My new book, ‘Britain’s Trees: A Treasury of Traditions, Superstitions, Remedies and Literature‘, will be published by The National Trust in March 2020.
It’s been a fascinating and rewarding project. I’ve focused on 40 or so of our most familiar tree species (both native and introduced), explaining a little bit about their natural history and distribution, and then going on to describe some of the beliefs and customs associated with them.
Some of the traditional uses of our native trees stretch right back to the first human occupation of our islands; and some, amazingly, are still practised today. One of the trees that lent itself first to human hands was, to my delight, the hazel. Over the millennia, as cultures changed and evolved, trees were woven into the tapestry of our daily life. Wassailers and ‘rough bands’, maypoles and mazers… through our age-old ceremonies and artefacts we have a connection with trees that is so deep it runs through our veins, and it deserves to be upheld and celebrated.
The healing properties of trees were recognised and honoured by our ancestors, whose wisdom was passed down by word of mouth and later in the manuscripts of herbalists. Some of the instructions bear some relation to modern science, while others veer towards superstition and sorcery. Flowers, nuts and fruit have long been gathered and preserved for all kinds of culinary purposes, or distilled into delicious drinks that would bring warmth and cheer in the winter months.
There’s a literary element as well: I’ve looked at the works of a wide range of poets, novelists, playwrights and natural history writers to see how they were inspired to craft their words and their stories around our much-loved trees. They were keen and eloquent observers, often drawing on an intimate knowledge that came from living and working in the countryside.
Trees have been seen as portals to the underworld; as the abode of witches and fairies; as places for celebration and sorrowing; as diviners of the future and guardians of the past. If you were looking to drive out malevolent spirits, repel serpents, or make absolutely sure that a murderer didn’t rise again from the grave, it was helpful to know which wood to use, either as a broom, a rod, or a stake. And which branches could be brought inside at seasonal festivals, and which should never be brought inside at all? Which woods could be burned, and which avoided? Knowing the properties of trees assured the prosperity and wellbeing of a household, and even the fortune of warriors in battle.
Quite often, I’ve seen the character of a tree emerging from an apparently diverse and random collection of remedies, literary references and old country traditions. It’s convinced me that trees really do have their own identity, and I think this is what, in former times, people instinctively knew and understood. I’ve learned so much, and it has opened my eyes to trees in a wonderful new way.
Dotted throughout the book are vignettes of individual ancient trees with an extraordinary tale to tell. Many of them have witnessed key moments in Britain’s history, and most have survived to an astonishing age, standing as a tangible, living connection with generations past.
Info and ordering
‘Britain’s Trees’ is illustrated by Louise Morgan, who captures the character and habit of each tree in her lively paintings. It is hardback, with 240 pages and 80 colour illustrations.
To be published in March 2020 by Pavilion Books for The National Trust, it’s available for pre-order in the UK via Pavilion, Amazon and Waterstones, and other bookshops should be able to order it too. In due course it will be available from the National Trust’s shops and website. Customers in the US can pre-order it via Amazon and Rizzoli.
Thank you for your support and interest!