I’m pleased to publish this book review by Kayla Snow.
Any book written with the expressed intention of moving its readers to stop reading is one that piques my curiosity. When that book is about trees, I am especially intrigued. And, this is what Fiona Stafford, a professor of English at the University of Oxford, set out to do in her book The Long, Long Life of Trees: to move her readers to set the book aside and head out “in search of a tree or a spade.”
Humankind has grown under the shade of trees, sharing the same soil, breathing the same air, and basking in the same sunshine. It is only natural, then, that humans would turn to trees for inspiration, shelter, and, on occasion as Adam and Eve taught us, even life and knowledge. Yet, for the many benefits trees afford us, we have largely lost sight of the significant roles they play in the development of our culture and the maintenance of our lives.
By exploring how seventeen different types of trees have acted as objects of utilitarian interest and aesthetic appreciation for humans throughout the ages, Stafford reveals the many ways that the health of a culture is both sustained through and evidenced by its healthy trees. She does so for the expressed purpose of drawing our attention back to trees—causing us to notice again these commonplace entities with a new sense of wonder, admiration, and respect—in order that we might nurture their health and well being as they likewise nurture ours.
The publication of Stafford’s book remarkably comes just days after a book on a similar topic. Peter Wohlleben’s The Secret Life of Trees, rooted more deeply in science than Stafford’s book, likewise examines how the life of trees intersects with our own in a way that is at once seemingly mundane and almost magical. So what is it that makes trees worthy of our sustained study? As the titles of these books suggest, it is the life of trees—the fact that they are living entities and, as Stafford illustrates, life sustaining and enriching organisms.
We all generally understand that, as trees “breathe,” they draw in carbon from the air, filtering the air we breathe so that our lungs are filled with clean oxygen. Perhaps less known, however, is the many ways that trees have benefitted the health of humans by offering medicines for common ailments, as with the elm tree, which contains a liquid known to boost the immune system and lower cholesterol. Stafford reveals that trees, such as the common pine tree, can even produce a mirror-like canopy that reflects the sun’s harmful rays away from the earth below. These are just a few of the ways trees care for us, but as living organisms, trees require a certain amount of care and attention to ensure that they go on living long after we are gone.
A lack of careful attention threatens the very long life of these trees we admire and undermines their importance in our lives, a point which Stafford makes poignantly when she discusses the ways in which human abuses and natural phenomena coupled with human inattention has threatened the existence of at least a few species in Britain. The presence of sturdy trees such as the Ash and the Black Poplar continue to decline throughout Britain due, in large part, to diseases that have attacked these trees. More alarmingly, the Elm, once overwhelmingly commonplace in Britain is now, for the most part, extinct there, leading Stafford to hail Byron’s elegiac poem “Lines Written Beneath an Elm in the Churchyard of Yarrow” as an “epitaph to the English elm.”
While disease is the primary culprit of the decline of these three species, natural disaster cannot be blamed entirely. Citing botanist Oliver Rackham’s ominous—and almost prophetic—words on the topic, Stafford explains that “by the time people have noticed the presence of a deadly plant disease it is too late to take action.”
Though not directly responsible for the failure of these trees to thrive, our inattention certainly means that we did not notice the symptoms of their failing health while something might have been done. Trees are so commonplace in our lives that we take their presence for granted. We wrongly assume that they will always be there serving our needs even without our careful stewardship, but Stafford knows this assumption is a false one that finds no basis in history. This inattention and inaction provides the rationale for and affirms the timeliness of Stafford’s book.
There is much to praise in this book, but it is Stafford’s careful attention to and artistry in these three areas that opened my eyes more fully to the beauty and power of trees: Her own sense of rootedness which allows her to seamlessly explore the universal through the particular, her tasteful balance of reasonable argumentation with romantic depictions, and her ability to convey the timelessness of trees by looking back to history and poetry while pointing our eyes to the future.
Beginning with the yew tree, an eerie reminder of human finitude, and ending with the apple tree, a symbol of fresh starts and new beginnings, Stafford’s book reads like an arboreal tour of Britain complete with an engaging guide who seems to have stories, historical anecdotes, and literary references for each tree she points out. She recounts how trees have enriched her own life by describing how trees fill her days with beauty and utility. From the cedar pencil on her desk to the olive wood bowl on her table to the miniature trees she has potted and is eager to plant—each of these items reflects how the life she has built springs from the same soil as the trees that grow outside her window.
