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Plant Focus

Quercus skinneri
Quercus skinneri is a Central American oak, distinguished by the large size of its fruit.

Book Review: The Oak Papers

The Oak Papers
James Canton
Canongate, Edinburgh, 2020
237 pages

James Canton’s memoir records his progress on a quest for knowledge. Seeking solace in a moment of personal crisis, he starts to frequent an ancient oak that he passes every day on his way to work. After sensing that he finds an indefinable sense of tranquility by its side, he becomes interested in the tree’s history, its relationship with other forms of life, and the important role of oaks in human civilization and culture. Early on in his investigations, he learns of accounts of oak worship and that the high priests of the oak were the Druids, whose name derives from the ancient terms dru meaning “oak” and wid, “to see or know”. The Druids were those who had “oak knowledge”, and this is what the author yearns to achieve: “I am seeking oak knowledge. I have experienced what so many other people know. That being by an oak tree has some kind of calming effect. My mind is stilled. I am able to accept the present. I am able simply to be myself more easily. And in those moments I don’t seek answers as to why that is. I simply accept the composed balm which the presence of oaks offers.”

His entry into the world of oaks is by way of the 800-year-old Honywood Oak on the Marks Hall Estate in England. His guide is the curator of the arboretum there, who tells him of the tree’s history. It is the sole survivor of a large number of veteran oaks, the bulk of which were felled in the 1950s to fuel a widow’s vengeance (or so local gossip has it). His guide teaches Canton to observe the many organisms that depend on the oak and to appreciate the important role the tree plays as kingpin of the ecosystem it sustains. James is spellbound by the abundant harvest of critters they are able to collect by stretching a sheet under the oak and shaking one of its limbs. He is carried aloft by an arboriculturist’s harness and observes the world from the oak’s point of view.

The story is told as a series of diary entries that recount his observations of nature when he sits by the oak, recording the discoveries he makes in his research and his conversations with his guides. The first section, entitled “Seeing the Oak”, is followed by “Knowing the Oak”, in which he gains a deeper understanding of the tree and the role of oaks in human culture and literature, from Homer’s Odysseus—who hears in the rustling of the leaves of an oak the oracle’s advice that he should return home to Ithaca—to D.H. Lawrence—who feels that while under an oak “my whole soul’s fluid / Oozes away from me as a sacrifice steam / At the knife of a Druid.” But as he draws closer to his subject and his goal of acquiring oak knowledge, he finds that there is a transcendent aspect of the oak’s presence that goes beyond what can be found in libraries or even what words could express. This leads to the final section of the memoir, “Being with Oaks”, where he tackles more mysterious issues regarding the effect oaks might have on humans’ minds and well-being, moving beyond ecology and history to art, psychology, and spirituality.

This is the central and most compelling part of the book, where he encounters other oaks and converses with experts in different disciplines, who share their oak experiences: we meet the painter Stephen Taylor, who painted fifty paintings of a single oak as a way of healing psychological trauma; the woodworker Dylan Pym, who steam-bends wood into curved pieces of furniture of surreal beauty, and who tells of his epiphany when falling into the hollow trunk of an oak;  the psychologist Mike Rogerson, who explains how phytoncides—chemicals given off by plants—can boost our immune system; the writings of Monica Gagliano, who invites us to think the unthinkable and consider the possibility that plants can learn by association; and James’s friend Sarah, who encourages him to move beyond trying to understand the oak and to become it instead: “Drop the intellectualisation. Just seek to become.”

As the book draws to a close, there is no formal denouement, but Canton achieves a sense of closure that transmits to the reader some of the peace and calm that he has found by being with oaks. A minor character in the chronicle is a woman James finds cutting her lawn with a pair of scissors. No further details are provided, but it is an eloquent metaphor of a soul in need of solace, such as we imagine the author to be when he started on this journey. Late in the tale, he passes by her garden again, and sees that “some good soul has mown her lawn.” He feels gladdened at the sight, and in the same way the reader feels gladdened to have accompanied James on his journey of healing through oaks.

Honywood Oak
The Honywood Oak at Marks Hall Estate, Essex, UK 
(Source: twitter - @markshallestate)

For the seasoned quercophile, much of what Canton finds will be familiar ground, though there will surely be a few new nuggets of oak lore to glean; for a neophyte, this book will serve as a bounty of information and sensations about our favorite genus (though focused almost exclusively on the two oak species native to England). The writing style tests the limit of self-indulgence and is at times self-conscious (“Below is the chuckle of corvids clustered somewhere beyond, a covey by the burnt oak.”)  James Canton teaches Wild Writing at the University of Essex, and certainly there is no lack of descriptions of wildlife, which at times are even repetitive: time and again the author returns to the oaks, rests his back against the trunk, names the birds whose call he hears, feels a stillness come upon him. But perhaps it is this cyclical iteration of detail that conveys the peace and calm that oaks have communicated to the author and may seep through to the reader.

You can listen to a reading of excerpts from the book here: www.bit.ly/OakPapers (available till September 1, 2020) and an interview with James Canton here: www.bbc.in/2YfSXbt . The book has been published in the UK and in Australia/New Zealand. It will be published in the US/Canada in early 2021.