Many readers will know Richard Mabey from his outstanding digest of all things botanical, "Flora Britannica": my own copy is frequently referred to. "Beechcombings" is very different. It recounts the writer’s personal journey; a journey on which beech trees, beech woodland and beech ecology feature so strongly that, for the writer, they become iconic, to use a currently overworked metaphor. Mabey reacts emotionally, even spiritually, to trees. They have affected his experiences from an early age, and parts of "Beechcombings" are like opening a window into his interior landscape of feelings and sensibilities. I introduce my review in this way to make plain that the book will not be to everyone’s taste. But for some it will strike chords, expose feelings, or reveal sentiments perhaps never articulated but, nevertheless, powerfully felt. It is a private journey we are all invited, or rather permitted, to travel with the writer.
As well as learning a great deal biographically about Richard Mabey, "Beechcombings" is full of astonishing facts, perceptive observations, and detailed descriptions. And, on the journey we follow not only Mabey’s own chronology but that of the beech from its arrival in Britain to the present day. En route we meet all sorts of people from Gilbert White and William Cobbett to their modern counterparts of George Peterken and John Workman (trusting the latter two will forgive anything that seems to them less than highly complimentary!). But also on the journey we explore art and literature that touches trees, and especially beeches, including Nash’s many paintings of Wittenham Clumps, Gainsborough’s beech trees at Foxley, Corot’s and Rousseau’s paintings of the Forest of Fontainbleau and even Giono’s fictional Elzeard Bouffier and the endearing tale of "The Man who Planted Trees", who, of course, in the story mainly planted oaks.
We visit many places. Mabey’s own Hardings Wood in the Chilterns, which he owned for many years, not unexpectedly features often. I totally identified with his beguiling description of all that enticed him and with his urge to experiment but reluctance to be drastic in treatment in the early years of ownership. Frithsden beeches and Victorian revolts to enclosure on Berkhamsted Common have a special place, as do the New Forest beeches, the pollards of Epping and the numerous goings-on at Felbrigg Hall. These are just a few of the stops on the journey.
What I found particularly appealing was the way Mabey incorporated local history and politics, why pollarding declined, the enormous impact of inclosures, what first stimulated our obsession with planting, how trees came to be as we find them today, the consequences of the great storm of 1987 and much more. He is catholic in his interests, a polymath, with whom it is a delight to travel. One’s eyes are opened, you see so much more than just the trees.
Mabey’s writing is at times overblown. He delights in metaphor and simile with barely a sentence passing without them, and this can tire the reader with over-description. Once used to it, though, the book is a great pleasure. To convey a little of what it’s like (p41) here is Mabey exploring a woodland on his own when young: "Sometimes I felt like a beech-creature myself, slipping through this deep ocean of sinuous shapes and muted colours, escaping more thoroughly from the world outside than in any other kind of place I knew." Haven’t we all felt like that on occasion?
But let me finish where, for me, Mabey is unrivalled: his remarkable eye for detail and gift for careful observation. As a mycologist, fungi feature prominently – he is forever looking down, not up like a forester - and he delights in passing on facts that have clearly delighted him. We all know jays bury acorns, but we are told of research in Hainault Forest by M R Chettleburgh showing that they gather them both from the ground and directly off the tree, that they can carry up to five in their gullet at one time, always bury them in an open area, and that over a ten week period a bird averages 60 flights a day and in total buries up to 5000 acorns. For the whole of Britain the autumn total of buried acorns thanks to jays may be 1.5 billion! What’s more if a jay has several acorns it buries them separately about 0.5 to 1 m apart, and they find them again in Spring by using nearby vertical features - its own GPS - or by seeing the emerging cotyledons. And I could go on.
As a woodland owner and writer I hugely enjoyed Richard Mabey’s "Beechcombings". It is an unusual book, one to take away on holiday, or to read curled up on the sofa snug on a winter’s evening. You are in safe hands.
Beechcombings by Richard Mabey - Chatto and Windus, London 289pp 2007
(This review was first published in Forestry & Timber News)