Wednesday, August 24, 2011

`The Architectural Climax of Evolution'

Before we married I wrote a poem to my wife in which I likened her to a beech tree. The gesture was more romantic than it sounds. My wife was formerly a Canadian citizen, the fifth generation of her family born in Peru. They migrated north, like Fagus grandifolia, the American beech, which paleobotanists tell us was a South and Central American native millennia ago. The bark of the beech is smooth and often blemish-free, and irresistible to writers, including Daniel Boone: “D. Boon killed a bar [bear] in year 1760.”

In Beechcombings: The Narratives of Trees (Chatto & Windus, 2007), the English naturalist Richard Mabey gives a memorable account of scribblings on the 350-year-old “Queen Beech” in Hertfordshire:

“One storey up there are mosquito pools in forks, old woodpecker holes, generations of graffiti. Some of the scratchings are in implausible positions: the higher you carve your message, the code reads, the more impressive your feelings. With my binoculars I can just make out some of the inscriptions. The names and homesick addresses of American servicemen stationed nearby during the Second World War. The linked pledges of sweethearts from the outbreak of the First. The copperplate initials of Victorian schoolboys, now stretched beyond deciphering. The letters `S.A.’ many times. A heart. A rose. Not really tree-abuse, as it’s so often reckoned, nor always a compulsion to leave one’s mark on the world. More, I think, the result of the world’s leaving a mark on you. No one encounters trees like this without some kind of conversation taking place, an exchange that deserves a memento. Beech-scribbling goes back to classical times, and has its own Latin epigram: Crescent illae, crescit amores. `As these letters grow so will our love.’”

Tree trunk as palimpsest, living manuscript, poor-man’s diary, arboreal social media. These are lovely thoughts, and for Mabey they signify our ancient intimacy with trees. Several weeks ago, talking on the phone with my brother, I described to him in detail the woods behind our childhood house, circa 1960, a virtual tour of a lost world. Both of us remembered the poplar grove (later decimated with an axe by a kid surnamed Forrester), the elms (blight-killed a half-century ago), wild cherries (gone), tulip trees, hawthorns, locusts, ash and crab apples. Most are erased, of course, with softwoods replaced by hardier species and fields filled in with softwoods and scrub. That’s one of Mabey’s themes – unceasing woodland evolution, despite our association of big trees with permanence.

This is the first of Mabey’s books I’ve read. His prose is sumptuous, not purple. He’s neither nature mystic nor dust-dry academic, and he punningly describes Thoreau as “the most grounded of the Transcendentalists.” The writer he strongly recalls is another Englishman, J.A. Baker, author of Peregrine, but he’s less poet and more scientist than Baker. It’s tempting to share the wealth and quote Mabey at length:

“Trees are the architectural climax of evolution, scaffolding for the rest of terrestrial life. Many widely different plant families – palms, club-mosses, buglosses – have produced them. If you were trying to devise a plant form that had the same strength and durability as rock, it would be the trunk of a tree. In their maturity, not quite like any other living thing, they become increasingly complex, vast elaborations in three dimensions. As their branching becomes more intricate, so do the niches formed among the branches. A full-grown tree is a catacomb of reticulations, rot-holes, snags, fissures. Even the twigs develop architectural layers – flakes of bark, small bosses where smaller twigs have broken off, velvet sheens of moss. It’s impossible to measure the area of a tree’s surface exactly. It’s what mathematicians call a `fractal’ quantity, one that increases indefinitely the closer you examine it.”

Mabey puts his epigraph at the end of Beechcombings -- the first four lines of “A Modest Love” by Sir Edward Dyer (1543-1607), friend to Philip Sidney and Fulke Greville:

“The lowest trees have tops, the ant her gall,
The fly her spleen, the little sparks their heat;
The slender hairs cast shadows, though but small,
And bees have stings, although they be not great.”

[Dyer’s best-known poem is “My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is.”]

No comments: