Long serving volunteer Mike has been missing the Forest during lockdown, but has found the next best thing to volunteering in the Forest is losing himself in a good book about trees. Here Mike shares his top fiction and non-fiction tree books.
Books for tree lovers
It was roughly four years ago, that Helen and I decided to try volunteering with The Heart of England Forest, and we have been regulars on most Thursdays ever since. That, of course, was until the recent lockdown put a temporary halt on everything. How I have missed being out there, rain or shine, doing something simple and useful for the environment.
Sometime back, on one of our volunteer training days, I was lucky enough to get a look at Felix Dennis’s very extensive private library of books about trees. Whilst thinking about that recently, I also reflected on how my own leisure reading had changed of late. Not everything that I have read recently has included a ‘trees’ element, but a fair few of such books have crept in.
Here are my book recommendations for fellow tree lovers.
Top fiction books about trees
At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier is a great novel to start with. It tells the story of a settler family pitched up in mid-19th century Ohio. Where state law deems that to stake a land claim, settlers must firstly cultivate fifty apple trees on their property. Enter the aptly named itinerant Johnny Appleseed who makes a living selling saplings up and down the river. Where there are apples, there is always cider and eventual unhappiness ensues. The story moves on when the eldest son wanders away to California to the giant redwood and sequoia groves. He eventually gets a job collecting seeds for a naturalist who sells plants to the English gentry.
A great bonus for Midlands readers is that you can track down for yourself a magnificent grove of redwoods in Shropshire, that were imported back in those days and were a major inspiration to Tracy Chevalier.
Sticking with early North American history Barkskins by Annie Proulx at 717 pages is quite a novel to take on, but absolutely worth it. You can’t really go wrong with Annie Proulx. Her earlier novel The Shipping News is a cracker and her short story Brokeback Mountain was made into a well-known film. Spanning more than four centuries, Barkskins tackles the historic destruction of forests in the new world. Seen through the eyes of two extended families, it is a multi-generational epic but told with captivating skill and humour. A real page turner as they say. The San Francisco Chronicle calls it “Awesome……perhaps the greatest environmental novel ever written”.
Back in Europe, The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting is another great novel. The author made himself famous with a book about chopping, stacking and drying wood, which sold more than 200,000 copies in Norway and Sweden alone. But here we are talking about his debut work of fiction which was also very well received. The story moves between Norway, Shetland, Germany, and France; through the first and second world wars to the present day. Flame birch wood plays an intriguing role in the ongoing romantic mystery, but it is a very special group of walnut trees that bring the tale to its dramatic conclusion.
Looking for something lighter? The Lie Tree by Frances Harding is not really about any normal tree you would recognise out there in the forest, but it is a great read, nevertheless. A fully blown Victorian melodrama, it was written as a children’s book originally, but went on to win Costa Book of the Year in 2015. It is brilliantly creepy and full of curious period detail.
The book I am reading currently is Overstory by Richard Powers. It won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and, so far, is proving to be a stimulating and complex novel. This is a book with trees woven deeply into the narrative. In the first chapter we learn of one family’s long running and mildly obsessive tradition of taking a monthly photo of the single chestnut tree outside their American homestead. Running alongside this is a tragic true account of how, around 1905, imported Chinese chestnuts destined for fancy gardens, brought in a new disease. And despite massive efforts across many states, what was perhaps the USA’s most useful and abundant tree was almost entirely wiped out. Quite an allegory for what we are all going through at present.
Favourite non-fiction books about trees
Perhaps the nicest hardback tree book to hold in your hand is The Observer’s Book of Trees by Herbert L Edlin, First published in 1938, the pocket-sized Observer series of books covered all kinds of subjects and were a real icon of a post war childhood. They pretty much disappeared after the Millennium, although they can still be easily picked up cheaply on the internet. The copy in our house dates from 1975 and cost £1.25 in the time before the internet was even thought of. All the British broadleaf and coniferous trees are here, with comprehensive descriptions including twig and bud identification guides. Some good things never need updating.
One of the best current tree books in paperback is The Long Long Life of Trees by Fiona Stafford. Here the author has picked out seventeen well known trees including ash, oak, cypress, apple, and willow, writing an extended essay on each. Everything is presented in a very engaging manner and is packed with information about the uses of different trees. Each chapter is full of detail on how the featured species is intertwined with the human experience. There are lots of fascinating facts, myths, historic references and folklore, all charmingly presented.
Feral by George Monbiot is a very accessible book about rewilding the countryside. Here we have a topic which could so easily be approached in a hard-campaigning way, making for a very dry book. But George Monbiot is a populist and has produced a much more reasoned book. There is not much preaching here. In fact, there are many detailed ideas about how rewilding can sit side-by-side with a version of modern life that is little changed from that we live today. Each chapter presents a different aspect of the topic, relating interesting insights into rewilding efforts to date. Unsurprisingly trees and the creation of new broadleaf forests are a central theme.
My non-fiction read at the moment is The Hidden Life of Trees (The Illustrated Edition) by Peter Wohlleben. It is great when your on-show coffee table books are actually about something interesting! Fabulous photos throughout.
And what am I going to read next? Much less of a problem is finding new non-fiction books specifically about trees, as so many have come out in recent times. However, at present I feel more drawn to the more expansive topic of rewilding. A fellow Heart of England Forest volunteer has strongly recommended Wilding by Isabella Tree (great name!), so I will probably go for that.
Happy reading everyone and don’t forget to get out and walk in those woods regularly if you can.