Seeing The Wood For The Trees

Beech tree

Ever since I was a child (and I’m in my sixth decade now) I have had a fascination for the wild. The raw beauty of Nature and all that she paints on her vast canvas. From an early age I learned to identify bird and beast and by the age of twelve I could probably identify most British birds and mammals. Certainly, all those with which I came into contact on my ramblings and also many species I would probably never have a chance of seeing in feather or flesh. As the years rolled on I took a deeper interest in flora and fungi too, but I have to confess that my ability to commit names to memory has diminished along with my hair and my health! Numerous species stand out due to their stunning profiles … the crimson fly agaric or the deep blue vipers bugloss, for instance. Many more though, identified and logged into the grey matter, fade from recollection. Perhaps worst of all has been my inability to remember any but the most common of trees and shrubs. This shames me, as a fieldsman and hunter, for those trees and shrubs are the lifeblood of the habitat I enjoy most. The British wood.

Out here in Norfolk I am blessed with a cornucopia of forest and wood in which to walk, stalk, study and record wildlife. Over the years I’ve learned to identify the basic tree species but I have never been able to memorise the detail needed to dig deeper than that. I could tell you that the tree is an oak, but is it Holm oak or Sessile oak or English oak? I could point to a willow, but not know if it is Pussy willow or Crack willow. To my unpractised eye all birches are Silver … not Downy or Paper-barked. Is the hazel Common or Witch? Is the chestnut Spanish or Sweet? Some things I have learned, such as that not all conifers are pines. There are junipers, cedars, firs, hemlocks, spruce and yews. Hornbeam, hazel, beech, mulberry, maple, ash, lime and alder are familiar to me but they all come in several varieties. I know all these because I study the birds and creatures that inhabit them. It is important for me, as a hunter and photographer, to know their fruits and seeds. In spring I will enjoy their seed and bloom. In summer I will seek their shade. In autumn I will relish their fruits (and so will the wildlife I watch). In winter, their stark profile will intrigue me and the evergreens (laburnum, laurel, magnolia and box) will shelter me.

Trees are the skeleton on which the woods fragile eco-system is built and thrives. For a wood is not only a gathering of trees. A wood is a haven created by Nature to shelter and feed a community of living organisms. A single tree like an oak is a complete and wonderful eco-system on its own. It supports birds, mammals, insects and fungi. Its fruit feeds and replenishes, its bark nourishes and its boughs shelter. The cracks and holes house insects, bird and mammals. The cast leaves rot into the soil at the end of each season to add nutrients and sustain future growth. A handful of trees like this will become a copse, then a wood, then a forest if left to their own devices. Take away the trees and you take away a microcosm of Natures wonder.

Next time you chance upon a tree (they are still quite common, thankfully) take some time to study it. Particularly if it is ancient. Try to identify it. Imagine what it has endured? We have oaks around us that were born when Cromwell held power over England. How many births, deaths, wars, festivities, winters and summers could they tell of could they speak? How many nests were built here? Did the wolf and the bear once sleep at their feet? Study its bark and imagine what vast root system lies beneath the forest floor to sustain such age and growth?

I love trees. I depend on them for freedom and pursuit of my chosen leisure. I wish I knew more about them than I do. What I do know, though, is that the death of a tree and its consequences concerns Nature as much as the death of any other living thing under her charge. In her fickleness, she doesn’t care. For the death of a tree merely perpetuates the circle of life she endorses.

©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Feb 2015

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