The Wisdom of Trees: A Miscellany

The Wisdom of Trees: A Miscellany

by Max Adams


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A passionate and informative celebration of trees and of man’s ingenuity in exploiting their resources: the perfect gift for anyone who cares about the natural world

Trees are marvels of nature, still-standing giants of extraordinary longevity. In a beautifully written sequence of essays, anecdotes, and profiles of species from yew to scots pine, Max Adams explores both the amazing biology of trees and humanity’s relationship with wood and forest across the centuries. Embellished with images from John Evelyn’s classic Sylva (1664), this beautifully designed gift book offers both a natural and a cultural history of trees, and will delight anyone who cares about the natural world and our interaction with it.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781788542807
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Publication date: 10/01/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 513,609
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Max Adams is the author of The Prometheans and The King in the North. He is a teacher of woodland and tree histories and a woodland manager.

Read an Excerpt

The Wisdom of Trees

By Max Adams

Head of Zeus Ltd

Copyright © 2014 Max Adams
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78185-546-1


Thinking about trees

Enlightenment — Autumn — Brown and sticky — Trees of liberty — Foresight — Tree tale: the Birch

Then I spake to the tree Were ye your own desire What is it ye would be? Answered the tree to me I am my own desire; I am what I would be. Isaac Rosenberg


Embark on a tour of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and you might get a little bored, if you take it in chronological order, looking at all those idealized portraits of madonnas with their improbable-looking child. It is worth the tedium, though, because when you get to the room in which the Botticellis hang, it stops you in your tracks. Primavera, the Florentine artist's 1482 masterpiece depicting a stellar line-up of Venus, the three Graces, the goddess Flora and assorted wood nymphs, is quite stunning. As with all great paintings, you really have to see it in the flesh. Here is the essence of the Renaissance distilled into heady spirit; here, for the first time since the faded glories of the Roman Empire, the female form is painted not as an objectified icon but as sexy, fertile, provocative and alluring. The portrait of Flora, the goddess of plants, bedecked in flowers and heavy with child, seems to mark something new in art, a step-change in enlightenment: human, imperfect, utterly real and absolutely recognizable and attractive to the modern eye. One of the many fascinating aspects of the painting is its portrayal of plants — more than a hundred-and-fifty species, according to those who have studied it. But looking at the trees in the background the arborist must be disappointed: they are mere stage scenery. If the Renaissance rescued humans from an unattainable medieval ideal of sinless piety, then trees had to wait another three-hundred years, at least in Europe, for their artistic liberation.

Move on three-hundred years. James Ward's much more modest watercolour sketch of An ancient oak, painted perhaps in the early years of the nineteenth century (and now in the Garman Ryan Collection at Walsall Art Gallery, West Midlands) does for trees what Botticelli's Flora did for women. So far as I can tell, it is the first portrait of a real tree in the Western art tradition. This is no idealized representation of the tree as a metaphor for anything so crude as fertility or liberty; it is no wistfully Romantic natural furniture, of the sort that decorates much early British landscape painting. This is a tree shorn of its setting in the years of its dotage: stag-headed, lightning-blasted, stunted and hunched, a crabby geriatric bearing few branches and fewer leaves, and which reminds one of nothing so much as the ageing Voltaire, sculpted by Houdon in marble in 1781, during the grand philosophe's last years; he is dying but still full of fire and, like Ward's decrepit oak, deeply wise. The similarity is perhaps intentional: maturity and its twin, decline, evoke sympathy and admiration, pity even, and the Age of Enlightenment was an age of pity and compassion as well as of revolution. It was also the age of the individual, an era of reflection in which thoughtful men and women pondered the question: what has all this change brought us? What have we gained ... and what have we lost?

James Ward's ancient, knowing oak might easily have grown from an acorn dropped from a tree during the Renaissance.


