An account of a meeting with an extraordinary ancient tree, the oak called ‘Majesty’.
The day of the Queen’s Speech and the State Opening of Parliament was trenchantly described by Rufus Hound thus:
If ever evidence was needed that ours is an arcane system in servitude to privilege. Ghastly.”https://twitter.com/RufusHound/status/603509038463193088
Observing this spectacle of fancy dress and ritual, in which any significance has long been lost, I thought that perhaps I might consider more authentic meanings of the word ‘majesty’, in this case, a remarkable tree near the village of Nonington in Kent that I had visited the previous weekend.
Majesty is listed on the monumental trees website as possibly the oldest maiden oak in the country (maiden oaks are trees that have not been pollarded, that is had timber removed for aesthetic or commercial purposes). So for hundreds of years, this extraordinary organism has grown on this spot with no interference to speak of from humankind. Local wisdom has it that Majesty is a thousand years old (though expert analysis has halved that age, as expert analysis is wont to do). There is evidence that the tree, also known as the King Fredville Oak, was already ancient in 1554.
Whatever the truth, Majesty is the oldest tree in an area of other remarkable ancient trees. It grows (I struggle to define gender because Majesty is beyond such a concept, though ‘it’ remains unhappily impersonal) in a hidden grove on private land, but adjacent to Fredville Park, which also boasts a partly derelict avenue of old horse chestnut and beech.
The wooded country
The curious name Fredville is equally ancient and derives either from Old French freide ville (meaning cold manor or village) or a fusion with the Old English frith or frythe. The informative Nonington website claims that in Kentish/Jute dialect frith would have been pronounced “freed”, as the TH ending would have been turned into a D sound, which means wood or wooded country. Scattered across the Fredville landscape (now grazing for sheep and cattle), are these wonderful blasted relics, amongst which are three other aged oaks, ‘Beauty’ (also called Ancient Bear), ‘Stately’ and ‘Staghorn’. These are elders: they have survived droughts, floods, insect infestations and, of course, human agency.
The lost estate
I searched for Majesty with a friend. We walked through the fields admiring the ancient trees but were unable to find Majesty itself. Asking in the local pub we discovered that Majesty was on private land but that the owner would be happy to show us the tree. Retracing our footsteps we walked down a drive marked private. It opened up into stables, with a ruined clock tower. Before long we were joined by a barking Jack Russell terrier.
As a child on holiday, I remembered having to fetch milk from the nearby farm. The farmer’s Jack Russell would harry me all the way up the lane. It would bark, growl and nip painfully at my ankles, and it was only the greater fear of returning without the milk that kept me to my task. Because of this, I was apprehensive, and it stopped me from asking questions of the elderly man who next appeared. Research suggests that this gentleman was John Plumtree, the descendant of a line of local landowners called Plumtree, or Plumptre. They were also all called John and they owned the villa that was demolished after a fire in 1945, leaving the stables, the clock tower and other buildings as the present home.
Archie Miles’ book The British Oak has this record from a party visiting in 1793:
Called on John Plumtree, Esq. of Fredville, who very politely shews us his famous oak, called Majesty – measured this tree; 4 feet from the ground the circumference is 31 feet; it is supposed to contain 36 to 42 tons of timber. Two branches separated from this tree about four years ago, in a calm day, which contained three tons of timber.
222 years after this visit from the correspondents of the Annals of Agriculture and Other Useful Arts we were also met by John Plumtree Esq. who showed us the tree with equal politeness, despite having to do so, he told us, many times every day. He continued to lead us down a path; the Jack Russell had stopped barking and was first leaping at my leg excitedly and then trotting beside us calmly, reassured of our intent. We passed a Giant Sequoia wreathed in ivy, but Mr Plumtree stopped before we entered the glade, told us that the tree was just ahead, and turned back the way he came.
Walking into the sunlight revealed Majesty in all its broken glory.
All the primary limbs have now fallen, revealing themselves (and the tree itself) to be completely hollow, but the secondary limbs were still vigorous and covered in the fresh young growth of May. Little can prepare one for the feeling that accompanies such a visit. Although we took photos, examined the branches, trunk and bark, and generally behaved as people do when visiting a tree, my felt sense was of great calm. At one point I posed for a photo sitting on part of the lower trunk but I sat down with a sense of discomfort that only now I recognise as connected to a slight violation of the sacred.
There was grandeur here, but not grandiosity. Growth and decay carried together, rather than split off as they are in our culture. ‘Majesty’ is a psychological quality, unsurprisingly, of balanced Earth: a way of being that many aspire to but few can ever hope to attain with any consistency: yet we all possess it, if only we were ready to find it. Trees such as this are exemplary: they show us the way into our own majesty.
After spending time with this venerable tree I thought some more about the symbolic qualities of the encounter, about the nature of the introduction and the qualities of the oak. First, there was the search for the tree, walking up and down and almost giving up. Then the correction and the move into private property, the sense of transgression.
The old man and the dog
The first meeting is with an animal, a dog. The dog/human bond is one of our very earliest connections, and in mythologies across the world the dog is a guide between the worlds of life and death. It can be the ‘black dog’ of depression, it can hunt and devour us, or be our loving lifelong friend and companion. This particular dog pulled me back to an uncomfortable past, it first threatened, then welcomed, then ignored me completely. Dogs are sometimes used in psychotherapy (Marie-Louise von Franz had an analytic dog) to dig in, whine, greet, and sniff out the unspoken shit. In my meeting with the Jack Russell, I was forced to dig up old bones from the past. The dog, as James Hillman put it, carries its ancestors.
