Fiona Stafford was brought up in largely rural areas, but it was only as she read Hardy, Wordsworth, Clare and Heaney that trees began to dominate the view. That, she argues, should come as no surprise – Britain’s trees, after all, are as freighted with historical and literary associations as its palaces and castles.
Beginning on Monday at 10.45pm, a second five-episode series on the topic of trees will be broadcast on Radio 3 and run through until Friday. Pine, Hawthorn, Apple, Poplar and Rowan will each receive an episode, in a series written and presented by Fiona Stafford, Professor of Literature at Somerville College. The series has been named ‘Radio Pick of the Week’ in the Radio Times.
The Meaning of Trees explores the significance of trees in British history, drawing on their associations with national identity, their evocations in poetry and prose, and the mythologies that we have built up around them.
Many species have deeply-rooted cultural identities right around the world, of course, from the Bodhi tree under which Buddha was said to have first achieved Enlightenment to the Sycamore climbed by Zacchaeus the (short) Tax Collector so he could see Jesus, to the Ankerwycke Yew, often cited as the place where oaths were made at the signing of the Magna Carta.
Britain’s arboreal history is very idiosyncratically its own. Social, economic and cultural movements, Stafford explains, have all played their part in shaping which species have prospered and suffered through the centuries.
“The arms race in the Middle Ages was disastrous for Europe’s yew trees because of the need for long bows,” explains Stafford. “The Enclosures of the 18th and 19th century, on the other hand, brought a proliferation of hawthorn hedges that are ubiquitous in Britain to this day.”
Yet politics and economic demand alone cannot explain the symbolic power that trees enjoyed in our individual and national psyches. The pastoral tradition, stretching back to the shepherds of the Eclogues, has invested trees with a special significance that retains some of its ancient verve even today, from the nature writing of Robert Macfarlane, Simon Barnes and Richard Mabey to the spiritual end of the ecological movement.
Too often, Stafford says, the remarkable vintage of trees remains all but unknown – and yet dwarfs more popular historical attractions. But Britain has yew trees that may date to 4,000 years ago, making them peers of Stonehenge and the pyramids.
Pillars of the nation
One of the most important periods in British arboreal history, according to Stafford, was the rise of the British Navy from the 17th century, which saw England harvest oaks as never before or since. This delivered to the oak a peculiarly British identity, as it became essential for defence, colonisation and exploration. It would be immortalised as providing the forest home for Robin Hood and his ‘Merry Men’.
The imperial era was also an age of imports and it saw many new arrivals beginning to fill the British landscape. Yet even an import could become a talisman of national identity. The Weeping Willow, long associated with slow summer days, punting and cricket scenes, and even the mildly melancholic English character, was an import from the Middle East in the 18th century.
“Many of our trees have been planted rather than simply growing wild,” explains Stafford. “And planting has tended to be very purposeful. It’s important to realise that there has never been a ‘natural norm’ for the English countryside when it comes to trees. The scenery has been changing all the time.”
From where, then, do our ideas of fixity and of a long-familiar national landscape derive?
“Poets and painters have been extremely important in delivering concepts of a national landscape to us,” says Stafford. “Tennyson’s In Memoriam identified yews as the graveyard tree and Constable painted the ash trees of his native Dedham so evocatively that they came to be associated with how an English landscape was supposed to look.”
Sentiment was crucial, Stafford argues. William Gilpin was, in the eighteenth century, the first to promote aestheticism in our view of landscape and enjoyed an enormous influence on the Romantic writers and artists, who helped to manufacture a particular picture of rural, pre-industrial Britain that remains lodged in the national consciousness to this day.
“Trees became viewed as something beautiful which you could tame and control at the same time as woods began to become safer,” says Stafford.
Nature re-ordered? An aquatint by William Gilpin, author of the 1770 ‘Observations on the River Wye’
Of course, despite her own awareness of the cultural conditioning that has driven so much of our understanding of different species, Stafford clearly loves them, too. She also has her favourites, although says she cannot name a single species, since “there are different trees for different moods.”
Nevertheless, some of Stafford’s tutees should at least know her favourite College tree: the lime in the northeast corner of the quad, beside Walton House. Her former room overlooks it and she sometimes takes tutorials outside to sit in its shade.
“The lime has associations with Coleridge who, having burnt his foot with hot milk, had to forgo a country walk with friends,” says Stafford. “Instead, he sat under a lime tree and wrote a poem about ‘This lime-tree bower, my prison’. But by the poem’s end, he sees it as a source of imaginative liberation.”
Stafford’s five radio broadcasts promise to have a similar effect.
The Meaning of Trees will be broadcast by BBC Radio 3 at 10.45pm from Monday 19 May to Friday 23 May and can be listened to online.