This week has been all about oaks, Keats’ “green-robed senators of mighty woods”. In Richard Powers’ extraordinary novel, ‘The Overstory‘, the collaborative endurance of the quercus genus is counterposed to the transient destruction of homo sapiens. I had been eking the book so that I could finish it on holiday surrounded by trees, rather than tower blocks, and so yesterday I allowed myself to turn the last page after a wonderful autumnal stroll around the Glanusk Estate in the Brecon Beacons, made all the more magical by being able to enjoy it with my parents.
The Glanusk Estate is home to around half of the six hundred species of oak, some surviving since the iron-master, Joseph Bailey, built a mansion here in the early 1800s. By oak standards these are still youngsters. As Richard Powers explains, a typical oak spends “three hundred years growing; three hundred years holding; and three hundred years dying”. As a rough rule of thumb you can calculate the age of an oak as two and a half times the tree’s circumference in centimetres. Although that would mean carrying around a very long tape measure.
Longevity and strength is what we associate with oaks. “Thrones have crumbled and new empires arisen; great ideas have been born and great pictures painted, and the world revolutionised by science and invention; and still no [wo]man can say how many centuries this oak will endure or what nation and creeds it may endure” wrote botanist Donald Peattie. Yet we tend to think of this in terms of permanence, rather than growth and development. We only a notice a change when a tree is gone. As Doug, a lead character in ‘The Overstory’ muses: “Trees fall with spectacular crashes. But planting is silent and growth is invisible.”
Have destroyed a large chunk of tree-life in our short time as apparent masters of the Earth, we are now starting to understand trees true intelligence. Much of ‘The Overstory’ concerns, a presumably fictionalised account, of how a female scientist in the 1970s discovered the fact that trees talk to each other and organise collaboratively, and was roundly laughed at and dismissed by her largely male peers, only to be proven right decades later.
As Gaia theorist, James Lovelock, put it in a quote that is used at the start of ‘The Overstory’: “Earth may be alive: not as the ancients saw her as a sentient goddess with a purpose and foresight, but alive like a tree. A tree that quietly exists, never moving except to sway in the wind, yet endlessly conversing with the sunlight and water and nutrient minerals to grow and change. But all done so imperceptibly that to me the odl oak tree on the green is the same as when I was a child.”
There were plenty of oaks where I grew up too, but the oaks in the Glanusk Estate are not of the English variety mostly seen in the Midlands. Indeed, there seemed to be only one native British oak on the estate list – the Durmast or Sessile Oak, which is more comfortable with acidic Welsh soil and can be distinguished from its English cousin by the longer, straighter fissures on its bark. Instead, two generations of Legge-Bourkes, owners of the park, have carefully planted acorns sought from all over the world. It is clearly a labour of love – we were greeted on arrival by Harry Legge-Bourke, jovially exclaiming “I hear you’ve come to see my oaks?”, and happily explaining the best way to walk the estate.
Our favourites yesterday included the North American Red Oaks, which look particularly majestic at this time of year, their huge branches still covered in leaves that are just starting to turn orange-red; and the Cork Oak, which conveys a sprightly comportment in comparison, showing a little more trunk before the branches start, and whose bark is harvested for cork in the Mediterranean, leaving the trunk a bright brown, rather than the usual grey
We were lucky to get in a visit before Glanusk closes for the winter and the estate park and gardens was only opened up for an extended period for the first time this year, although a different part of Glanusk annually welcomes thousands of visitors each August (including markontour) for the Green Man festival. The £7 entry fee was well worth the chance to enjoy 400 acres of park in relative solitude, all the while gazing up to Sugar Loaf and other Brecon beacons in the near distance. We’ll certainly be coming back in spring.