With its vast tunnel of a trunk, skin-like bark wrinkled over the centuries, and misshapen but long-stretching arms, the English countryside possesses no greater symbol of nature’s longevity than the antique oak.
In the Kenn Valley near Exeter, Devon, a chain of 250-year-old oak trees anchor the patchwork of red soil fields rising up to Haldon Hill and its decorative belvedere. The tree’s planting was commissioned on behalf of the Haldon Estate by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, the great mid-eighteenth-century landscape architect who designed over 170 parks and gardens across England.
Two of Brown’s oaks sit on my parents’ farm and I’ve tried to capture the feel and setting of one of the siblings. Yet, there’s more to these pictures than the appreciation of a magnificent organism.
In its 250 years, the oak has borne witness to global industrial take-off and the computing revolution of recent decades. In 1750, Britain, the most advanced nation in the world, was just – to use E. A. Wrigley’s terminology – an “advanced organic economy” with about 40% of our population engaged in agriculture. Malthusian restraints kept the global population hovering around the 1 billion mark.
Wars, famine, disease, technological advance, social change, crime, fear, life and death: that oak tree has survived them all. A bolt of lightning in a long-forgotten storm was only able to stunt its growth. Those thick, concrete roots simply dug deeper into the earth.
Mankind’s boundless faith in its own ingenuity has seen it transform the planet in a time period barely longer than this single tree’s lifespan. Some might read that as evidence of human power. Perhaps it is rather a symbol of nature’s staggering resilience that places humanity’s achievements into more humble perspective.