One Man and his Oak
Updated: Jan 20, 2021
In June of 1851, Herman Melville paused his work on Moby-Dick to write a fascinating letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Ostensibly an apology for not finding the time to pay the senior author a visit, its fizzing youthful energy offers in a short space revealing insights into the mind and opinions of a great writer as he neared the completion of his masterpiece, concluding with a remarkable swipe at then fashionable attitudes towards Nature.
In reading some of Goethe's sayings, so worshiped by his votaries, I came across this, "Live in the All." That is to say, your separate identity is but a wretched one - - good; but get out of yourself, spread and expand yourself, and bring to yourself the tinglings of life that are felt in the flowers and the woods... What nonsense! Here is a fellow with a raging toothache. "My dear boy," Goethe says to him, "you are sorely afflicted with that tooth; but you must live in the all, and then you will be happy!"
In an afternote, however, he did make the following concession.
This "all" feeling... there is some truth in it. You must often have felt it, lying on the grass on a warm summer's day. Your legs seem to send out shoots into the earth. Your hair feels like leaves upon your head. This is the all feeling. But what plays the mischief with the truth is that men will insist upon the universal application of a temporary feeling or opinion.
The Transcendentalist philosophers who provoked Melville's ridicule are no more, but we are currently wrapped up in our own hysterical culture of nature worship - at least in this country, where Robert Macfarlane, Sara Maitland, Melissa Harrison and a growing host of lesser lights are urging us to heave on our rucksacks and tread the fields and hedgerows in search of...Well, I'm not always sure what, exactly, but let's say something that will make us feel better about poisoning the ground with our waste and the air with our cars.
Dr. James Canton of Essex University is one such intrepid scribe. He's got shoots growing out of his legs and leaves upon his head, alright, and in his new book, The Oak Papers, he luxuriously spreads and expands himself, whilst tingling at length in the recounting of how he "sought solace from the ways of the world by stepping into the embrace of an ancient oak tree". When I say "at length" I really mean for 222 pages of largish print, generously interspersed with blank pages, illustrations and spacings; but literary length is subjective and, compact as it is, the result still comes to seem stretched, padded and repetitive long before the end - or, actually, not too far after the beginning.
Undergoing an estrangement from his long-term partner, Canton starts periodically sitting under a venerable oak on an estate near his home after experiencing a moment of Buddhist satori fondling its bark. As he describes it in his woozy present tense,
It is a slice of time laid bare, a moment when the normal flow of life is frozen, when instead another sense of being seems to seize my presence in the world and to take a hold over all.
One can only imagine the unquiet spirit of Melville howling in posthumous derision at the explicit invocation of that dreaded all feeling again. The howls would turn to guffaws as he read on to see its obsessive universal application.
Before long, Canton is sitting out under his favoured tree in all seasons and at all hours of the day and night. After a while, he extends his passion to other oaks. Excerpts from his diary alternate with snippets of oak lore and literature in his languid pursuit of "oak knowledge". The descriptive writing is intermittently beguiling, in a gently hypnotic kind of way, though the short, declarative clauses, repetitions of mantra words like "peace" and "calm" and artless accumulation of random detail do start to pall. Unexceptionable truths are served up as profound insights (such as the observation that before there were towns in Britain people's lives were closer to nature) and would be philosophical musings often shake hands with banality, as when the oak is evoked in winter.
Stripped of leaf and life, it seems to have tucked down, to have been distilled into a central core of being in order to survive, just as a colony of bees dies back to become a single hibernating queen through the dark months. And isn't that, after all, what we do, too? Through winter we tuck back deep inside ourselves until the spring sun draws us out again.
Eventually, effortlessly clambering up the trunks of his beloved quercus to sit blissed-out in the boughs, Canton feels himself metamorphosing into an "oak being". "Something has begun to change within me", he ecstatically exclaims. "Something in this seeking out of oaks has transformed me into something better."
This is the climax of that personal quest for self-realisation without which no modern nature narrative is complete. Gone are the level-headed days when the likes of Oliver Rackham contented themselves with calm, informed accounts of woodland eco-systems. Now everything has to be subsumed within the emotional bath of the author's "healing journey" of self-discovery. Though, in this case, he doesn't journey very far it's pretty hard to see exactly what in his life needs healing. Early on he thinks he glimpses a Green Child, and from time to time he does worry about what passers by might make of his arboreal antics. However, such hints that the whole thing might evolve into some sort of Bunuelian absurdist drama come to nought. Any pain and recrimination accompanying the break up of his relationship is kept entirely off stage. Before long he has fallen in love with someone else who apparently makes no demands on his time or attention. He still has a job, a car, and untroubled access to his children. No real-life pressures are allowed to disrupt the pellucid placidity of these pages which, I'm sure, purred most soothingly into the nation's living rooms when featured as Radio 4's Book of the Week.
In fairness, what Canton gets up to seems harmless enough, (at least when he stays out of the Creative Writing classroom) but his book's coy middle-class mysticism becomes very hard too take seriously, especially in the rambling, unedited, inconsequential conversations with various friends and acquaintances that punctuate the text. All of these people seem conveniently close to hand, drenched in oak wisdom and uncomplicatedly supportive of the author's wooly - or should I say mossy? - speculations. The only one with any active academic credentials is a chap from the University of Essex' s Green Exercise Research Team. This elite scientific unit has uncovered some unexceptionable stuff about how most people instinctively know that green spaces are a more restful environment than urban ones - insights by which Canton is politely impressed.
