James Canton’s latest non-fiction work reflects on the relationship between humans and oak trees. Canton spends time in the company of one oak tree in particular, the Honywood Oak. In Canton’s home county, Essex, the Honywood Oak has stood for over 800 years on the Marks Hall Estate. And while its compatriots are no more, this tree becomes an enduring symbol for them all.
Canton visits this tree in all seasons, and through each visit, his life is enriched. He is motivated to research the importance of this oak, and all oaks, in all of our lives. From British naval use to literary inspiration, Canton teases out meaning sitting in the lee of the tree.
The Oak Papers is very much a nature piece, as it is the oak’s natural world that is expanded in the greatest detail. In particular, Canton introduces the entire ecosystem that this tree creates. There are the birds: chaffinches, thrushes, buzzards; the animals: squirrels, even foxes, and the smallest creatures, bees and gnats. These beings live in the shadows of oaks, and feed off each other as they share the space created by the trees.
Canton speaks of other oaks too – the Stag-Headed Oak, Field Oak, oaks on the Two Oak Hill, but when he comes to the Honywood oak, he is home. Throughout the book, he also talks of the magic in these trees. The supernatural world of Druids, faeries, and Green people comes alive. Canton feels their presence at times, and his connection with the oak enables him to briefly feel them just at the edge of consciousness.
The only piece missing in this book is the ‘science’ of oaks. Short of touching upon the communication between trees, Canton never ventures into science. It leaves the reader wanting more although this takes nothing away from the beautiful language and meditative nature of this work which lends itself to quiet reflective reading; especially as the world around us continues to be uncertain. There will be a reading of the book on BBC Radio 4 throughout August.