Oakability, or, the art of defying gravity

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EVEN the sound of its name - OAK - thuds weightily on the ear: a tree of no nonsense, this, with a trunk like an elephant leg, muscular branches, thick-fingered twigs, and tough little fruit resembling hard-boiled eggs with berets. The oak can grow steadily over centuries to become a massive landmark in maturity, solid, venerable, and revered almost as if it was a person. Of all trees - particularly, perhaps, in Britain - oaks are the symbolic measure of sturdy withstanding, of dauntless longevity. Sir Thomas Browne pointed out that even ``old families last not three oaks.''

The iron-hardness of the tree's wood is proverbial. A thunderbolt that cleaves an oak - as Shakespeare has it in ``King Lear'' - is, by implication, stupendously destructive. The hollows and wrinkles, furrows and knots, of the oak have endlessly fascinated artists and poets: The 19th-century visionary artist Samuel Palmer tried to draw (and described in words) ``the grasp and grapple of the roots, the muscular belly and shoulders, the twisted sinews'' of ancient oaks in Lullingstone Park. Edmund Spenser in ``The Faerie Queen'' (1596) described the ``ragged snubbes and knottie graine'' of a club made of oak, and Edmund Burke (two centuries later) talked with sublime ponderosity of the oak's ``nodosities.'' Shakespeare, with a countryman's knowledge of the difficulty of splitting its logs, had called it ``the unwedgeable and gnarled Oak.''

To Oliver Wendell Holmes, in 19th-century New England, ``the single mark of supremacy'' that ``distinguishes this tree'' was that, unlike the other trees, it did not ``shirk the work of resisting gravity.'' ``It chooses,'' he said, ``the horizontal direction for its limbs, so that their whole weight may tell; and then stretches them fifty or sixty feet.... To slant upward another degree would mark infirmity of purpose; to bend downwards, weakness of organization.'' He can hardly have been talking about all the branches of every oak - not only is it a kind of tree famous for specimens of distinct individuality, some tall and stately, some rounded and majestic, some widely sheltering, but there are also about 300 different species in the world. It is, however, intriguing that his observations have been echoed recently by the British sculptor Kenneth Armitage.

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WHO else has made serious sculpture in appreciation of the oak's peculiar qualities? Living in London, the Yorkshire-born Armitage has visited Richmond Park sporadically since his art school days, as ``the nearest refuge from city life.'' He writes that one day in 1975 he suddenly noticed characteristics in the park's oaks which he had previously taken for granted: their ``heavily textured trunks, the almost electric jerky right-angle growth throughout, and massive, horizontal, widely-extended lower boughs.'' A period of ``sustained excitement'' with mostly weekly visits to the park followed, lasting six years. It was ``all the more pleasing for its sudden beginning. The model was always the oak - other trees, however beautiful, had not the same strength of character.''

Some of his bronzes resulting from this study are being shown this year in a traveling exhibition in Britain called ``The Blasted Oak.'' This show, looking at the oak in European art, was the inspired idea of Ron Clarke, the keeper of fine art at Coventry's Herbert Art Gallery and Museum. It traveled to different galleries around Britain.

The exhibition's slightly haphazard catalog is nevertheless full of information on the oak. Artistic interest in the oak extends from Leonardo to Joseph Beuys (responsible for a project to plant 7,000 oaks in Kassel, West Germany, starting in 1982). The show also ranges over such topics as ``medieval perceptions'' of the oak; the connection of oaks with courtship and marriage ceremonies; oaks as boundary markers; the oak as viewed by naturalists, ecologists, Romantic artists; the oak as an emblem of royalty and as the study of antiquarians.

These last two aspects come together in the etchings of Jacob Strutt (1790-1864). Strutt, a friend of John Constable, had printed in 1826 his volume ``Sylva Britannica or Portraits of Forest Trees distinguished for their Antiquity.'' The etching of ``Queen Elizabeth's Oak'' is one of the plates from this in which all the trees depicted are seen as heroic objects worthy of admiration, curiosities ideal for antiquarian analysis.

There are royal oaks galore in Britain (not to mention pubs of the same name). Charles II seems to have found a hiding place in specimens up and down the country. And Elizabeth I is not only reputed to have slept in the state beds of countless ancient country mansions, but also to have had a number of favorite oak trees. I assumed at first that the oak in Strutt's etching was the one - now nothing more than a vast stump - in Greenwich Park in London. Beneath this old oak, ``fully twenty feet in girth,'' the official book on the park (1902) by A.D. Webster informs us, ``royalty have frequently congregated.'' In its hollowed trunk ``Queen Elizabeth oft partook of refreshments.'' And ``offenders against the Park rules'' were sometimes confined in it. The hardship of such imprisonment, however, may have been eased by the fact that a ``window was cut through the shell in the direction of One Tree Hill'' and that ``the interior is paved....''

THE ``Queen Elizabeth's Oak'' depicted by Strutt, however, turns out to be one at Huntingfield in Suffolk. Accompanying his etching, the artist quotes the words of the Rev. Charles Davey in 1773: ``...this Oak, from which the tradition is that [Queen Elizabeth] shot a buck with her own hand, was her favorite tree; it is still in some degree of vigour, though most of its boughs are broken off, and those which remain are approaching a total decay, as well as its vast trunk; the principal arm, now bald with antiquity, shoots up to a great height above the leafage, and being hollow and truncated at the top, with several cracks resembling loop-holes, through which the light shines into its cavity, it gives us an idea of the winding staircase in a lofty Gothic turret, which, detached from the other ruins of some venerable pile, hangs tottering to its fall, and affects the mind of a beholder after the same manner by its greatness and sublimity.''

You'd imagine from this that the poor old tree had only a year or two to go. But Strutt's observation in 1824, though it showed that ``the principal arm'' had been ``considerably shortened,'' was still of a grand tree. Davey had estimated that it was 600 years old in 1773. In a Little Guide to Suffolk of 1904, revised in 1956, the author records that the ``hollow oak, ... though very decrepit, still survives.''

I think that one of these years I'll make a side trip to Huntingfield to see how it's doing today.

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