Accompanying the dog was the old man, the senex, slow in movement and speech. He is an archetypal figure, a guardian both literally and figuratively of the oak glade. While in one sense he turned and left before we saw the oak because he was perhaps tired and in pain, in another, he allowed us the privilege of our own introduction with Majesty.
Oaks and myth
Then we come to the oak itself. Oaks once covered most of Europe: Julius Caesar came across Germanic tribes that had never got to the end of their hardwood forests. In England, oaks were cut down at an alarming rate to build its wooden navy. Any tree of great size was living profit. The oak embodies mysticism: its seeds, the acorns, were once our staple food before agriculture.
John Williamson tells us that the druids (from the Celtic daur meaning oak) burned oak logs at midsummer to mark the death of the Oak King of spring and the birth of the autumnal Holly King. The Norse gods made the first woman, Embla, from oak wood. The ‘philosophical tree’ of the alchemists was often a hollow oak, echoing the other common use of a hollow oak as a coffin. This was a tree sacred to the thunder god Thor/Donar. In the fairy tale recorded by the Grimms, a dark mercurial spirit of transformation is found hidden in the roots of an oak. Here is part of the story:
The Spirit in the Glass Bottle
…the son went into the woods, ate his bread, was very cheerful, and looked into the green branches to see if he could find a bird’s nest. He walked to and fro until at last he came to an enormous oak that was certainly many hundred years old, and that five men would not have been able to span. He stood there looking at it, and thought, “Many a bird must have built its nest in that tree.”Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, The Spirit in the Glass Bottle. http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm099.html
Then suddenly he thought that he heard a voice. Listening, he became aware of someone calling out with a muffled voice, “Let me out. Let me out.”
He looked around but could not see anything. Then he thought that the voice was coming out of the ground, so he shouted, “Where are you?”
The voice answered, “I am stuck down here among the oak roots. Let me out. Let me out.”
The student began to scrape about beneath the tree, searching among the roots, until at last he found a glass bottle in a little opening. Lifting it up, he held it against the light, and then saw something shaped like a frog jumping up and down inside.
“Let me out. Let me out,” it cried again, and the student, thinking no evil, pulled the cork from the bottle. Immediately a spirit ascended from it and began to grow. It grew so fast that within a few moments a horrible fellow, half as big as the tree, was standing there before the student.
“Do you know,” he cried in a terrifying voice, “what your reward is for having let me out?”
“No,” replied the student fearlessly. “How should I know that?”
“Then I will tell you,” shouted the spirit. “I must break your neck for it.”
“You should have said so sooner,” answered the student, “for then I would have left you shut up inside. However, my head is going to stay where it is until more people have been consulted.”
“More people here, more people there,” shouted the spirit. “You shall have the reward you have earned. Do you think that I was shut up there for such a long time as a favour? No, it was a punishment. I am the mighty Mercurius. I must break the neck of whomsoever releases me.”
“Calm down,” answered the student. “Not so fast. First I must know that you really were shut up in that little bottle, and that you are the right spirit. If you can indeed get inside again, then I will believe it, and you may do with me whatsoever you want.”
The spirit said arrogantly, “that is an easy trick,” pulling himself in and making himself as thin and short as he had been before. He then crept back into the opening and through the neck of the bottle. He was scarcely inside when the student pushed the cork back into the bottle, and threw it back where it had been among the oak roots. And thus the spirit was deceived.
Apparently Carl Jung made much of this story of the treasure-containing oak. John Williamson writes:
Mirroring the oak’s solidity, the self is the perduring centre that can withstand fiery outbursts of affect and psychic flooding. “Oak” transports and humbles – so perfectly is imperial nature embodied in its form.John Williamson, ‘The Oak King, the Holly King and the Unicorn’, 1986
Of particular fascination is the texture and grain of the wood once the bark has vanished. These sweeping plains, mammary outcrops and dry seas resemble photos taken from space of the desolate regions of the earth, or satellite images of planets.
There is inevitably a correlation between things if we search for it. In the image below I am tempted to assign human characteristics to Majesty – a bulbous nose, staring eye, grumpy expression and arms raised in warning or greeting. Such anthropomorphism has long connected us to trees, from early depictions such as the image of Isis as a sycamore suckling Pharaoh Thutmose III to the Ents and Huorns of J. R. R. Tolkien.
As rich as the symbolism gets, it interferes with the felt appreciation of the tree itself. Throughout its great age this wonderful entity has supported millions of other creatures (link is a PDF). 284 insects, 423 if mites are included, and 324 lichens are supported by the oak. There will be fungi and birds, of course, nesting in its branches and mammals living inside the trunk.
Majesty’s hollow innards, open gaping wounds and dead limbs speak of death and decrepitude, but the translucent green of the leaves in the sun offers something of resilience and purpose, a refusal to give up while life remains, while the deep roots yet live. The bark, fissured and damaged, surely mirrors our own wrinkling skins, dried and scarified by the elements. And this resolute living, this deep importance to the existence of other species, inspires both humility and tenderness. It is Majesty indeed.