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The Joy of Trees

Over a decade ago I wrote an article called Consider the Tree.

It amused my wife, Julie—a landscape painter—as I couldn’t tell the difference between a copper beech and a sandy one! But my article wasn’t on the trees themselves. It dealt with what trees actually produce.

And when you think about it trees do give us so much.

They give us houses, furniture, sheds, doors, cricket bats, toys, boats and ships—the latter till the early twentieth century. Back then they supplied the world’s nations with ships.  The New World could never have been discovered without trees and the Americas would have developed differently.

So without trees the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Normans and Danes couldn’t have made us Brits what we now are. They’d have been arriving here in the late nineteenth century!

Trees give us food, milk (from coconuts), keep animals and insects alive, give the birds homes and—as the lungs of the earth—they purify our air. They even protect us from wind and act as hedgerows. The list is never ending.

To discover the kinds of furniture made from different woods is an interesting enterprise in itself. Julie and I had a stint in the antiques business and were forever fascinated by the expertise of dealers who at a glance could name the woods of pieces. They could look at marquetry and parquetry and instantly name every minute piece of wood.

The point of my article was to remind us of what we owe to the trees. I had never given them much thought other than enjoy the sheer beauty of them swaying in the wind or as the sunlight flooded their leaves.

After writing my piece, I listened to a documentary as Scots artist James McIntosh Patrick talked of trees. He explained his excitement from observing their detail as he painted these natural wonders. He found it mysterious how they could grow so high without toppling over.

Come to think of it, how do they confront strong winds in spite of their relatively slender loftiness? It all got me thinking.

As I’ve lived most of my adult life around trees—mainly in the Perthshire countryside—I wanted to find out how to identify types of trees individually. As a frequent visitor to Spain and Italy, and having spent three months in South Carolina, I fell in love with palm trees. I wanted to find out more about them. But as confirmed procrastinator, I never got round to it. Besides, I had other fish to fry—or leaves to spy!

I learnt to tell a deciduous tree from an evergreen but only vaguely. In this life things are never simple! This is especially so on finding that not all evergreens are conifers. Some evergreens are wide-leafed as in the holly. Also some leaves of trees look remarkably like others.

I always thought oak leaves were pretty much the same till I discovered that the turkey, cork and holm oaks have leaves that look nothing like oak leaves. And, if you ask me, the red oak’s leaf looks very iffy. But the field maple’s leaf looks much like an oak leaf to me. And I know that the maple is a kind of sycamore but—maybe it’s just me—plane trees’ leaves look pretty much like sycamore to me.

As if that isn’t bad enough, lime trees’ leaves look like those of the English elm.

It also came as a bit of a shock to me, I can tell you, that those limes we find in the supermarket don’t come from the lime trees neither—leastways not the lime trees that I have growing near to me.

The other thing I’m working on identifying at the moment is tree barks. I’m still learning to identify them. You could say many trees’ barks are worse than their height when it comes to identifying them.

My brother-in-law is pretty good at identifying trees. He’s one of those folk who can give you the Latin names as well as the common ones and tell you their genera into the bargain. Give him the common name and he’ll spit back the Latin one and vice versa.  As a common man I’m happy to make do with the common names.

I fancied that kind of knowledge when I portrayed myself as a young intellectual. I could quote James Joyce and his “Laburnum’s tendrils trail.” Few people were impressed as no-one knew what I was on about. Yet, I had the temerity to pretend I knew what Joyce was on about.


My problem—and probably that of others—is finding a book which will explain trees for laymen. I’d like to see a book called Trees for Dummies or A Complete Idiot’s Guide to Trees. Maybe experts can think back to when they knew nothing about trees and then each can write a book taking it from there.

Perhaps I should start one as a novice, writing one as I go along learning! Actually, the trick I’ve learned is not to try to memorized too many at once. Start off by homing in on one tree per day and don’t move on till you’ve studied everything about it. I wrote an e-book on grammar, and another on punctuation, using a similar technique (and which is doing very nicely, thank you, on Kindle). That way, the more time you dedicate to thinking about it the quicker you can move on to the next.

As it works with correcting bad grammar why shouldn’t it work learning about trees?

Once you’ve cracked the memorising, you end up knowing how to use the technique. Then it gets to the point that you learn quicker and it gets to identifying two trees a day then three then more and more.

I’ve just thought about using the technique with trees today. So I’ll let you know how I’m doing.

And my last complaint about books on trees is the illustrations. No matter how excellent the illustrator is, their interpretations of the trees can add to the confusion.

As learners have enough problems with subtle differences of various trees’ leaves, it’s more difficult for them where a leaf should look glossy and doesn’t. The same goes vice-versa. That can be more to do with the printing of the illustrations than the artist’s ability.

Moans over!

Over a year ago, Julie and I moved to the Angus side of Perthshire. So we’re now living right on the edge of a wood.  It’s nearby to other ones separated between sloping fields from where you get views right across the Tay valley.

So it’s delightful to walk through forestry where beeches surround Douglas firs and sequoias—bringing back childhood memories of leafing through my dad’s National Geographic at the General Sherman and the Chandelier people drove cars through—reminding me I’m in Scotland. There’s something intrinsically Caledonian about conifers. Just don’t ask me why.

I’m also cheered to remember I’ll soon be picking elderflowers for Julie’s home-made wine.


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