Face to Face With Four Tremendous Trees

We make meccas of mountains and career in crowds to canyons. We wallow in waterfalls. We smile at Mona Lisa and gawp at Michelangelo's David.

But I've never heard of a tree tour.

Yet ancient individual trees are often among the wonders of the world - sights indeed to see.

Thomas Pakenham, in his photographically compelling book "Meetings With Remarkable Trees" (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London; Random House, New York, 190 pp.), makes a praiseworthy effort to redress the balance by touring Britain and Ireland to encounter some 60 arboreal marvels. The documentary result is his one-man stand against what he describes as an "indifference towards old trees" that "makes a mockery of our supposed new respect for the environment." It's true that Mr. Pakenham came across some severely neglected trees on his travels. But the awe-inspiring survivors he found and recorded show the other side of the coin.

Pakenham's book offers a kind of blueprint for tree-touring - even if his map does not pinpoint the specimens he chose. As I discovered, following in his footsteps to "meet" four of his specimens (in Scotland and Cumbria, England), some extra geographical research was required.

The silver fir at Strone on Loch Fyne, for example, can be located more easily once you know it is in Ardkinglas Woodland Gardens. My visit was on a dim, damp winter day. I was (and I think this is the best way to visit great trees) completely alone.

I had been told to look for the head gardener, David Gray, whom I never found. But when I spoke to him later on the phone, he told me something of the history of the woodlands and the fir. Nobody knows when it was planted. Silver fir was introduced into Scotland about 1680.

On what little evidence Mr. Gray can find, he reckons this tree may have been planted early in the 1700s. He agrees with the comment in an 1881 article by then-forester Thomas Wilkie that some "weak-minded man" had ill-advisedly cut off some of the tree's "leading shoots."

But in making it useless as commercial timber, that man may have contributed to the tree's preservation for aesthetic reasons. By 1908, the tree prompted Charles Sargent, American dendrologist and founding director of the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, Mass., to call it "undeniably the mightiest conifer ... of any living kind in Europe."

I wondered if I'd recognize this unique example of Abies alba among all the trees at Ardkinglas. But when you finally come on it there isn't the slightest doubt. Instead of being one straight trunk, this is virtually four massive trees in one. Other good-sized trees near it look like saplings.

EACH of its lower limbs is a gigantic trunk in its own right and surges almost horizontally outward until it has enough space above to charge skyward. Their sheer brute power makes the tree more like some branching river in space. "Ah! Yes!" I said (no one was listening), "you are the one all right."

One thing that seemed certain about this tree was its perfect indifference to my tendency to see it as a work of art. It is not. It is a work of nature. This is something the novelist John Fowles makes clear in his remarkable small book "The Tree." He also emphasizes what each of my tree meetings reinforced to me: "Ancient" trees are not simply admirable because of their life-spans or their girth and height, but more because they epitomize a quite other sense of time than mere human clocking and calendaring.

This feeling was no less so with the big brute of a lime tree at Holker Hall in the Lake District. The head gardener, Graham Moulstone, took me to see it. We circled its deeply fissured, bony trunk together and discussed its magnificence as well as its provision of home, in its hollow, for rabbits. But I wasn't sure I had actually "met" the lime tree in the fullest sense.

At Dunkeld, by the half-ruined cathedral, I stared admiringly over a fence at an extremely old larch. But what I had really come to find was a great oak that Pakenham photographed in the snow and then wrote about as "the tree that did not go to Dunsinane." (Remember "Macbeth'' and the fatal movement of trees from Birnam Wood to Dunsinane?) Frankly, I could have done without this probably spurious reference, repeated from the label discreetly placed a few feet from the tree itself. I found the riverside oak once I had clear directions from a cathedral gardener: down steps at the other end of the bridge, turn right, follow the path.

BUT trees don't need labels! This one, of symphonic proportion and grandeur, speaks for itself, boiling and grumbling out of the earth, stretching its branches to impossibly wandering extremes, like the writhing tails of Chinese dragons. A tree that has become a landscape. As for its mossed trunk, it isn't its hollow that strikes you, but its hard solidity.

Today, people - not indifferent in this case - have put in crutches to support the sinuous limbs. I'm not sure what to think of such props, except they may make it safer to circumnavigate this crusty old giant. Pakenham's photo is very good indeed. But it is also a kind of prop. Photography can do no real justice to the tree as immediate experience.

A folk saying has it that "an oak is 300 years growing, 300 years blowing, 300 years dying, and 300 years decaying...." Maybe. But this antiquity appears to be performing all its consecutive stages at the same time.

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