It is autumn: one of the most beautiful that I can remember. Every shade and hue in nature's paintbox is on display, all saturated by the low sun or by each passing shower. The days are shortening, and from beneath the dripping rain-soaked yellow and orange leaves of a spreading beech tree the woodsman looks out on a damp, musky, mizzly world, which appears — to the casual walker — as if it is shutting down ready for winter, like an ice-cream parlour at the seaside. A gust of wind barges through the canopy and a shower of raindrops clatters onto the bed of leaves covering the woodland floor. All the colours from yellow to brown, red and purple, faded green to orange are there in an artless, unrepeatable pattern. Then, silence; at least, for a minute, until the ear tunes into another range, more subtle. The wood is not, as it first seems, silent. Nor is it passively waiting for the snow and ice of January. It is a busy place; and the woodsman has a billhook in hand.

Animals and birds are in a race against time: fighting over bright red berries on holly trees, rowans and whitebeams, on hawthorns and guelder rose, over shiny black sloes on blackthorn (if the sloe-gin makers have not beaten them to it) and over the hard red hips of the briar. Pigs, if we allowed such beauties in our woods once again, would be snuffling under leaves for beech mast and acorns. In their place, squirrels are burying hoards of hazelnuts, and jays — those splendid, squawky, blue-flashed robbers — are prodding acorns into the ground in small clusters. Without these animals there would be no natural oak or beech woods; they are unwitting partners in the cycle of reproduction in which trees rely on the rest of nature to do their work for them. And as if to reinforce the message, another gust of wind brings down a veritable squadron of helicopters, as sycamores shower the rides and glades of the wood with their propellered seeds.

Small mammals like hedgehogs and dormice are fattening up ready to hibernate; others are on the prowl and missing the summer vegetation that gives them cover. Badgers, especially this year's young, are enjoying the drawing-in evenings and are out foraging for worms, nuts and anything else they can get their greedy claws on. Many summer-breeding birds have flown to milder lands; but tits and chaffinches are gathering into winter flocks and will take any opportunity throughout the cold months to feed on whatever insects they can find. Robins begin to stand out with their red breast feathers and penchant for human company; wrens in pairs are looking for discreet nesting sites. Occasionally, two-footed animals can be seen basket in hand, picking berries off brambles or looking for mushrooms that have emerged mysteriously in the night. In my first wood, where my partner and I lived for three years in a caravan with our baby son, we jealously guarded the secret of a patch of parasol mushrooms, which used to grow under a very broad, dense holly tree just next to a footpath. People often used to come in and take holly for their Christmas wreaths; that was alright, so long as they didn't find the mushrooms, which we fried in butter: they tasted like the juiciest steak.

Trees are busy too, if one takes a careful look. The colours in those autumn leaves are produced by bespoke recipes of hormones designed to extract the last sun-kissed sugars and nitrogen before a lethal dose of abscissin seals off the leaf stem from the twig and allows wind or rain to pluck it away. Broadleaved trees get so little light in our northern winters that it is not worth their expending the energy needed to keep their leaves until spring. Besides, as every good sailor knows, in a dangerous wind one reduces sail: trees are taking in a reef, so that the deadly blasts of December gales do not bring them down. The only great storm of my lifetime, and I remember it vividly (windows and doors blowing in; chaos on the streets of South London; dazed people standing in the road and staring at the aftermath), happened during October 1987, before the trees were ready for it.

Trees are not just getting rid of leaves and dispersing seeds. They are preparing for the following spring. Take a close look at a twig which still has leaves on it and you will see that next year's buds have already formed — tiny, green and shiny on sycamores and hazels, orange on the little knuckles of oak buds, and like fine pen-nibs on the beech, or, in the case of the ash tree, jet matt black. It takes a lot of energy to create the bud, and that is done with the last of the autumn's solar power. It must be done in good time so that buds harden off before the first heavy frosts. Come spring, the tree gets a head start as it draws on reserves of sugars and fats stored in its wood and roots to turn those buds into leaves.

