Top 10 books about trees

From Dante to John Clare and James Joyce, matters arboreal have inspired many writers. These are among the choicest specimens

Every kind of tree has its own, distinctive silhouette, but I especially like the wave-shaped branches of the ashes, the open-armed oaks, wispy birches, orderly alders and chaotic hawthorns blotting the side of a bare hill. I simply can’t get enough of these extraordinary natural phenomena. It’s not just the way they look. Each kind has its own character, too – stemming from the special qualities of its timber, bark or foliage, but growing thicker and thicker with rings of myth and history. Stories seem to sprout unstoppably from trees. The more I thought about the ancient and ongoing relationship between woodlands and human society, the more I wanted to write about it.

Trees have been here far longer than we have. Their fascination is plain enough in the Book of Genesis. We grow up with tree-lined stories, from Peter Rabbit’s sandy burrow under the fir, or Robin Hood’s hideout in Sherwood Forest, to the barren tree magically producing a giant peach for James, or the terrifying Whomping Willow at Hogwarts. Poets’ paeans to trees take root in the memory, painters’ love letters to trees are displayed on gallery walls. Great lives live on through real trees, too, such as the horse chestnut at Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, which survived far longer than the young diarist, or the cherry tree planted in memory of Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan embassy in London. Trees have been stage sets for historic dramas: Henry VIII’s courtship of Anne Boleyn at the ancient Ankerwycke Yew at Runnymede, or the Tolpuddle Martyrs, gathering to demand fair wages under the sycamore on the village green.

The Long, Long Life of Trees is written in praise of the physical beauty of trees and traces their cultural meanings. I worked on the principle that if I found something surprising, someone else probably would, too: what might be obvious to a botanist, a forester or local historian can still be a revelation to the rest of us.

It’s easy to get lost in the forest of tree books, but here are some of the best…

1. Howards End by EM Forster
I learned from reading this book at school that novels can work through recurrent phrases and enigmatic images. Here, on the very first page, is the wych elm. I had no idea then what a wych elm might be, but I knew that this strange tree, with the pig’s teeth embedded in its trunk, somehow possessed qualities that were beyond the reach of the car-owning colonialists who thought they owned it.

2. Meetings With Remarkable Trees by Thomas Pakenham
The shock of witnessing beeches in the garden crash to the ground in a January storm sent Pakenham in search of surviving trees. His wonderful modern pilgrimage to ancient trees includes the gigantic Douglas fir at the Hermitage in Dunkeld and the weird, weeping beech at Knap Hill near Woking, which is “Britain’s dottiest tree”. Pakenham even helped to uncover trees long thought lost, such as the giant yew immortalised by Wordsworth as the “pride of Lorton Vale”.

3. The Dead by James Joyce
This short story, with more distilled in its rich pages than many a lengthy novel, mostly takes place indoors, at a family Christmas party in Dublin, which makes the later evocation of a young man waiting through a cold night beneath a tree all the more haunting. Michael Furey stands for all lost lovers, yearning for what’s out of reach under the shade of a tree.

Autumn trees near Dunkeld, Scotland.
Autumn trees near Dunkeld, Scotland. Photograph: Russell Cheyne/Reuters

4. Outline by Paul Nash
Tate Britain’s winter retrospective demonstrated Paul Nash’s extraordinary and enduring feeling for trees. His autobiography, Outline, works as a companion to his painting career, linking the beech tree in his special childhood place in Kensington Gardens to the mysterious group of beeches silhouetted on the hill at Wittenham Clumps, and then to the devastated, topless trunks in the first world war battlefields of northern France.

5. Dante’s Inferno
The journey begins not with a single tree, but an entire forest, or “selva oscura”. Lost among the thick trees, which may owe something to the great yew forests of medieval Italy, but probably much more to the shady canopies of the mind, the poet makes his way down through the darkness into hell.

6. Sylva by John Evelyn
The enduring classic of all things arboreal. Evelyn published his marvellous account of England’s trees soon after the Restoration of Charles II, to promote tree-planting and so secure the country’s future supplies of oak timber. In the days before iron and steel, trade, exploration and defence all depended on oak-built ships. What’s appealing about this classic is Evelyn’s infectious enthusiasm and strong opinions about trees. Gabriel Hemery’s recent revisiting, The New Sylva, brings Evelyn up to date and includes beautiful pencil sketches by Sarah Simblet.

7. Whispers in the Graveyard by Theresa Breslin
This enthralling Scottish gothic tale follows a lonely boy, whose struggles with dyslexia at school and an alcoholic father at home lead him to seek refuge by the old rowan tree near the local kirk. When council workers arrive with an order to fell the tree, what is unleashed from the graveyard makes Solomon’s story spiral from modern misery to timeless terror, as Breslan brings ancient folklore into a story of contemporary urban adolescence. A compelling and compassionate tree-tale of our times.

8. Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery by John Clare
So many poets have responded powerfully to trees that it’s very difficult to single out one, but John Clare was inspired by them so often that I’ve chosen him as the one among many. For Clare, the local trees around his home at Helpston were lifelong companions, thriving in his memory even after he was confined to a lunatic asylum. Clare could conjure an utterly convincing sycamore or willow in a few lines, and lament the fall of an elm as powerfully as the death of a friend.

9. The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy
Hardy’s novels all show a deep understanding of the natural world, but this one’s so thick with trees that at times the human characters almost get lost in the woods. The woodlands supply everyone with fuel, timber, fruit and a livelihood, but Hardy, never comfortable with pleasing pastoral, directs us to the ominous figure of the elm looming over Marty South’s father. Paralysed by fear of this tree, Mr South becomes too ill to leave his house, but when Dr Fitzpiers arrives with a fresh approach and orders the tree to be felled, the shock of its removal proves far too great. His patient dies the next day.

10. Apple Acre by Adrian Bell
This vivid account of self-sufficiency at the outbreak of the second world war is a testament to the human capacity to keep going and keep hoping. The apples are vital to the Bells’ physical and spiritual survival: reminders of nature’s eternal, cyclical strength and pledges of future peace. The book is valuable, too, for the portrait of the infant Anthea Bell, who grew up to become famous as the translator of the Asterix books.

  • The Long, Long Life of Trees by Fiona Stafford is published by Yale University Press, priced £10.99 in paperback.


Fiona Stafford

The GuardianTramp

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