New Trees Posted on 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.

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