It certainly all seems like...good common sense.
"Thanks, Mike," I say.
But he seems more enraptured by people whose knowledge is presented as innate, untutored and instinctive. One is described as a living Green Man, another as possessed by "a thread of some hard-to-describe spirituality which ties him to his Druidic ancestors". Later he speaks to "one of the wisest, most knowledgeable people...on the matter of trees" and a cheerful modern Pagan with "a deeply developed appreciation of the sacred aspects of the natural world". At least three times on his peregrinations he is offered hearty home-made soup - both one of The Oak Paper's many would-be soothing repetitions and a specific indicator of healthy naturalness.
Best of all, however, is his encounter with Stephen, a local woodsman who "has a sense of clear-eyed wisdom" and "speaks with a calm, level, unrushed manner that tells of years of experience and knowledge". He and his daughter, Becky, strike Canton as especially "grounded", thus provoking one of his most fanciful outpourings.
They are earthed. It is as though the time spent in the woods, with the trees, has done something elemental to them, tethered them. Each has such a tie to wood. They cut wood, work wood and have become somewhat of wood - they are wood folk, connected to the earth.
Presumably these grounded woodentops perceive themselves as being - well, more or less normal.
Just one conversation has a slight edge to it, and it is actually with someone I know.
The artist Stephen Taylor has lived in Ely for about a decade, - with fairly frequent escapes to the wilds of North Wales, - quietly producing haunting and distinctive landscapes that both extend and interrogate the traditions of pastoral painting. Every few months he and I meet up for lengthy sessions over coffee or beer, in which he discusses the inspirations (and frustrations) that drive his work. Like Canton, I was privileged to see his spectacular giant painting of Furnace Falls as it neared completion and, yes, I agree that "its detail and verisimilitude are astonishing". Indeed, I was fairly overwhelmed by its powerful sense of scale and movement, combined with its richly variegated play of light and dark. Disappointingly, I am not likely ever to stand in front of it again, as it was rapidly sold to a private buyer - I hope for a very good price. I do, however, look forward to its appearance as the centerpiece of Taylor's ambitious forthcoming book exploring the interaction between human memory and place.
It seemed extraordinary that such a tremendous canvas - huge and silently thunderous in the modest space of the artist's flat - should have been largely created in confined indoor conditions, with limited natural light. In fact, this seeming paradox is amongst the things that give Stephen's images of nature their special interest. Though he is happy to describe himself as a "realist" painter and certainly does endure long hours "in the field", his work goes beyond the impressions recorded by the naked eye, complementing them with the digital analysis of photographs to help build up precise layers of colour and texture. It is a technique that also enables painting to take place over long periods of time, away from the place and moment of its direct inspiration. I am reminded of the way in which "spectralist" composers, such as Murail and Saariaho have used computer analysis to explore the timbral make up of sound. In both cases it could be argued that modern technology unlocks almost mystical energies trapped within the base materials out of which art is conjured.
Oak, Stephen's first book-length mixture of painting and text, is a fine showcase for his work and methods. Predictably, Canton is interested in it as the record of a therapeutic process, and it's true that its fifty images of the same North Essex oak were created over a period of three years that followed a series of bereavements. But, surely, the healing was not just the result of proximity to an ancient tree, but of immersion in the demanding process of recording its presence. These paintings range from some with a near "photorealist" finish to others - notably the nocturnal pieces - where one is far more explicitly aware of the energetic manipulation of paint. They are anything but "artless". In fact they place themselves - somewhat warily - in the distinguished tradition of "variation" painting that articulates an ecstatic response to the external world trough a rigorously circumscribed technique. The luminous haystacks and water lilies of the aged Monet are perhaps the most celebrated examples, but there are many others. Apprehended at varying degrees of closeness but invariably occupying the centre of the composition, the oak represents a fixed point around which the rest of the landscape arranges itself. The influence it casts over the surrounding fields, with their seasonally changing crops and tillage does not not always strike me as benign. The bare black tentacles of the winter oak branches, encircled by crows, have a stark sublimity about them - at least for this viewer. Or is that only because it's impossible not to recall van Gogh?
Of course, I am projecting my own subjective emotional responses on to objects that, whilst not abstract in the conventional sense, approach some of the Apollonian qualities of abstraction through their emphasis on stillness and the controlling qualities of form. Stephen Taylor has an advantage over James Canton (and myself) in that, though he writes and talks engagingly, his primary medium of expression moves beyond words. His oak art invites us to see the noble quercus, not as an avuncular anthropomorphized being to be hugged and bonded with, but as the inscrutable focus of an austere and exalting contemplation. This may not sound as appealing as loosing oneself in the warm embrace of the all or imagining oneself the hero of some rhapsodic quest for self-discovery, but it certainly feels to me a truer way of presenting the mystery of nature, and one that corresponds far more closely to my own experience of it.
Even if it won't cure your toothache.