New Trees

January 3, 2010

The great joy of the reading season is meeting people of like mind who have dedicated their thoughts, sometimes for whole lifetimes, to subjects that obsess you, too. There is a style of thinking and writing, focussed but unhurried, that you find in works of what I call field scholarship.

Having observed, read, travelled and thought, the writer has no intention of skipping any detailed information. Having mastered it, though, he or she can recount it as a story in a personal voice.

It is a style I associate with the New Yorker, in those sometimes improbably long pieces on seemingly inconsequential subjects. British magazines rarely dedicate the space. Do they not trust us to calm down and pay attention? It is the peculiar pleasure of little private magazines like Hortus to gather the family round, as it were, for a good story leaving out none of the details.

I catch glimpses of bloggers these days, as I trawl the web, indulging their studies and their passions without inhibition. The sum total of the plant-centred web, indeed, is massive and no doubt worth hours of exploration. It can’t compare, though, with the warm and fertile mind of a good author in full cry.

At the moment it is John Grimshaw I am enjoying, in his New Trees, a worthy successor to a long series of deep books on my favourite subject. It starts with John Evelyn’s Silva, the first paper ‘read’ to the newly-formed Royal Society, on October 15th, 1662, in response to ‘certain quaeries propounded to the illustrious assembly by the honourable the Principal Officers and Commissioners of the Navy. Rarely can quaeries have had such a resounding answer (or the bonus of an Historical Account of the Sacredness and Use of Standing Groves.)

I possess an edition edited by John Hunter and annotated by A. Hunter, M.D., published in York in 1776 with a list of some 700 subscribers. The additional notes make it a compendium of the advancing knowledge of trees between the Restoration and the Age of Enlightenment – Diderot’s Encyclopedia was finished at the same time. Some of Evelyn’s observations seemed quaint, no doubt, by Hunter’s time. Now they seem to overflow with excitement and experience. He nips from Pliny to pruning tips, from weeding to Vitruvius, from friends to fables, sometimes in a single paragraph.

He describes trees in vivid phrases and their cultivation in earthy detail, founding, it seems to me, a school of writing that continues, through many forester’s manuals and such horticultural compendia as Loudon’s Arboretum at Fructicetum Britannicum (I have the abridged edition of 1842, shortened to 1162 pages), to the seven great volumes of Elwes and Henry.

Henry John Elwes and Augustine Henry set out to give a complete account to all the trees which grow naturally or are cultivated in Great Britain. Trees, that is, that reach timber size. It took them seven volumes. ‘We have the special qualification’, they wrote in their introduction, ‘that we have seen with our own eyes and studied on the spot, both at home and abroad, most of the trees which will be included in this book’. Not only did they visit every notable park, arboretum and forest in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (up to that time little studied); they travelled to see the trees ‘of every country in Europe, of nearly all the States of North America, of Canada, Japan, China, Western Siberia and Chile’.

Elwes and Henry, as a result, seem to hover over and dart about the tree world like Puck. In one paragraph they combine first-hand observations and measurements of trees in Oxford and Yunnan, or Idaho and Hokkaido. Their reading and acquaintance allows them to speak on every scientific and aesthetic aspect of their subjects, to cite records, letters and catalogues, to recall individual plantings, successful or failed, and to report on the health of specimens thousands of miles away. They also took photographs, with immense pains, and sometimes on several visits, to record hundreds of the best specimens – an undertaking never yet repeated (except in a small way, perhaps, by Thomas Pakenham for his Meetings with Remarkable Trees).

As a catalogue Elwes and Henry, published in 1907, was rapidly succeeded by Bean. It is Bean’s Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles which has stood unchallenged as the standard work since 1914. Bean was Kew-based. He was shown the proofs of Elwes and Henry but had a wider remit: all the woody plants that we can cultivate, after the example of Loudon.

Bean has remained incomparable but grown increasingly out of date. The last revision was started in 1970 and completed in 1980. Desmond Clarke, its editor, produced a supplement in 1988. Meanwhile plant introductions were arriving at a pace not seen since Edwardian times. The number of recognized species of oaks alone, to take one example, has almost doubled during this period. Enter the International Dendrology Society, and enter John Grimshaw, a scholarly botanist, a galanthophile if you please, who works for J H Elwes’s great grandson on the family estate at Colesbourne. . It was Giles Coode-Adams, as chairman of the Scientific Committee of the I.D.S, who determined that a new work was needed and found Grimshaw for the work. Like Bean, it was to be Kew-based.

