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A celebration of Autumn – part 4

What to look for in Autumn

Three years ago I started to write a series of nature posts using the wonderful Ladybird ‘What to look for’ books as inspiration. Other work took over and the project stalled, as things often do. This post marks both the return of the series and the end of the Autumn pictures. With Winter, although I’ll still use the illustrations by C. F. Tunnicliffe and the words of E. L. Grant Watson (copyright acknowledged), I’ll also be trying out something different.

My intent was originally to reflect on changes in the countryside, to reflect on what has been lost in the unbearably short time since the books were made. But, as Cassandra discovered, to wail about impending doom is a fruitless endeavour, so (if possible) I will try to offer another way. We live in times devoid of leadership, allowing ourselves to be controlled by corporate power and toxic media. In our passivity and delusion we seem happy to accept the spread of mediocrity and loss of agency. I believe it behoves us all to take back whatever small powers we can, to spread the warning messages far and wide, to say again and again that our blind addiction to wanton consumption is not just unsustainable, but insane.

If you would like to read the earlier Autumn posts, you can find them here:

Part 1: naming Autumn, a ploughed field, wild harvest, hop pickers, flight of the swallow

Part 2: a hayrick, wild berries, hazel coppice, Sydenham Hill Wood

Part 3: foxes, fungi, weasels, wild ducks

A digression on shooting pheasants

 

As I write this in late November, the autumn colours of the English landscape (at their best a week ago) are disappearing in cold winds. The dynamic mixture of colours reminded me of the dioramas of childhood, when dyed reindeer lichen stood in for trees and shrubs. Now yellow leaves blow along like manic butterflies, the ironic counterpoint of Spring. Frost and ice begin to slow things down (except in city worlds, which know no seasons and barely pause for sleep).

What to look for in Autumn - acorns, wood pigeons, fairy rings
What to look for in Autumn – acorns, wood pigeons, fairy rings

Hearts of Oak

Reflecting on the ridiculous English vs. Spanish bluebell war, Richard Mabey wrote that the Pedunculate Oak (Quercus robur) and the Sessile Oak (Quercus petraea) have been regularly hybridising for millennia, yet there is no sign of either original species dying out. There may be specific reasons for this resilience, but the comment serves to highlight the rigidity in some nature conservation.

Native trees and shrubs support a multitude of species, and none more so than the Oak (I wrote a separate piece on the extraordinary ancient oak ‘Majesty’ here). Unfortunately the dance between host, predator and parasite has been rudely interrupted by ignorant human behaviour. Pollution, agricultural nitrates and the traffic in live plants have created massive problems for trees. The virulent form of Dutch Elm Disease that completely altered the English landscape came from imported Canadian logs (the Elm itself is non-native). The fungus that causes Ash dieback also came from imported trees, probably from Asia. Even oaks are now at risk from Acute Oak Decline and Sudden Oak Death.

Number of insects and Lichen supported by various trees

Opinions vary, but oaks support around 300 insect species and a similar number of lichens. Compare this to the sterility of imported species in the table above. Our towns and cities have been largely populated with alien species. In the country, massive conifer plantations, inimical to local wildlife, have effectively depopulated whole tracts of land. All this change has taken place very quickly in the context of historical deforestation.

Consider first the population of the UK. Very slow historical population growth suddenly leapt after the enclosures and clearances, and the spasm of the Industrial Revolution.

UK population (millions)
Source: http://chartsbin.com/view/28k

But afforestation in the UK has been low for centuries. Successive needs, starting with fuel and building, and the expense of imported timber, meant that forests in the UK suffered more than those in mainland Europe.

UK deforestation
Source: https://www.forestry.gov.uk/

Overlaying the population chart with a line for the percentage of UK afforestation shows (as far as one can tell without accurate records) that tree cover reached its nadir in the early nineteenth century and has improved considerably since. However, the improvement includes conifer plantations and many other non-native trees planted for economic and aesthetic reasons. Look again at the table to see that the trees originally native to the UK are also the most important for other wildlife. One third of the rest of Europe is under forest, so the UK is still lagging behind.

Survival of the Commons

I expected to find that the practice of feeding pigs on acorns would have died out in the UK. To my surprise I discovered that it is alive in the New Forest with the custom known as the Common of Mast. The New Forest Commons are of Pasture, Fuelwood, Mast and – historically – Marl (lime-rich clay) and Turbary (peat turves for fuel). Sustainable Commons, both physical and figurative, will become more important once again, as the economy begun by the Industrial Revolution convulses.

The ‘Fairy Ring’ of myth and folk lore can be caused by a number of species, but probably the most usual is Marasmius oreades, the Fairy Ring Champignon.

