Suffering from misleading blurb syndrome…
🙂 🙂 🙂
In her short introduction Stafford tells us of her life-long love for trees, and discusses the place they have held through the generations in myth and art. She points to the ambivalence of our attitude towards trees: our love, occasionally even worship, of them contrasting with our continuing destruction of forests. Some of the language she uses is lovely – evocative, lyrical even…
The oak branch is my golden bough, offering immediate safe conduct from one world to another. It transports me to a particular day and tree, and then on to other oaks and their places, some of these known personally, others vicariously through things I have been told, or through poems and stories, photographs and paintings. Sometimes it will take me full circle, from heroes to local histories, tales of magic and metamorphosis, panegyrics and protests, fables of planting and felling, and on through forests of wood carvings, masts, musical instruments, and furniture, until I am back in the same room, surrounded by familiar things. They are never quite the same.
The book then takes the format of a short chapter per species of tree. While many of the trees discussed grow in various places around the world, Stafford sticks for the most part to trees that are native to Britain. Each chapter tells us some facts about the species – its lifespan, how it propagates, etc. There are snippets from poems and literature, showing how the tree has been seen symbolically over time – again, largely British literature. Stafford discusses how the trees have been used by humanity – what uses the wood of a particular species has been put to, whether the tree produces food or has been used for medicinal purposes and so on. She looks at the impact of our activities on the environment and discusses threats to the species’ survival where relevant.
Some of the factlets are interesting; for example, that holly trees were around in the age of the dinosaurs, or that “In medieval Europe, the demand for longbows led to the destruction of European yew forests, in an early version of the arms trade – with all its ironies. Yew wood imported from French forests might well return home to launch deadly arrows at the very people who had felled it.” Stafford also mentions superstitions relating to particular trees, such as rowan trees being seen as giving protection from witches. And where species have great longevity, such as the yew, she tells of specific trees that have found their own place in history – or perhaps legend would be more accurate – like the yew tree at Fortingall in Perthshire, still surviving today, under which, it is said, the young Pontius Pilate played when visiting Britain with his father.
So there is plenty of interest in this book. However, apart from the introduction, it is written in a workmanlike style, almost like reading entries from a well written and researched encyclopaedia. The first line of the blurb claims it is “a lyrical tribute to the diversity of trees, their physical beauty, their special characteristics and uses, and their ever-evolving meanings.” I’d have to argue with the word “lyrical” – the lyricism that flares up briefly when Stafford talks of her own relationship to trees in the introduction disappears entirely once she begins to discuss the species separately. It’s fact-filled and clearly well researched, but impersonal and with little or no emotional content. The blurb also claims it is “beautifully illustrated” and again I fear I must disagree. It has many pencil drawings, but rarely of the trees under discussion. So there can be an entire chapter, such as the holly, for example, where there is no picture of a holly tree at all, nor even a drawing of one.
Unfortunately it was the promise of lyricism and beautiful illustrations that drew me to the book, meaning that I found it disappointing. I feel it’s a victim of misleading blurb syndrome – had it been described more accurately, my expectations would have been quite different going in – in truth, I probably wouldn’t have been attracted enough to read it. And yet it does what it does very well indeed – it provides a lot of interesting facts about trees and man’s relationship to them over the centuries. But for me nature writing is more about the beauty of the language and the author’s personal, emotional relationship with her subject, and I didn’t find that here. Hence my rather low and possibly unfair three star rating for a book that probably deserves more – the blurb in this case having led to a mismatch between book and reader.
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FF’s Second Law: Blurbs should accurately reflect the contents of the book to ensure they attract the right readers.
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NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.