Compilers of such books today have resources their forebears did not dream of. The greatest, of course, is access to and friendship with experts and explorers round the world. It still needs, however, a writer with a personal grasp of what is important, what to emphasize and how to make it interesting, to make a reference book come alive. I am enjoying New Trees because the chemistry works. John, with Ross Bayton, who wrote the botanical descriptions, and Hazel Wilks who did the beautiful drawings, has written a book in the Silva tradition, engaged and engaging, cheerful even. Best news of all, he is helping me update my own modest contribution to the genre, published in 1973, to offer you later this year.

Happy Christmas

December 21, 2009

The garden has been hidden by snow now for as long as I can remember in recent years. There is still snow frozen to the highest branches of tall trees. The only tree seriously damaged so far is, of course, one of my rarest, Quercus x warburgii, the semi-evergreen

‘Cambridge’ oak, wonderful in spring with its red emerging leaves and red catkins. It pulled down the too-pliant stem and snapped it three feet from the ground.

I leave the robin admiring himself in a mirror I have just hung on the woodshed wall, to travel to Switzerland for a white Christmas, and wish all my readers a happy one, and a happy new year.

Headlong Hall

December 16, 2009

Is there a difference between a glimpse and a glance? Or between a view and a vista? It is the sort of question I would have liked to put to the amiable philosophers who assembled for Christmas in 1814 or thereabouts at Headlong Hall in Wales. If Thomas Love Peacock was not part of your education, and if you have a taste for argument and a weakness for Wodehouse, or if you have just forgotten how he made you laugh, take Headlong Hall to bed with you.

The chapter that gardeners remember best begins thus: ‘I perceive’, said Mr Milestone, after they had walked a few paces, ‘these grounds have never been touched by the finger of taste’.

They begin to discuss the difference between the picturesque and the beautiful, Mr Milestone being an eminent landscaper of the picturesque persuasion. Mr Gall, the literary critic, joins in. ‘I distinguish’, says Mr Gall, ‘the picturesque and the beautiful, and I add to them, in the laying out of grounds, a third and distinct character, which I call unexpectedness’.

‘Pray, sir’, says Mr Milestone, ‘by what name do you distinguish this character, when a person walks round the grounds for the second time?’

Can you repeat a surprise? The question is central to the way we look at gardens. There is a difference between a glimpse and a glance – and it lies in the brain of the looker as much as the design of the gardener. A glimpse is a view frustrated; the inference is that you would have liked to have seen more; a glance says that curiosity is readily satisfied; the view is worth no more than a fleeting attention. What other units of looking are there? Examination (or scrutiny) is perhaps the most intense. A peep is faintly illicit – and all the more fun for it. An outlook is limited in scope. A view is the scene full-on and a vista or a prospect a long wide-ranging view. A panorama is the view from a height.

These may be a designer’s building blocks, but they don’t constitute a design. Where the designer’s intentions become clear is in the passage from one to another – the state of transition. Surprise is clearly one transitional idea; the most striking, perhaps, and certainly most obvious. But there are others, that might be expressed in such words as ‘consequently’ or ‘furthermore’, or ‘nevertheless’, or even ‘besides’. There is a nevertheless moment at Sissinghurst, and a consequently one at Hidcote, to name only two familiar transitions. Mr Gall might have had much to say on the subject, had not the Picturesque and the Beautiful, those unprofitable abstractions, monopolized the conversation.

A grubby business

December 9, 2009

The croquet lawn

The green woodpecker is on the lawn outside the window, immaculate in his army fatigues and red beret, concentrating hard on something tasty under the grass. I hope he hasn’t found chafer grubs. I had a nasty start last week in Cambridge when I saw the croquet lawn at King’s looking as though wild boars had been at it. The culprits in fact are crows. There is a serious infestation of chafer grubs in lawns along the Backs. The light soil and well-mown turf seem to give them just what they want. The crows find them, and peel back the turf to eat them. It is an emergency – if not quite a national one – and there is no quick cure.

There is a chemical treatment available, but you have to wait till spring, or even next summer, when the young grubs come up from their winter quarters. It also costs several thousand pounds, and has to be repeated each summer for three years.

Cambridge’s gardeners are deeply troubled; but not, I imagine, as troubled as the green keepers of golf-courses that become unplayable.

The old money argument

December 7, 2009

I’m a little confused, I confess, about what measurements are or are not legal tender in this country now. I am told by our local authority that I live 9 kilometres (or worse, ‘9K’) from our nearest town. It has been six miles throughout history: has there been an Act of Parliament to change it, or is it just the itch to modernize on the part of our public servants?