For the woodsman, this is a time of anticipation. Summer is a season for making and mending, building and selling; for leaving the trees to get on with what they do best. Once the leaves have fallen it is time to cut wood: to stack and season it for the following autumn when it will be used as firewood; or for the spring after that, when it can be burned in a kiln to produce charcoal. Most broadleaved trees will, when cut clean down to the ground, grow again; but timing is all. Coppicing, as it has been called for at least a thousand years, is best undertaken when the leaves have gone: the trees are easier to get at with billhook or chainsaw; the woodsman can see better to decide which shoots to cut and which to leave to grow into mature timber trees. And then, one must be careful not to disturb trees' natural rhythm. Cut too early and the stump will produce shoots that then don't have time to harden off; cut too late in spring and, aside from the possibility of disturbing nesting birds, the tree will have used precious energy on sap which it needs for re-growth and which the woodsman doesn't want in the log (or on the hands or clothes). So I wait impatiently for those damp, dank days of November when I can join the rest of the woodland community quietly, or not so quietly, going about our mutual business.

Brown and sticky

'What's brown and sticky?' 'A stick'. So goes the children's joke about the humblest of playthings. It is amazing what you can do with a simple stick. Chimpanzees use them to tease ants from holes, so it's a fair bet that the very earliest humans used sticks for all sorts of useful jobs. A few animals employ sticks in one way or another, but only humans have ever learned to dig for luscious edible roots with them, turn them into spears or arrows, or rub them together to make fire.

Sticks are also very useful for measuring things. Have you ever wondered how tall a tree is? You aren't allowed to chop it down to find out, so what do you do? First, find a stick, about the same length as a ruler, or a bit longer. Stand back from the tree you want to measure, close one eye and hold the stick out in front of you as far as you can in one hand. With your eye, line up the bottom of the stick with the bottom of the tree and the top of the stick with the very top of the tree. You might have to move nearer or further away, until you get it just right.

Now, rotate your hand ninety degrees so that the bottom of the stick is still in line with the bottom of the tree, but the stick is now parallel with the ground. Get a friend to stand at the bottom of the tree with their back against the trunk. Then, tell them to walk directly away from the tree at right angles from your line of sight until you see that they are in line with the far end of the stick. Ask them how many paces they have walked. The distance they have covered is the same as the height of the tree. If you want to be really accurate you could measure how far they have walked with a long tape, or work out the average length of your friend's pace. To double-check, swap roles to see if you and your friend get the same result.

This might seem a trivial use for a stick. But early navigators realized that, with a similar method, the sailor could achieve an idea of distance and speed by measuring the changing size of a landmark at sea and its relationship to the ever-cycling angles of sun, moon and stars.

Trees of liberty

The tree, which spans the gap between the underworld and heaven, between birth and death, ignorance and wisdom, has provided a potent symbol through all the human ages. Genesis tells how the first people, Adam and Eve, were expelled from the Garden of Eden for tasting the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil: that is to say, knowledge forbidden them by their master. This is not a tale of sin, but of wilful disobedience and the desire for humans to liberate themselves, as Prometheus did when he stole the secret of fire. But the tree represents more, much more, than mere knowledge. As a sacrificial scaffold it is older than Christianity. The grim irony of identifying the skull of a defeated enemy or criminal, impaled on a stake, as a fruiting tree taps into a very ancient and dark iconography that runs through the Christian crucifixion and the martyrdom of Northumbria's seventh-century King Oswald at Oswestry ('Oswald's tree', or Croesoswald in Welsh) to the medieval gibbet and gallows and, in more recent times, to the Strange Fruit hanging from the Southern poplar trees, in Billie Holliday's tragic lament for the African American. Each time, it is a sacrifice for the freedom of a greater humanity, as Odin sacrificed himself on Ygdrassil, the great World Tree (an ash) of Norse mythology.

