There can’t be many people who don’t like trees, can there? Well, all right, the fall of leaves in the autumn might cause a little nuisance, make the place look untidy, create a few problems for train operators, but most of us think that these are small prices to pay for beauty, splendour and majesty - don’t we? - if, that is, we’re not the ones who have to sweep up the leaves or remove them from the gutters or have trains to run.
The fondness for trees probably germinates in childhood. For those of us who were lucky enough to be able to play in woodlands, it was a place full of possibilities, and the petty inconveniences of the annual moult were adult concerns and were of no importance to us as children.
The tree is a motif in many theologies, mythologies and philosophies – the mystical concept suggesting the inter-connectedness of life, a metaphor for the ramifications of evolutionary descent and the spreading branches of a family’s genealogy. There are practical reasons, too, for considering trees with awe and respect.
Our lives depend on trees: in their concentrations in the equatorial rainforests and the boreal forests, in the woods, copses, spinneys and plantations, they produce oxygen and help to purify the air; they provide shade from the sun and shelter from the wind and rain; they enrich the soil and provide food, homes and shelter for a wondrous diversity of wildlife. But they are also things of beauty, inspiring wonder and prompting reflection, and by their strength, beauty and stillness soothe our spirits and give an innocent pleasure to the eye.
Trees are symbols of both longevity and renewal. Ancient specimens, being the oldest living things on earth, are venerated and give a sense of a living continuity. Sowing a seed and planting the resultant sapling is the act of an optimist; planting a tree makes us think of tomorrow and is a tangible reminder of a commitment to the future. It isn’t surprising that we often commemorate the life of someone we loved, respected and admired with the planting of a tree.
At the end of the summer holiday, I had the opportunity to visit the National Arboretum at Westonbirt in Gloucestershire on the last day of the week-long Festival of the Tree. The Old Arboretum, the creation of Robert Holford, dates from the 1850s and is a carefully designed landscape offering beautiful vistas and stately avenues. It is also the host to rare and exotic species from across the globe. It must have been an exciting time in which to have been creating a tree collection as plant-hunters were returning from the distant corners of the Empire and other parts of the world with new and exotic species. Across the valley from the Old Arboretum is the Silk Wood, which, although it contains plantings of exotic species, is, at its heart, a traditional working woodland dating back to the thirteenth century.
The original objective of the arboretum’s creator was not scientific enquiry but, rather, an aesthetic one: Holford conceived a passion to create a picturesque landscape that would stand as a testament to his taste and wealth. We can, perhaps, forgive him his conceit for his foresight and legacy, whatever his motivation had been.
In the middle of the last century, the entire 600 acres of the arboretum was passed over to the custodianship of the Forestry Commission, which set about making the neglected arboretum safe for the admittance of the public. That task accomplished, the work of the Commission is increasingly linked with global initiatives, such as the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation and responding to the challenges posed by climate change.
After first taking a walk around the Old Arboretum, making new acquaintances as I progressed along its convoluted pathways, I was ready to join the hustle and bustle surrounding the exhibitions in the festival’s tented village. The common factor of all the exhibitors was - you won’t be surprised to discover - wood.
There were the crafts whose raw material is wood. There were displays and demonstrations of woodworking tools; it was amazing to see the range of different chisels on offer to the wood turner of various levels of experience, degree of competence and who enjoy a healthy bank balance.
In another tent there were the fruits of the many hours spent bent over the lathe: bowls of various depths and circumferences, dishes with a range of diameters, made from yew, holly and laburnum, the artist artisan exploiting the peculiarities of each type of wood to interesting effect. While these bowls and dishes were more works of art than items of utility, next door there was a demonstration of making utensils of a more unashamed practicality. Furniture makers declared their guiding principles of construction in the items they offered for sale: chairs with elegant lines, others possessing more rustic qualities.
A few stalls along, there were some half-size hurdles (made of split hazel poles, of course) that were arranged to form a rectangular pen into which had been corralled so many walking sticks that it was impossible, unless you devoted the whole of your time at the event, to give them an exact number. Approximately a third of the indeterminate number had heads that were fashioned from a material other than wood, such as deer antler. The majority of the sticks, however, remained pure and uncompromised, getting their peculiar decorative features from the twist of a stem or the shape and angle of a root; there were some walking sticks on which a bulbous malformation had grown and which had been carved into the shapes of various animal heads. It was mind-boggling to see what variations could be achieved from the simple theme of a shaft of wood that was about as thick as a thumb.
At the end of one of the rows of stands, at set times during the day, a demonstration was presented of the techniques and tools that a medieval woodsman would have used to shape a piece of raw timber. Now, I don’t think that the man demonstrating the techniques was himself medieval, or the tools he was using were from the period either, but we were told, with an authority that I have no reason to doubt, that they were based on written descriptions and illustrations from the times. No power tools visible here, just hand tools and the strength, experience and intelligence of the woodsman. Contrast this with the woodsman of today.
In the display ring at the centre of the show field, the modern incarnation of his medieval forerunner (who, I would not wish to imply, is any less experienced or intelligent) showed us just a few of the pieces of mechanised equipment he has at his disposal. Apart from the power saws that we are familiar with there were larger machines being put through their paces: tractors and rigs that could transport tree trunks that were several tons in weight, chippers that chewed up off-cuts that were as thick as an arm as if they were nothing more than matchsticks and stump grinders that could reduce a tree stump to so many chips off the old block within minutes.
Many visitors were absorbed in watching an artist producing images on small panels of wood using the technique of pyrography. This was not crude poker work creating a simple pattern or string of letters on the lid of a box. This was the delicate manipulation of a heated filament of wire to create landscapes and portraits, the subtlety of tone redolent of a sepia drawing. On an altogether larger scale were the sculptures that were hewn from sections of timber that resulted from the management of the woodlands.
The rough shaping of the wood, the sections of which varied in height and girth (the smallest pieces being about two metres in length and 90 centimetres in diameter), are undertaken with a chainsaw. Once the initial processing has been completed, the artists use less brutal tools to shape the finer details of the sculptures and give them the surface finish they want. Some of the pieces depict human figures, some animals, and others are of a more abstract nature. At the end of the festival, these works of art are auctioned to raise money for the charity Tree Aid.
Trees give us a different perspective on life. They have their stages of life – youth, middle-age and maturity – and mark the passing of the seasons, accumulating a silent history of the world in rings of grain, with a beauty, harmony and splendour that delights and inspires generation after generation.