Just as I used to do on long past childhood walks with my family, I stop and stand still underneath the light filtered canopy of a huge tree and stare upwards. This view has always amazed me: the beauty and complexity of the arching grey branches and twigs, the muted colours and the gentle noise of the moving leaves above my head. Such old trees are majestical, they seem like nature’s cathedrals and never fail to make me feel both humbled and at peace.
The beech glades around me are rooted deep into the chalk soil. The trees have smooth bark and grow best in groups, liking each other’s company. Called the queen of British trees, they create a unique high leaf canopy. I have read that it used to be said that no harm could befall a traveller who was lost and sought shelter under the branches of a beech and equally that any prayers uttered under a beech would go straight to heaven. Certainly, talismans from beech wood were once carried to bring good luck and increase creative energy.
The beech trees at Highclere tend to live for two to three hundred years and over their lifetime provide gnarled and knotted habitats for a lot of other wildlife. The foliage is eaten by caterpillars and the seeds provide foraging for small animals such as mice, and voles and birds. Around the base of some trees, natural small wells collect water from which the dogs love to drink – I imagine it must taste especially good.
In addition, native truffle fungi grow in beech woods. These are ectomycorrhizal, which means they help the beeches obtain nutrients in exchange for some of the sugar the tree produces through photosynthesis.
It is easy to find mosses and lichens in these woodlands and when these great trees eventually fall over, they contribute to the next cycle: the decaying trees and plants become soil for fungi beetles, insects, new plants and so on.
Beech wood is strong and resistant and has been used for generations for furniture,
cooking utensils, tool handles whilst the wood burns well and was traditionally used to smoke herring. The edible nuts, or masts, can be fed to pigs and I might collect some for our own. In the past our ancestors relied on “natural” wisdom culled from watching the flora and fauna around them. Where to find the best places to live based on good sources of fresh water, natural shelter and a learnt knowledge of the soil and land was carefully passed from generation to generation. Given how long Highclere has been inhabited, we clearly ticked all those boxes.
There is a general hope that the more we understand and love the natural world, the more we might lookafter it. The Anglo-Saxon word “boc” leads us both to the beech tree and to the word which later became “book” thus connecting, albeit tenuously and probably only as far as northern European languages go, trees with wisdom. In German certainly the word Buche and Buch could not demonstrate this link more closely.
Personally, I also like to think the French word for beech, hêtre, is derived from hestre therefore linking it to “history”. In this way, trees become both our history and a narrative. We can write in our books and remember that protecting old, established woods and trees is essential and inextricably linked with wisdom. I, for one, find this highly satisfactory.