Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Book Review

Beechcombings by Richard Mabey, Vintage Books, Paperback ed. 2008 (ISBN 9781844139200), 289 pp, £8.99

If you have any interest at all in the British countryside and its wildlife then Richard Mabey’s books are essential reading. And if you’re interested in trees, and are confused by the plethora of books available on that subject, this present title is an excellent place to start.
Mabey’s books are always full of interesting information and thought-provoking concepts – and this recent title is no exception. Another characteristic of all his books is their personal quality – he never hesitates to tell us what he feels about the subjects that he observes and researches so thoroughly. If I may be allowed a personal note of my own, it is that Mabey has probably influenced the way that I see the world more than any other writer (and I have been reading him for more than half my life now). He has also directed me towards several other interesting writers. For example he alerted me to the importance of the 19th century labourer poet, John Clare whose native village of Helpston is within 10 miles of where I grew up in Peterborough (fittingly, Mabey is now the Patron of the John Clare Society). He also introduced me to the writings of that remarkable student of the British landscape, Oliver Rackham.
Mabey grew up in Berkhamsted in the Chilterns (you can see the remains of Berkhamsted’s Norman keep from the Manchester to Euston train). Beeches and beech woods are a feature of the Chilterns and hence Mabey has chosen to make the beech the focus of this book because, he tells us, “it has been the key tree in my own life.” Beeches are only native to certain parts of Southern Britain; we do have some fine examples in the Mersey Valley (e.g. at Jackson’s Boat and Ford Lane in Didsbury) but these were probably planted in the last 100 years or so.
Through a series of “discursive essays” , with the ‘beech focus’ described above, Mabey tells us of the history of trees in post-Ice Age Britain, the mythical ‘timber crisis’ during the naval wars of the 17th and 18th centuries and the subsequent invention of the plantation, tree-planting on great estates and its contribution to the social status of the estates' owners, the various explorations of natural beauty undertaken during the 18th century Enlightenment, the endless struggles between the forces of ‘development’ and ‘conservation’ which raged through the 19th and 20th centuries and continue on into the 21st century and the modern ecological view of trees and their role(s).
In a particularly interesting and illuminating passage Mabey identifies the ‘Great Storm’ of October 1987, which swept through southern England and laid flat 15 million trees, as a defining moment in our relationship with trees. Apparently ‘healthy’ (often planted) trees blew down whilst old, contorted ‘diseased’ veterans remained unscathed; and the subsequent ‘tidying-up’ of the aftermath of this remarkable event often did more damage than the storm itself. In subsequent years Nature showed remarkable powers of recovery and many wooded landscapes were given a new lease of life as a result of being thinned out.
For me the most depressing aspect of this text is the confirmation of my suspicions that many people remain remarkably ignorant about trees and continue to misunderstand and mythologise them. After the 1987 event the Tree Council (no less!) released the following press statement: “Trees are at great danger from nature.” Mabey describes this as an “extraordinary solecism” - which is a very polite way of putting it! He also tells us that when he shows someone an ancient tree or wood the question that he is most often asked is, “when was it planted ?” - as if, “The idea that trees have successful reproductive systems of their own seems to have passed out of the popular imagination.”
We live at a time in which the biodiversity of our country and of the world is under threat as never before. This threat cannot possibly be reduced if we do not understand the things that we are supposed to be protecting. This fine book should give everyone who reads it a better understanding of trees and our relationship to them.

Dave Bishop, January 2009

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