The tree has also been appropriated by revolutionaries seeking a more concrete form of liberation than Adam and Eve, whose curiosity was theoretical. In 1765, beneath an elm tree that stood close to Boston Harbor, a group of radicals calling themselves the 'Sons of Liberty' congregated to demonstrate their hatred of British tax laws. They hanged an effigy of a British government representative from the branches of this tree, and their ironic inversion of the gallows as a symbol of death into an icon of freedom stuck when they nailed a sign to it: 'The Tree of Liberty'. In 1787, in a Paris simmering with insurrectionist tension, Thomas Jefferson wrote that 'The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.' And so sacrifice and ultimate freedom, the grim twin sides of knowledge, are combined in the tree. Liberty elms were planted in many communes across France, and in American towns. For Scots poet Robert Burns, tapping into this idealistic sentiment in his own Tree of Liberty, such freedoms were not yet to be found in the country buttressed by the wooden walls of its navy ...

Let Britain boast her hardy oak, Her poplar and her pine, man, Auld Britain ance could crack her joke, And o'er her neighbours shine, man. But seek the forest round and round, And soon 'twill be agreed, man, That sic a tree can not be found 'Twixt London and the Tweed, man.

In a James Gillray cartoon of 1798, Satan — a serpent in the guise of Whig Opposition leader Charles James Fox — tempts John Bull, the honest soul of England, with luscious fruit bearing the labels 'slavery', 'treason', 'atheism', 'plunder' and so on, growing from branches inscribed with the 'Rights of Man' and 'Profligacy', which sprout from a withered, stunted trunk of Opposition. The marvellous ironies of James Ward's portrait of An Ancient Oak are lost here beneath suffocating polemic. The roots are 'Envy', 'Ambition' and 'Disappointment'. But loyal John Bull already has his pockets bulging with juicy pippins, the fruits of honest labour. In the background stands a noble royal oak (a reference to Charles II) with a trunk labelled 'Justice'; its roots are 'Commons', 'Lords and King', its fruits 'happiness' and 'freedom'.

The metaphor stuck. During the Great Reform debate of the early 1830s, a cartoon entitled The Reformers' Attack on the Old Rotten Tree took an easy swipe at the notorious 'rotten boroughs', whose electors were and had always been ludicrously unrepresentative of the population as a whole. (Old Sarum in Wiltshire, for example, returned two members to Parliament; but the constituency was home to no humans at all, only cows and sheep, it being the long-abandoned remnants of an Iron Age hillfort.) In the etching, the king and his cronies sit on Constitution Hill, looking down on the Reformers — a motley collection of Whigs, Unionists and general rabble-rousers — taking their axes to the tree, while on the opposite side stand the conservative supporters of the status quo: the Duke of Wellington, Robert Peel and the like. That political tree was cut down in 1832, when the Great Reform Bill offered the promise of a reformed Parliament, an end to corruption and a much-expanded electorate; but a sapling grew in its place which looked very like it.


We do not plant trees for ourselves, but for the generation after next. In Sir Walter Scott's novel The Heart of Midlothian, the Laird o' Dumbiedykes advises his son: 'Jock, when ye hae naething else to do, ye may be aye sticking in a tree; it will be growing, Jock, when ye're sleeping.' It is a matter of the greatest satisfaction to find that trees grow even when I am not looking at them.


Excerpted from The Wisdom of Trees by Max Adams. Copyright © 2014 Max Adams. Excerpted by permission of Head of Zeus Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Welcome Page,
Prologue The wisdom of trees,
1 Thinking about trees,
2 Ingenious trees,
3 Offspring,
4 Trees at war,
5 Trees in company,
6 Innovation,
7 The Wood Age,
8 Engineers,
9 The Charcoal Age,
10 Architects,
11 Tree pasts,
12 Tree futures,
Epilogue Woodlanders,
About this Book,
About the Author,
Also by this Author,
An Invitation from the Publisher,

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