Marasmius oreades
Marasmius oreades by StrobilomycesOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

 

Grey Death

With the Eastern Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), which has effectively displaced the native Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) from the UK, we once more encounter the prejudicial word ‘invasive’, a word always used against species introduced by humans that have gone on to prosper. There are few more hypocritical terms than this one. If our woods were as diverse as once they were, Pine Martens (Martes martes) would quickly bring the Grey population down, to the benefit of the Reds. But Pine Martens are only present in England in tiny numbers, so the spread of the Grey Squirrel goes unchecked. The smaller size of the Red Squirrel apparently gives it the edge over Greys when it comes to avoiding martens. Evidence of this also comes from the reintroduction of the Pine Marten into the Irish Midlands

The Grey Squirrel also carries parapoxvirus, lethal to Reds. According to the Independent newspaper, parapoxvirus from Greys has all but destroyed a Red population in the Lake District. Grey Squirrels, unlike Reds, strip bark from trees, rendering them vulnerable to fungal attack. Human arrogance is responsible for the spread of the Grey Squirrel, a spread so damaging that the animal is regarded by some as a biological weapon (presumably homo sapiens is the most effective such weapon). The answer lies not in expensive and inefficient culling (or in novelty beer bottle holders) but in increasing diversity. Unfortunately we are very bad at it. Our monolithic culture pays lip service to diversity while failing to engage with it except in the form of tokenism, or in the conservation of relict populations.

Tunnicliffe’s illustration of the False Death Cap (Amanita citrina) looks a little stylised. Although this mushroom is edible in small quantities, its similarity to other (highly poisonous) Amanita species renders it unappealing. The excellent nature site http://www.first-nature.com, describing the true Deathcap, writes of “the repulsive smell that, to anyone with a nose, should betray the evil within a mature Deathcap”. Such an interesting slip to describe poison as ‘evil’: it could be put to evil use, but in itself is not.

False Death Cap
False Death Cap by The High Fin Sperm WhaleSelf-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

 

Eels and greed

Of the species mentioned in the next image, only the Long-tailed Tit exists in decent numbers. The very habitat depicted has been substantially reduced by water companies, and where it has not been reduced, it has been poisoned with agricultural run-off. The Kingfisher is on the decline and is on the UK Amber list for birds. Luckily for the Kingfisher, eels are unlikely to be a part of its diet. The European eel (Anguilla anguilla), once a staple food, is now critically endangered, the victim of not only ‘environmental factors’ (code for human habitat destruction) but a roaring trade in eels smuggled to Asia. The consequence is that the number of eels in the UK has dropped by a staggering 95% since the 1970s. Eels, as this article makes very clear, have become the ivory of Europe. The image of the stream full of eels was accurate. Rivers, particularly those emptying into the Atlantic, would turn silver with the numbers of migrating eels – a sight that is almost certainly lost forever.

The Sargasso Sea, to which mature silver eels travel to spawn and die, has a high concentration of plastic waste that includes the huge North Atlantic Garbage Patch, and (as we now know), plastic absorbs pollutants, making it poisonous to anything that eats it.

Bonfire of the vanities

The Tawny Owl is also on the Amber list after declines in population and breeding range. The illustration is prescient. The owl sits aloof, as if in judgment, high above the spectacle of the bonfire, a suitable image for our hot ferocious destruction of the world about us.

It is also notable that Tunnicliffe has shown the Scots Pine, the only conifer (other than Yew and Juniper) native to the UK.

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Meeting Majesty – an encounter with the Fredville Oak

Majesty, the massive fallen limbs and the empty socket

Majesty, the massive fallen limbs and the empty socket

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.”1

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 then (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 unable to find Majesty itself. Asking in the local pub we discovered that Majesty is on private land and that the owner would be happy to show us the tree. Retracing our footsteps we walked down a drive marked private that opened up into the grounds of a stables, with a ruined clock tower, and it wasn’t long before we were joined by a barking Jack Russell terrier.

As a child on holiday I remember having to fetch milk from the nearby farm and being harried by the farmer’s Jack Russell all the way up the lane. This dog 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, so I was apprehensive at this meeting, 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, all called John, who owned the villa that was demolished after a fire in 1945, leaving the stables, the clock tower and other buildings as the present home.

The surviving clock tower of the Fredville Estate
The surviving clock tower of the Fredville Estate

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.

An extraordinary meeting

Walking into the sunlight revealed Majesty in all its broken glory.

Our first view of Majesty
Our first view of Majesty

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 therapy (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 Hillman put it, carries its ancestors.

Majesty, the massive fallen limbs and the empty socket
Majesty, the massive fallen limbs and the empty socket

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.

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 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.”

 

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 an 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 favor? 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.

 

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, The Spirit in the Glass Bottle

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’, 19862

Looking up at Majesty
Looking up at Majesty

Of particular fascination is the texture and grain of the wood once the bark has vanished. These sweeping pl,/pains, 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 Thuthmose III to the Ents and Huorns of J. R. R. Tolkien.

Majesty
Majesty
The goddess Isis, as a sycamore, suckles Pharaoh
The goddess Isis, as a sycamore, suckles Pharaoh

Staying with presence

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 offer 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.

Majesty, wounded and hollow, still living
Majesty, wounded and hollow, still living
Stone lithograph by J.G. Strutt, 1830
Stone lithograph by J.G. Strutt, 1830

Footnotes

1. https://twitter.com/RufusHound/status/603509038463193088
2. http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm099.html

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