Caught by the River

Nature Book Reader

5th March 2013

The Secret Life of Trees – Colin Tudge

Mathew Clayton suggests the perfect book at bedtime:

I was drinking tea, one Saturday afternoon, with my friend Matthew De Abaitua when I mentioned that I was going to write something about the apple tree in my garden. He thought for a minute, then walked over to his book case and got down a breeze block of a book, saying, like a doctor bearing grave news, ‘You better read this’.

Two years later and I am still reading Matthew’s copy of Colin Tudge’s encylopaedic The Secret Life of Trees: How They Live and Why They Matter. It has become one of my favourite pieces of nature writing. I can’t quite bring myself to call it my favourite as it is no page turner. In fact, it is so dense that it is impossible to read more than a few pages at a time. The middle section of the book, in particular, when Tudge goes through practically every species of tree, one by one, feels rather like wading through a deep, dark swamp. The constant bombardment of unfamiliar botanical terms and latin names does not help. I find it perfect bedtime reading; ten minutes of fascination then, as soon as you feel your eyes gliding down the page, lights out.

Tudge’s immense knowledge redeems the book, although even this constantly threatens to overwhelm him. There is a section of the book in which he argues with himself that there is no such thing as a tree. At another point he confesses that he wishes he had written the whole book just about conifers. Yet it is in these eccentric asides, often drily humorous, that the book’s charm lies. These are the sort of thing normally edited out of serious books as being too chatty or striking the wrong tone. Here is a very typical introduction to a section all about fig trees and their amazing relationship with wasps (each of the 750 species of fig tree has its own species of symbiotic wasp):

‘All organisms are different but some, as George Orwell might have said, are more different that others. There is nothing quite like an octopus. There is nothing quite like a human being. And there is nothing, absolutely nothing, like a fig’.

I will leave you with the final paragraph of the introduction which acts as a kind of Tudge manifesto, ‘So this book presents science not as it is often presented, as a tribute to human cleverness and power, but truly in the spirit of reverence. I like the idea (i have found that some people don’t, but I do) that each of us might aspire to be a connoisseur of nature, and connoisseurship implies a combination of knowledge on the one hand and love on the other. Conservation – of all living creatures, including trees – has little chance of long-term success without understanding, which depends in a large measure on excellent science. But conservation cannot even get on the agenda unless people care. Caring is an emotional response, to which science has often been presented as the antithesis. In truth science cannot be done properly without a cool head. But when science is done its primary role (to reverse an adage of Marx’s) is not to change the world but to enhance appreciation. That is the purpose of this book. Science in the service of appreciation, and appreciation in the service of reverence which, in the face of wonders not of our making, is our only proper response’.

Mathew Clayton will be telling the story of a 100 year old apple tree planted by the artist David Jones at the Caught by the River Social Club on Thursday.