What initially struck me as a limitation of the book—namely that it focuses almost entirely on British trees—became one of the elements that most recommends the work in my mind. Stafford’s book is firmly rooted in the soil that surrounds her. She writes about the trees she knows, the trees that reside in her yard, her neighborhood, her community. As Stafford evaluates the health of her homegrown trees, she reminds us to take stock of the trees that line our streets, fill our parks, and shade our gardens. She begins with particular trees rooted in her soil, yet simultaneously draws on the universal image of the tree so that each tree takes root in our own imaginations, compelling us to look outside.
For those who live in the country or in urban areas that offer easy access to established wooded areas, this reminder requires only that we look our our windows or walk through the local park to take notice of the beauty to which we’ve grown disenchanted. However, for individuals whose urban lives are not populated with strong, storied trees, the reminder might actually prove more striking; instead of a reminder to notice the commonplace, these individuals are literally sent in search of a tree to study and admire.
In fact, these are the very individuals for whom a spade might actually be more accessible than tree. For both the urban dweller and the good country folk, however, there is a shared reminder to observe your dwelling place. The chest of drawers in the corner, the old beams that line the ceiling of your city loft, the thick butchers block where you prepare your meals–each of these things is a testament to the significance of trees in our lives. Though no longer living entities, these trees have taken on a new form to enrich our own lives, and, in this way, their story–their life–continues.
Stafford’s strongest chapter, the chapter on the oak tree, holds within it her clearest examples of the reciprocity shared between human lives and the lives of trees. For Stafford, the oak tree holds a preeminent position as the “King of Trees,” the tree that commands the attention of nations and contains entire ecosystems beneath its branches. It is fitting, then, that this chapter possesses within it the quintessential Western image of the tree. It seems from Stafford’s description that nearly every Western nation lays claim to the oak tree as their national tree, and understandably so. This tree is “self-possessed” and “inclusive,” firmly rooted and adaptable.
But, it is the oak’s magnificent strength and “remarkable transformation from tiny acorn to mighty oak” that commend this tree to the nations. A symbol of “victory against the odds,” the oak tree offered the perfect timber for building strong ships for British commerce and defense, a point that served as the subject of Alexander Pope’s Windsor Forest. The image of the forest rushing into the waves to defend her country is a powerful one, so it is no wonder that the Western nations long to see themselves reflected in the oak tree.
The oak tree offers us something more than utilitarian strength though; it is also aesthetically pleasing and environmentally healthful, depicting the hope of a beautiful, abundant future. As an object of aesthetic admiration, the tree became the subject of portraits for the owners of large estates. Stafford notes that this practice was, of course, a “status symbol” for the owners of those estates, but these owners often set the course of aesthetic trends.
Two such men, Uvedale Price and Richard Pane Knight, pictured their magnificent oak trees as examples of the fact that “there need be no opposition between utility and beauty.” They, then, would not be surprised to find that the tree that served as the model for a commissioned portrait also offers humankind “an enormous contribution to the creation of a sustainable economy” through their “capacity to lock up carbon, stabilise soil [sic], protect areas subject to frequent flooding, improve air and water quality and provide clean, renewable energy.” This reminder of the classical notion utile dulci (the useful with the agreeable) reinforces the idea that trees serve humankind in many ways, helping to sustain our bodies and our souls, caring for us, and, on occasion, teaching us how to care for ourselves and our world in a more disciplined and mindful manner.
Although all of the trees Stafford examines teach us something, it is the birch tree that is known for its methods of teaching. Stafford tells of falling from the birch tree as a young girl in her grandparent’s garden receiving, as it were, an admonishment from the tree. She bears a physical reminder of that lesson in the form of scar on her arm. It seems, though, that the birch tree was known for leaving marks on young people because the sharp, flexible wood historically made a terrifying instrument of corporal punishment in old school houses and courthouses.
