance. There are trees in the book with girths as wide 35 feet, trees that start as saplings only a pencil’s width. Pakenham shares anecdotes from his own experiences with his garden; his enthusiasm for the artistry and beauty of these often majestic beings comes across on each page.

And for me, there was a powerful synergy happening, synapses firing from one tree book I’ve read to the next. In his introduction, Pakenham recounts his experiences in Yunnan, in south-west China, where he came upon the only large ancient tree—a hemlock—in what used to be a forest. The rest had been taken down by loggers.

“We tend to take our large, old trees for granted… The indifference towards old trees makes a mockery of our supposed new respect for the environment. Consider the raw facts. The giants of our native species—oak, ash, and beech—are the biggest living things on these islands: heavier than any land animal, taller than most buildings, older than many ancient monuments. If a big tree was not a living organism it would still be a remarkable object.”

Later in the book he discusses the ways in which a forest works as a whole, integrating even dead trees into a system that includes plants, insects, and animals. He talks about the ripples of harm done by removing these systems and how planting new trees doesn’t come close to making up for it. And this topic was of paramount concern to the botanist character in The Overstory, a scientist who, by the way, wrote a study about the social aspect of trees (see next week’s post about the final book of my summer of tree reading). In fact, each of the four books I read this summer touched upon the tragedy of logging in some way. This is unsurprising I suppose.

On page 22 of Meetings with Remarkable Trees, we are introduced to the Tandridge Yew, a massive specimen that grows in a churchyard in Tandridge, Surrey. Pakenham explains the difficulty of assigning an age to this particular tree but guesses it is probably at least 1000 years old. And I thought, of course, of the yew that plays a very important role in Rules for Visiting. Although Kane’s novel refers to another famous tree—the Fortingall Yew in Scotland—I couldn’t help but think of these two old souls as related.

One of the most interesting aspects of Meetings with Remarkable Trees was discovering the strange and varied habits and features of so many trees. 
Like this tulip tree at Kew, which forms a flower bed over 100 feet off the ground. Truly, how would I ever had this perspective without this book? I would have never noticed, or looked. And at the end of the day, that’s what Pakenham’s book was for me, an invitation to look, notice and think about these beings that surround us on all sides, which have been here before we arrived and which will, in most cases, long outlive us. On our first day in Boston, we strolled through the public garden, which is full of lovely, old trees. Most of the garden was planted over a century ago, with a wide assortment of native and imported trees. They are labeled and well-cared-for. And probably it was my favorite part of the city, now that I was trained to look at trees.


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"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka