The most beautiful tree in the world is the eucalyptus. If you know it only from backyard trees in Britain, or plantations around the Mediterranean, you will not agree; but if you have seen mountain ash in the Dandenongs, or ghost gums by an outback river, you may be convinced.
Anyway, it seems that we have a tendency to make emotional attachments to trees, especially those we grow up with; like baby birds, we are imprinted with our early experience.
All this is by way of introduction to a book about beech trees by the naturalist Richard Mabey, called Beechcombings, which I bought in a charity shop recently. (St Andrews is well supplied with charity shops!)
The book is a mixture of history of British woods, reflections on the author’s experience of growing up with beech trees and then acquiring a small wood (Hardings Wood) in the Chilterns, and more general philosophizing.
The beech tree is a relatively recent immigrant to Britain, having arrived here 8000 years ago, only 500 years before the Channel broke through and isolated Britain, and 1500 years before farmers arrived to clear the forests for agriculture. The natural spreading of the beech is very slow; it drops its seeds rather than letting the wind spread them, and does not have anything like the symbiotic relationship of oak trees with jays. (I didn’t know about this; but jays bury huge quantities of acorns in ideal places for new oaks to grow. A single bird, working a ten-hour day, can bury 65000 acorns in ten weeks. These provide food for the jays, but many of the acorns grow, and so the succession of oak trees and food for future generations of jays are both ensured.) So it is a mystery to scientists how the beech spread so far and so fast.
In Britain, its natural range is confined to the south-east, but it has been planted far beyond this. A week ago, we walked the Fife Coastal Path from the Tay Road Bridge to St Andrews, of which a large stretch was through Tentsmuir forest. This is a pine plantation, but in accord with recent forestry policy, beeches have been planted along the sides of the access road, and we noticed many young beech trees thriving in the midst of the pines.
In general the story of British woods, as Mabey tells it, is one dominated by the growing view that trees can’t look after themselves and need to be managed by humans. Then there is conflict about the purpose of the management: do we want oaks for warships, pines for paper, or beeches for fuel? Do we care what the forests look like, and the good they can do for our souls, or do we care only about economic imperatives? As one view or another prevails, large areas of forest are felled, for plantations or agriculture. The scariest story he tells is that of Stansted Great Wood, an ancient oak forest in Suffolk, being sprayed with 2,4,5-T (a component of Agent Orange) from a helicopter in 1967. The National Trust felled Frithsden Great Copse, a beautiful wood of hornbeam, maple and beech, and replanted it with conifers to commemorate Queen Elizabeth’s accession.
These attitudes are nowhere better expressed than in the reactions to the destruction of trees by the Great Storm of 1987. The Tree Council said “Trees are at great danger from nature”, while the National Trust opined “The Great Storm has desecrated the past and betrayed the future”. In fact, the gaps in the canopy caused by the losses of mature trees encouraged, and the rotting logs sheltered, the growth of young trees (except where well-meaning foresters had bulldozed the land clear ready for replanting).
What makes a beautiful tree? Some of the most impressive trees in places like Burnham Beeches are the result of many years of pollarding (harvesting branches from living trees). Beechwood was never in official demand to the extend that oakwood was. You cannot build a ship of beech. It was mainly used for fuel for country people, wagon wheels, and more recently for furniture (Windsor chairs for dwellers in the rapidly growing suburbs). Pollarded trees are often more resilient and long-lived than virgin forest, although some people’s idea of “naturalness” may be offended. Looking at the way that different artists have depicted beech trees, from Paul Nash at one extreme to Arthur Rackham and E. H. Shepard at the other, shows how varied can be the features we appreciate in a tree.
Since I have lived in Britain, the beech has become my favourite local tree. (The only native relative in Australia, as far as I know, are the magnificent antarctic beeches of the Lamington plateau.) Partly this is for the vividness of their colouring: the grey trunks; in spring, the dazzling green of the new leaves and the shimmering carpet of bluebells; in autumn, the extraordinary shades of colour from rich yellow to rust brown as the trees shed leaves loaded with toxins.
The spread of beech is chancy: production of seed is very dependent on weather conditions, and typically they produce at intervals a heavy crop of mast with very little in intervening years. (This may also be a strategy to save mast from creatures that eat it, such as commoners’ pigs.) Climate change may have the effect of spreading the tree northward from its current natural range.