More recently, however, the birch tree has softened its blows, correcting primarily by good example. The tree has recently been employed as a source for renewable materials for eco-houses, which, while undoubtedly different from public lashings, offers us a much-needed admonishment for how we care for our environment as responsible stewards. This admonishment is further reinforced when Stafford explains that, through a grove of young silver birch saplings growing in Oslo for the purpose of publishing books by today’s brilliant authors some one hundred years from now, the birch tree “challenges our demands for instant gratification, overnight celebrity, and the triumph of the best-seller.” By inviting us share her personal encounter with the birch tree and guiding us through its historical significance, Stafford illustrates how trees can be at once tangible, physical objects and richly symbolic ones. Thus, she when admonishes the reader to view the birch tree as a “gentle reminder of what is right about the world we know,” we do not feel as if we have received a public lashing, but rather a hopeful promise for a future pleasure if only we can exercise the discipline of patience.
Despite the many things I appreciated in this book, there were two areas in particular where I had trouble reconciling Stafford’s aims with her execution. The first is a question of style while the second is a matter of substance.
First, while beautifully written and illustrated, the book largely lacks the connective tissues that unify an argument. Each chapter largely stands on its own without referencing the other chapters or acknowledging previously established ideas. This lack of connective tissue was most apparent to me when two separate trees—the olive tree and the ash tree—were referred to as “phoenix trees” (though admittedly with distinctions between the two) without comment from Stafford. This redundancy without comparison and contrast means that the book itself reads more like a well-organized collection of essays on trees than a unified discussion on the purpose of trees. Thus, while each chapter is fascinating in its own right, the chapters themselves do not easily lend themselves to development of the cohesive argument; the reader must put forth some additional effort to see the forest rather than merely each tree. Because the essays are each independently good, however, this small challenge does not prove unconquerable.
The second challenge I have with the book lingers a little longer because it reveals what might be a fatal flaw for the ultimate purpose of this book: while the book does remind us to take note of trees once again, it does not provide us with the tools necessary to fully appreciate them in a sustained and disciplined manner. For this, the reader must look elsewhere. While some individuals already possess the knowledge to identify trees by their leaves, barks, and fruit, there are many thoughtful people in our culture for whom this knowledge is a relic of the past–something they might appreciate in a museum of agricultural history without possessing the capacity to access the knowledge itself and put it into practice. In fact, I would argue that this latter group of people will form a large portion of Stafford’s readership.
For these individuals, the book will likely make impression and cause them to take note of the trees around them again, but it will do little beyond that because it does not offer them a way to practice a sustained study of the trees. And, while sustained study was not necessarily Stafford’s goal, I have found when we do not know the object of our affection, we quickly forget it, much like a fleeting adolescent crush. Yet, Stafford’s book does achieve an important first step in the process of developing a true relationship in that it offers an interesting and delightful survey of trees. Hopefully, this beautiful glimpse will be enough to cause readers to seek out further resources in order to cultivate the knowledge necessary for a meaningful relationship.
When I finally did put down Stafford’s book, I did not have search long or far for the tree that most inspires my wonder and admiration; this tree has long been rooted in my imagination. It is the magnificent oak tree that sits deep on the backside of my in-laws property next to a dilapidated old house where my husband’s great-great-grandparents once lived. This tree has always evoked in me a deep sense of longing and belonging. It represents an illusive rootedness that I desire, admire, and, on occasion, fear. In the craggy old bark of the tree, I see my husband’s late grandfather—aged and tired, but rooted and strong. For me, this tree is a symbol of my children’s inheritance: They will belong to this land just as my husband’s great, great-grandparents did. With good weather and good care, so, too, will this tree.
Kayla Snow earned a Master of Arts in English from Liberty University. She currently teaches courses in research and writing and English literature for Liberty University. Her graduate research focuses largely on the influence of Christian thought and theology on the literary works of writers such as Jonathan Swift, G.K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien, and Flannery O’Connor. She has published the article What Hath Hobbits to do with Prophets: The Fantastic Reality of J.R.R. Tolkien and Flannery O’Connor through LOGOS: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture. Kayla now has the pleasure of living with her husband and two children on a beautiful piece of family land in North Carolina where she has a small garden and a few chickens.