Book review: Thomas Pakenham's lyrical chronicle of a year spent planting and pursuing trees is a delight

Historian, botanist and – above all – tree lover, Pakenham brings a daring spirit and profound knowledge to his subject

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 October, 2015, 9:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 October, 2015, 9:02pm

Few have ever indulged their inclinations on a grander scale than Thomas Pakenham, whose passion is for trees. The scarlet maple was his first love, the ginkgo remains his favourite, and he would give his eye teeth for a Magnolia sargentiana. He says he is prepared to die for the silver fir that guards the approaches to his crumbling Irish castle, where the blue pine in his Chinese garden waggles her sinuous brown hips for him "like a dancing girl … in a shimmering skirt of blue-green needles".

This is an exuberant tale of greed and gratified desire by a romantic who, for 50 years and more, has been planting trees by the thousand on his family estate in the Irish county of Westmeath. Pakenham is now in his 82nd year, and buying magnolias like a madman "in what the Germans call Torschlusspanik" - last-minute or door-closing panic. He wants a packet of monkey puzzle seeds from Patagonia so that "when I am old I shall look up from my wheelchair lost in a forest of monkey puzzles". They grow 20cm a year at best, so there should be plenty of time for further instalments of Pakenham's ongoing tree saga that started nearly 20 years ago with Meetings with Remarkable Trees.

His fourth volume, The Company of Trees, chronicles a year in its author's life of planning and planting - and also travelling in pursuit of the great plant-hunters, Joseph Hooker, George Forrest and Ernest Wilson, who scoured the world for 19th-century garden-builders such as the Williamses at the Cornish castle of Caerhays, and the Holfords of Westonbirt in Gloucestershire.

Pakenham is his own tree-hunter, exploring the high Andes where the monkey puzzles grow on top of a Patagonian cliff structured in a series of vertical folds the shape and colour of a bundle of cigars. He makes expeditions to Sikkim and to the mountains of Tibet, edging along fallen tree trunks across ravines with roaring rivers far below, dodging bears, snow leopards and Chinese government restrictions, returning each time with prodigious quantities of seed to be reared in the greenhouses and finally let loose on the grounds of Tullynally.

Among the most desperate of these escapades was a journey he made closer to home, fearful and disorientated, inching forward on his stomach through dense spiny undergrowth - "On I went, burrowing like a rat, my bare arms … scratched and bruised" - until he finally blundered into a colony of wild bees who stung him savagely, leaving him to face the night, lost and lying in pitch dark on the bare stony ground of what turned out to be his own bog at Tullynally.

In some sense he seems to be re-enacting in characteristic boys'-own-adventure terms the sufferings of trees, themselves facing progressively more serious threats in the course of his four volumes. Perennial enemies such as honey fungus still lie in wait with coiled black tentacles in subterranean lairs. Accelerating Atlantic gales decimate beech and sycamore. Mechanisation empowers the timber trade that has since time immemorial cut down forests and cleared jungles. A grim photo of smashed silver firs in Sichuan shows a wilderness of splintered stumps surmounted by the admonitory, pointing, broken fingers of a single skeletal black survivor.

All the old traditional dangers are increasingly backed up and overtaken by new rots and blights that have virtually wiped out the UK's elms, and look set to do the same for ash, oak and chestnut trees. Another of Pakenham's eloquent photos shows the corpse of a mighty chestnut killed at his front door by bleeding canker. "Of course, any genuinely wild forest is a knacker's yard of dead and dying trees," he writes, describing the monkey puzzles lumbering down ancestral Andean slopes, "their trunks bloated with carbuncles and their elephantine feet splayed out drunkenly across the rocky hillside".

The females of that ancient indomitable species remain rampant breeders: "You could see the aggressive green cones of these females - cones the size and shape of cannonballs, jostling each other on the scaly tips of the branches."

Similar tactics won't work for the giant alerce, a cousin of the European cypress that grows up to 70 metres, measures 7.5 metres around the trunk, and would live for 2,000 years if the species had not been virtually wiped out in Argentina. Pakenham tracked down a captive specimen, sole survivor of a primeval forest: "He had been confined to a wooden cage inside the wooden boardwalk. We could see his feet and the lower part of his legs … His height was anyone's guess."

Not to be outclassed by the Andeans, local authorities in Ireland recently eliminated the last of their country's ancient oakwoods at Coolattin in County Wicklow, rescinding preservation orders as fast as the government could grant felling permits in what Pakenham calls "a nimble pas de deux … danced … to the raucous tune of the chainsaws". The nefarious "native tree scheme" pays landowners to root up sycamores and chop down beechwoods, replacing them with oak and ash, themselves too often foreign imports infected with the deadly ash dieback, which has spread far and wide in consequence.

Pakenham has fun with the arbitrary decrees of fundamentalists eager to ban immigrants such as the ginkgo, a species at least 20 million years old that flourished in Britain (along with other supposed aliens such as magnolia, sequoia and the Douglas fir) long before either oak or ash. "From the point of view of the ginkgo, native to Britain in about 4 million BC, the oak and ash are interlopers."

Pakenham responded to these depredations by commissioning six so-called Green Men, whose ancestors can still be found in medieval churches: carved wooden heads choked or gagged by clinging tendrils, with foliage sprouting from mouth and nostrils, one spitting ivy leaves, another in the act of suffocation, tearing with both hands at his hawthorn garrotte.

"Are they celebrating man's union with nature, or warning us of the wages of sin?" asks Pakenham, who feared at first for the sanity of his carver, Antoine Pierson.

Ancient or modern, these Green Men look more like the revenge of trees on their tormentors. Pakenham himself claims to have known people they haunted and drove mad: "not just Green Men mocking them from the roofs and walls of churches, but Green Men leering at them from curtains and the backs of chairs, Green Men poking about behind sofas and tallboys, Green Men waking them in the night with tongues protruding and fangs at the ready".

If there is a personal note here, it is perhaps endemic in ambitious garden-makers. Pakenham belongs to a long line of them, starting with an 18th-century Earl of Longford, another Thomas Pakenham, who laid out "sweeping clumps of beech and lime … swooping belts of beech and ash" at Tullynally. His layout was extended in the 19th century by the fourth Earl, and 100 years later by the author, who inherited the estate from an uncle in 1961, becoming the eighth Earl (a title he doesn't use) on his father's death.

All three were extravagant planters, carrying on a kind of three-cornered conversation down three-and-a-half centuries, extending, renewing, reshaping and sometimes overruling each other's schemes as they went. All three must have learned on the job how to collect, sort and sift acorns ("I had no idea breeding and bloodlines were so important in the world of trees"), how to set out 1,500 seedlings at a time, and how to fill a forest by allowing seven times as many saplings as you are likely to need: "Then you let them fight it out. In an astonishingly short time the main battle is over."

The Tullynally trio recorded their conclusions on the landscape in majestic 18th-century beeches, towering stands of Caucasian fir, glades of magnolia and groves of maple ("In spring the colours … range from jade-green to lobster-pink. In autumn they turn to mixtures of purple, crimson and gold"). Their combined effort in oak culminates in the millennium wood, planted 15 years ago, "broad-chested muscular creatures 20-30 feet high, broader than Westmeath bullocks and as upright as guardsmen". Trees are, as this book points out, "the biggest living things in these islands, taller than most buildings, older than many ancient monuments", and, like the Williamses at Caerhays and the Holfords of Westonbirt, the planting Pakenhams have done them proud in person and in print.

The Company of Trees: A Year in a Lifetime's Quest  by Thomas Pakenham (W&N)

The Guardian