I suppose it doesn’t really matter much, and we shall scrub along with old and new together for many years to come. It does matter, though, at least to me, in my writing. Compose a readable sentence involving two measurement systems if you can; the brackets round the alternatives are always ugly and intrusive, interrupt the rhythm and confuse the sense.

The moment has come to decide which system, Imperial or metric, to use in the book I am writing: a new edition of my old International Book of Trees. (Very old: it was born in 1973.) My publisher naturally would like to go metric. I demur, on the basis that a metre is too big a unit to visualize with any accuracy, and a millimetre far too small. I see nothing wrong with a centimetre, but no advantage, either, over an inch.

The test is (or should be) how usable your measures are in practice, which depends on the scale of what you are measuring. A shrub which is four feet high, let’s say, is much less graphically described as 1200 millimetres, or 1.2 metres. You wear a foot, in case of doubt, on the end of each leg for ready reference, and your forearm is eighteen inches, or a foot and a half, long, more or less. You rarely need a tape-measure in an antique shop: old furniture is nearly always either one, two or three forearms (or cubits) wide.

Do bigger objects need bigger measures? A tree one hundred feet high is 30.48 metres – or call it 30 for tidiness. (Which is more important, a figure you can remember or one that is accurate to two decimal points?). Which sounds more interesting, as though it had reached a rather splendid height? It depends, I suppose, on where you were born and educated, but if you have a metric heart you have to be either very excitable (Great Scot! Thirty metres!) or very patient. Weather forecasters, you will have noticed, rarely forebear to mention when the temperature nears 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Do you detect me deciding on the old money solution? I don’t expect to get an easy ride.

An iron law

December 4, 2009

One should never underestimate the power of an average. Cunning things they are, and patient, sometimes lurking for months or years, dawdling in the wings, before striding out to assert themselves and even the score.

Our rainfall this year, for example. At the end of October we were four inches below the figure for the first ten months of the past five years. So it tipped in November, with five inches of rain, setting December the easy task of making up the precise annual average figure. Q.E.D.

Slow motion

November 23, 2009

Quince, russet, olive, orange, squirrel, hazel, cashew, lemon, tawny, bay …….. What do I see on my daily walks that is turning all these colours, gradually and deliberately as this slow-motion season creeps along? Has there ever been a more gradual year? Spring started early, fattened, blossomed and ripened imperceptibly into summer. Summer took its time, dawdling from a fleetingly flaming June through idle dog days to a temperate September. Autumn made no fuss, kindling a bush here and a tree there while the borders grew plump and mellow and glistened with dew. Still in mid-November there has been no frost and two days of gales have still not stripped the trees.

The answer to my question is oaks, of course. There is no consensus among them. Most species of most plants are unanimous about their autumn colouring. Our most majestic tree, the most beautiful plant we grow, the emblem of our countryside, grows wilful as winter comes. It rages against the dying of the light. Oaks would be evergreen if they could, you feel. A few are, and some in this mild climate give it their best shot, hanging on to their leaves until March gales. Do we see an echo of this behaviour in their botanical cousins, the beeches, keeping their bright brown leaves all winter? These are no evergreen beeches (except of course among their southern-hemisphere relations, the nothofagi). But perhaps evergreenness, or reluctance to let go, is unconnected with botanical identity.

It has been nine months since the thermometer on the wall fell below freezing point. 280 days of almost absurdly temperate weather. If there has been stress in this tranquil time for plants it has been for lack of water. At the end of November we are four inches short of the year’s total rainfall at the same time last year and the year before. I am daily reminded of it by the fact that there is no water in my view: I have to go upstairs to see the duckpond.

Soft Focus

November 20, 2009

The corollary of such gradual seasons is that the garden becomes too familiar. Morning after morning I draw the curtains on the same static state; flowers the same as yesterday and the day before, leaves ditto, or perhaps one or two more going yellow. I am not enamoured of rapid and violent change: I would hate New England’s two-day springs. But being lulled like this is not good for your focus. It de-energizes your vision. ‘What’s the urgency?’ you ask yourself when nature is idling in neutral.

Now the ground is too wet for working. I can tiptoe to the back of the border to prune plants on the wall, but they are certainly not asking for it, except where the wind has loosened a long spray of a well-armed rose to lash out at its neighbours. The time is ripe, on the other hand, for a good hard look at present imperfections and possible alterations. Christopher Lloyd and Fergus Garrett used to spend an hour a day, Fergus says, discussing the garden yard by yard, bandying alternatives and deciding on changes. Leaving well alone is of course one of the alternatives – but not just because you have lost focus.

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