Caught by the River

Radio On

Andy Childs | 25th May 2014

Andy Childs rounds up his recent highlights from the airwaves and digital frequencies:

It appears that Radio 3 has come in for some fairly impassioned criticism of late from some reactionary quarters. It has been variously accused of being obscurist, elitist, populist, unlistenable, directionless and generally muddled and erratic in its programming. And while all that may well be true to some degree, depending on how vivid your memories of the old Third Programme are, I can’t help delighting in the surprises that this supposedly confused station regularly throws up.

A good example is the weekday 10.45pm slot called The Essay – 15 minute chunks of erudite knowledge and opinion on a vast range of subjects that encompass, history, philsophy, the arts, nature and life itself. This week’s essays are the second in a series titled The Meaning of Trees in which Fiona Stafford, professor of literature at Somerville College, Oxford discusses the mythology, characteristics and uses of five different species. So far I have only heard two – Monday’s programme was on the pine – one of our few native trees and perhaps the most versatile and useful. Certainly our most commercial tree. Apart from fuelling the enduring mid-70s new wave of house furniture, the wood of the tall and upright pine is used for ship’s masts, telegraph poles, fence posts, railway sleepers, etc and its derivatives employed in making chewing gum, turpentine, varnish, glues, liquorice, bath oils and rosin (a resin used to make paper less porous and violin bows easier to play). It is thought, so Prof.Stafford tells us, that pine has a tendancy to help and heal and is an ancient remedy for various ailments such as sore throats, bronchitis and rheumatic aches. Pine “looks like a thoroughbred but is actually the workhorse of the woods”. If all of that, and of course their stately, commanding appearance and distinct, evocative aroma isn’t enough to convince you of the aesthetic and utilitarian value of the pine, consider this : recent scientific research has revealed that the scent from pine trees creates a cooling, aerosol effect as it rises in the air so that a pine forest can actually create cloud cover and act as a huge natural mirror to reflect sunlight back into the stratosphere and away from our overheated planet. More than just providing us with new cupboards for the kitchen, the trusty pine could actually play a major part in averting ecological armageddon. Tuesday’s programme featured the equally ubiquitous hawthorn and again, in 15 tightly-edited minutes (you can’t possibly multi-task during these programmes – you have to concentrate or you’ll miss something important) Prof.Stafford eloquently assailed us with a blend of natural history, myth and entrancing fact. I, a novice arborealist, learnt that hawthorn hedges marked the enclosure of the English landscape in the 18th century, that hawthorn contains chemicals that are good for blood pressure and the heart, that hawthorn is planted around young oak saplings to prevent them being eaten by cattle and deer, and of course there’s the famous story of Joseph arriving in Britain after the crucifixion, thrusting his staff into the soil of Glastonbury and leaving it to magically transform into a hawthorn tree that blossoms on Christmas Day. And so on and so on. So much to learn. And for the rest of the week we’ll hear about the apple tree, the poplar and the rowan. If you’ve been at all captivated by Emma Warren’s occasional missives on this site from Oxleas Woods or like me, blundered through the thicket in blissful ignorance of what towers over and around you, then these little gems of broadcasting are highly recommended.

Listen to all five episodes of The Meaning of Trees on the BBC iPlayer.