In stories, we always want to know what happens to the main characters in which we’re invested. We want to know what became of them. The same could be true of great tree characters. What might be the destiny of a tree? How might their story end?
While the idea of felling trees for timber nowadays is less palatable given what we know about how necessary they are for life on earth to continue, back when the planet’s fate was less known and trees were more abundant, perhaps, we might imagine trees wondering when they were young and in service to humans, what they might become when they grew up?
What might their destiny be as individual trees?
To become a book filled with great wisdom or a chair and table for families to sit on and eat from or, maybe they’d be turned into a great ship to sail the seas and travel the globe?
Perhaps that would be the ultimate achievement for a sapling tree, that one day they might sail across the world as part of the King’s ship?
For some trees that ‘dream’ came true – indeed, in 1512 the oak from 600 mature oak trees became Henry VIII flagship, the Mary Rose. Built in Portsmouth from Bere Forest and Wealden Forest oaks, the ship sailed the seas for 34 years.
These days, the thought of felling so many hectares of majestic mature oak trees is quite unbearable as we know how important it is to protect what ancient woodland we have left. We now know enough about the importance of trees and old growth to have found sustainable alternatives to some wooden products, but we also know that sustainable forestry is an important part of a balanced relationship between trees as providers of timber and trees as providers of air and carbon storage (although that hasn’t stopped great oaks being felled in the name of progress – I’m looking at you HS2 Rail Link!)
Back in the 14th century, however, before timber was replaced with steel and glass fibre in shipbuilding yards, we didn’t know what we didn’t know and a great many oaks were felled to fight enemies on land and sea, via bows and arrows and via ships.
Hence the narrative arc of the oaks which made the Mary Rose peaked in various battles but sadly ended not with conflict resolution but with devastation, as the Mary Rose sank in 1545 with 500 crew on board, perishing during the Battle of the Solent against the French.
The warship lay still on the bed of the Solent for 437 years until, one day in 1982 I sat in front of the TV news in awe witnessing the historical ship being raised from the sea bed. She has since been preserved in a Portsmouth Museum. Perhaps those trees who ‘dreamt’ of sailing the seas would be glad to know that hundreds of years later many a schoolchild now hears their story and marvels at what they became, sharing their tale with their own children in years to come?
Something no tree sapling would expect to come when they grew up is an almighty hand pointing skyward. Yet that is what became of the remnants of the UK’s joint tallest tree in Lake Vyrnwy Estate, Powys when, after being felled following storm damage, the remaining 50ft stump was carved into a giant 7ft hand by chainsaw artist Simon O’Rourke.
The already impressive Douglas Fir had lived to the ripe old age of 124 years and reached 209 ft before the storm and subsequent felling. The Forestry Commision commissioned The Giant Hand of Vyrnwy as a memorial to the tree which Simon says is the trees “last attempt to reach the sky.”
Historical Links to Present Day
We may not have great sculptures carved out of trees in our local vicinity, but all around us there are references paying homage to the trees which served us and royalty.
For example, the abundance of Royal Oak pubs throughout Britain commemorates the story of The Boscobel Oak where King Charles II took refuge from the Governmental forces following the Battle of Worcester in 1651. Nine years later, having escaped to France and returned, those pledging allegiance to the King wore sprigs of oak and 29th May, the day he arrived back in London, is known as Royal Oak or Oak Apple Day.
My own local Royal Oak is one of the oldest pubs in Britain, having stood in Winchester since 1002.Some trees become books. Indeed, the books we read, including the one you know have in your hands, come from sustainably sourced trees especially grown to be turned into paper pulp. But what is relatively unknown is that the word ‘book’ comes from the word ‘Beech’, or the word ‘Beech’ comes from the word ‘book,’ depending on which way you look at it.
Either way, the name of the beech tree derives from the Anglo Saxon ‘boc’, ‘bece’ or ‘beoce’ or early German ‘buche’. And the earliest books were either made from vellum ‘leaves’ which were bound together between beechen boards or made from inscribed tablets of beechwood.
The stories we read are written on trees and trees stories weave their way into the stories of our lives in so many ways.