Books - The Oak Papers

After the breakdown of a relationship, James Canton began to visit an ancient oak tree near to his home in Essex – the 800-year-old Honywood Oak. Spending time with the oak in the Marks Hall Estate, witnessing its changes over the changing seasons, Canton’s distress eased. More than that, he experienced a profound sense of peace, simply by being close to the tree.

He says: “At first, it was a matter of simply going and sitting beside the tree and observing. That essential process was vital to seeing and hearing and learning of the wider ecosystem of the oak, the myriad of creatures which live within the realm of the world that an ancient oak tree provides for thousands of bees, birds, insects and other living beings. I learnt that it is by being still that the natural world comes to us. If you go to a natural place and sit and stay still and listen and watch then you will learn so much of the world around you.”

Canton decided to look deeper at the history of oak trees, their symbolism and relevance in history, poetry and myth. He visited tree curators, artists and woodmen, and reread writers, poets and philosophers equally transfixed by the oak: “Whereas we human are creatures of movement, oaks are static beings. They do not shift. They are born and die on the same patch of earth. It is that surefootedness that is so appealing.”

In the 1950s, three hundred ancient oaks in the estate were felled for their timber. The Honywood was the sole survivor to remain intact. For Canton, “[t]o lose any single ancient tree is to lose an entire woodland community.” On his visits, Canton describes the rhythms and routine of nature in action all around him. He describes the songs of various birds, the caterpillars who feed on the leaves and the insects that live in the heart rot at the very centre of aged oaks. He relishes the moments he has with wild life, when he encounters an owl, a hare, deer or a heron: “In any such moments of connection with a creature of the natural world there is a sense of time stalling, of the second hand being halted…We stay a while, transfixed by the presence of each other…”

Each oak tree is unique. “There’s something beautiful in that truth.” he says. “It’s obvious but it changes the way you view trees. You give them respect. You no longer think it’s ok to just cut one down, especially if it’s lived on the same patch of soil for hundreds of years.” I ask about  the ‘wood wide web.’ He says: “The truth is that trees communicate with each other. They do so through their root systems, through the microscopic fungal growths on their roots such that they can pass on information or even nutrients from tree to tree. If one oak is being attacked by, say, a swarm or caterpillars, it can pass the message on through these mitochondrial growths on the roots to other trees telling them to raise their tannin levels.”

When I ask about local oaks Canton observes: ‘There are many fine oak trees in North London. Of course, there’s the Gospel Oak – the area was named after a remarkable oak tree where many famous preachers and their congregation would gather including John Wesley. That oak has now sadly gone but there are some oaks locally which I know need help – over in Queens Wood where they are being protected by a hardy band against the actions of an insurance company threatening their existence. The petition is on

Canton is also interested in the ways we can each become involved in rewilding. ‘Whether it might be only cutting a section of a garden lawn or pressurising councils to leave wild spaces in parkland, the impact on the environment can be recognisable such as in the presence of more butterflies or moths. It can be a wonderfully liberating thing to see wildlife flourish thanks to the impact of simple changes through rewilding. Opening up spaces such as front gardens to the natural world can make a real difference to local ecologies and enable creatures to thrive.’

The Oak Papers celebrates nature and the calming balm of our ancient trees – it’s an inspirational book for our times. 

Originally published by Camden New Journal