Things of Nature

The study and contemplation of nature is surely one of the sovereign balms of human existence, and two superb new books offer essential pleasures and benefits in spades.

In The Long, Long Life of Trees, Fiona Stafford, while exhibiting rigor and precision in her depiction of these essential (and beautiful and inspiring) entities, ventures far beyond simple textbook facts and into the realms of myth, legend, history, and folklore, completing the circle from science to culture. In lyrical, impressionistic prose, which does not lack gravitas, she weaves trees into the daily lives of humans.

It opens with “Buds, Bark and a Golden Bough,” her essay on the importance of trees to society—both in a utilitarian and in a soulful manner—and to her own life. And we learn from the start that Stafford can take a personal anecdote—the pine cone on her desk and its holiday origins—and expand the example into a multiplex net of sophisticated and primeval associations. Each of her subsequent chapters focuses on one type of tree, and it’s instructive to name them all to demonstrate Stafford’s expansive remit: yew, cherry, rowan, olive, cypress, oak, ash, poplar, holly, sycamore, birch, horse chestnut, elm, willow, hawthorn, pine, apple.

Of course, tree aficionados will lament the omission of their favorite. (I would like to read her on the ginkgo, whose messy fallen fruits crush so satisfyingly underfoot in the autumn.) But Stafford offers so much of interest, on every page, that even the offended will relent. She combines sharp taxonomic, pictorial, and biological details with references to the tree’s significance in art, religion, medicine, technology, gastronomy, romance, literature, agriculture, warfare, and other facets of human exist­ence. Here she is, in science mode, on the olive.

Fossilised olive pollen in the cauldron of the volcanic Greek island of Santorini suggests that olive trees were growing [in the Mediterranean] some 40,000 years ago, though the ancestors of the domesticated olive(Olea europaea) may have originated in Mesopotamia. Olive trees are slow growers, but once established in suitable situations, they just keep on going .  .  . thriving in temperatures of 40 degrees and above. From Spain to Syria, from Turkey to Tunisia, olive groves stud the dusty slopes with silver-green.

In every chapter—all illustrated by a wide spectrum of artists—Stafford teases out the roles that her various specimens have played in the hearts, minds—and purses—of humans.

Poplars have always offered an easily renewable source of materials for joiners. The lightweight wood was right for shoe heels, clogs and wagon wheels, not to mention the bowls, trays and fruit punnets for which the wood is still in demand. The light color of the timber also made it popular for floorboards. These trees provided living poles for vines and hops, while their twigs were made into brooms and the juice of their leaves was turned into remedies for earache.

Stafford’s species become almost human in their own rights, a notion reinforced by her treatment of individually famous trees, perished or extant.

From the Bull Oak in Warwickshire, so called because of the bull that habitually reversed into the gnarled wooden cave to look out at the rain from under the clustering leaves, to the massive Cowthorpe Oak in Yorkshire, whose curved outline and hollow trunk inspired the design of the Eddystone Lighthouse, every tree had its own idiosyncrasies. The Greendale Oak at Welbeck in Nottinghamshire was large enough to accommodate a road, allowing the Duke of Portland’s carriage to pass through its trunk, as if through a triumphal arch.

While good with etymology, and even up to speed on genetic engineering and the future of trees, Stafford’s real delight lies in the arcane and startling.

By the time Nicholas Culpeper compiled his classicComplete Herbal in 1653, the link seemed incontrovertible: under his entry for the Willow Tree, he wrote, simply, “The Moon owns it.” Since bruising and boiling the leaves in wine was then recommended for the concoction of a sure-fire antidote to lust, it seems that assumptions about the tree were still being influenced by the classical associations of the moon with Diana, goddess of chastity (this may well have been at the root of all the sad, lovesick songs of disappointed swains).

Of course, trees are often home to butterflies, as we learn early on in Peter Marren’s splendid account: “Purple Emperor butterflies spend most of their lives up in the sunlit canopy of English woods, descending only to drink from puddles or to imbibe some life-enhancing substance from dog shit or roadkill. Unless you are in luck, you need binoculars to get a good view of the dark butterflies forty feet overhead.” And so we have an easy transition from Stafford’s volume to Rainbow Dust.

But beware: There will be whiplash in the transition. Whereas The Long, Long Life of Trees is almost entirely upbeat, Marren’s “attempt to write a personal ‘cultural life’ of British butterflies and to try to give a sense of their lasting appeal” is suffused with melancholy and a twilight nostalgia. The hobby that once captivated many is now more or less extinct and, worse, deemed barbaric. And butterflies themselves are under environmental stresses: “[I] fear for the future of the butterfly, but also for the barren world we are creating for ourselves,” writes Marren.

But this state of affairs does not stop Marren from recalling the joys that butterfly-collecting has brought him, and countless others, since its origins in the late 17th century. And along the path of his easygoing, even meandering, narrative we visit any number of personages, some exceedingly eccentric.

The arrangement of the chapters is charmingly serendipitous: The first three are devoted to butterflies in general, and a couple of special species, rich with personal anecdotes. Then, in “Gatekeepers: Collecting with Jean Froissart, John Fowles and Vladimir Nabokov,” we take a detour to examine societal attitudes towards butterfly-collecting through the lens of distinguished writers. And we learn about the history and conventions of butterfly naming, with revealing observations about collectors such as this one:

[Baron Charles de Worms’s] field attire was typical of many insect collectors: an old tweed jacket, a couple of tattered old pullovers and a satchel bulging with nets and boxes. When chasing the Purple Emperor he carried a pocketful of ripe blue cheese which he would spread over gateposts in hopes of luring the butterfly, notorious for its love of smelly products, down from the treetops. An earlier generation sometimes wore cork-lined top hats in the field. They were useful receptacles for pinned insects. One collector even absent-mindedly kept his bottles and boxes in his hat, only to have them spill out whenever he raised it to a lady. ¨

Paul Di Filippo writes science fiction in Providence.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard

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