The Long, Long Life of Trees by Fiona Stafford – 50 Years in 50 Books

Published for the first time in 2016, The Long, Long Life of Trees explores the intimate way Trees have become entwined with human experience. In the book, Fiona Stafford offers readers detailed explorations of seventeen common trees, from ash and apple to pine, oak, cypress, and willow.

In this blogpost, part of the 50 Years in 50 Books series for our 50th Anniversary, Fiona Stafford reflects on the mounting threats to the lives of trees since the book’s initial release.

Article by Fiona Stafford

It’s always good to start with an acorn. Looking back on The Long, Long Life of Trees makes me turn instinctively to the small branch of dried oak leaves that sat on my desk while I was writing – it’s still here. A few stragglers have dropped off in the seven years since the book was published, though most of the stalks are as tenacious as ever. The single acorn, less smooth now with its shallow ridges and hairline crack, no longer fills the rough wooden cup. My golden bough is drier, the deep tan more of a russet brown, but now it offers reassurance as well as inspiration – about natural resilience.  The oak from which the winds tore the small spray is more or less unchanged, except for a slight widening of the split in its broad trunk. Any fear that the old tree would be felled when the farm changed hands has so far proved unfounded. It also grows at a safe enough distance from the chainsaws of HS2 to escape the fate of so many grand, local oaks, once part of the ancient Forest of Bernwood. Acorns picked up from under the canopy and planted have had varied fortunes – many are yet to send up a single shoot, while some sprouted rapidly and then succumbed to drought or mildew. Others have put out a few tiny sinuous leaves only to be munched by deer. There are nevertheless a handful of hardy survivors which can just about be described as saplings. Once enthralled by the hazardous existence of oaklings, acorns are never just acorns again. 

The Crawley Elm – Jacob Strutt’s Sylva Britannica

Since publishing The Long, Long Life of Trees, I’ve become even more conscious of how many trees do not enjoy long enough lives. They can be cut off almost before they are visible above ground, falling prey to pathogens, hostile insects and hungry animals, or felled by storms or foresters, developers, contractors or local Councils. In the months between the publication of the hardback and the paperback, I became increasingly concerned about new tree diseases – while Ash Dieback had cast a long shadow over the ‘Ash’ chapter and ‘Elm’ was already an elegy, news of dire threats to Horse chestnuts led to an unwelcome toning down of my celebratory emphasis on this species’ ebullience. Since 2017, new waves of disease have afflicted oaks, cherries, apples, rowans and pines, while climate change makes the future of every tree unpredictable. 

All of this is making us more and more aware of the importance of trees in general, more attuned to the special character of particular species. Were I to begin again on my book, I would make it twice as long, and include chapters on trees left out last time. A question I have often been asked is ‘Why no beech?’ or ‘Why no cedar?’  – and the list goes on. Almost every kind of tree has its own history, character, associations and so far from feeling I exhausted the subject, I have frequently reflected more frequently on how much more could have been said. The chapters I did write could have been much longer, too.  Since 2016, I have been lucky enough to see the paintings Monet worked on intensively during the First World War while his son was in the trenches – these disturbing red willows make a very powerful postscript to the sense of the peace he achieved in his images of lily ponds with weeping willows at Giverny. My appreciation of birches has been greatly enhanced by further pursuit of Coleridge’s passion for these beautiful trees, while John Ruskin’s epiphany under an aspen would have made a highlight of the ‘Poplar’ chapter.   

Weeping Willow, Claude Monet, Wikimedia Commons

There’s a host of other species, too, that deserve as much attention as those in the book – additional British trees as well as any number of exotics from around the world.  I’ve become very intrigued by when and why new species became established in the UK.  But what I hoped to do was to offer a new way of thinking about these extraordinary phenomena – to share my own excitement about our quiet, arboreal companions.  Most of the trees that feature in The Long, Long Life of Trees are easily recognisable because I wanted people to be able to see their familiar surroundings afresh – to look and look again at the trees they encounter every day.  Understanding how our predecessors have thought about trees, how great artists, writers or filmmakers respond to their intrinsic power, helps us to appreciate the natural cornucopia that we sometimes take for granted.  Once aware of the multiple dimensions of living trees, those represented in books, galleries, films, photos and TV tend to become more prominent, too, standing out as vital characters rather than mere scenery.  Tree-seeing is a great enrichment of experience – whether immediate and physical or vicarious and mediated.  Trees have their own histories and interior life, they are full of birds, butterflies, bees and wildlife, not to mention the fungi in the soil around their roots. So the pleasure of an arboreal encounter is multi-sensory as well as multi-imaginary.  They have an extraordinary afterlives as well, in the form of wooden artefacts, ships and buildings. 

A spreading sycamore tree, Sylva Brittanica

Since 2016, awareness of the global emergency arising from climate change and biodiversity loss has put trees ever higher on the list of environmental significance.  Whether it’s the depredations in the Amazon rainforest or the streets of Sheffield, the impact of careless tree felling is now widely understood as a disaster.  We know that trees lock up carbon, release oxygen, improve air quality, counter urban heat and flooding, as well as providing vital habitat for countless species.  This deepening awareness is leading to serious reforestation and planting projects: at last, the enormous benefits of greenery is becoming as evident to the modern world as it always was to our ancestors.

But to see trees primarily in terms of how they benefit humankind may still not be the best way to save the planet.  If instead we begin to respond to trees as living beings, with their own ways of existing, surviving, protecting each other and the lives of the organisms they host, we might learn, rather than merely profit, from them.  Once open to the beauty, mystery and magnificence of even the most modest tree, our sense of what is really of irreplaceable value might also undergo a radical transformation before it’s too late.

About the Author:

Fiona Stafford is professor of English language and literature, University of Oxford. She is author and presenter of two highly acclaimed series for BBC Radio 3 titled The Meaning of Trees. She lives in Bucks, UK.

About the book:

The Long, Long Life of Trees
The Long, Long Life of Trees
is a lyrical tribute to the diversity of trees, their physical beauty, their special characteristics and uses, and their ever-evolving meanings. Brimming with unusual topics and intriguing facts, this book celebrates trees and their long, long lives as our inspiring and beloved natural companions.

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By Fiona Stafford:

Further reading:

Yale University Press is celebrating 50 years of publishing in London. To celebrate, we have selected 50 important Yale London books from our past, present and future to tell the story of our publishing through a series of articles and extracts.

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