Nature’s story

<strong>Beechcombings: the Narratives of Trees</strong>

Richard Mabey <em>Chatto & Windus, 288pp,

Founded on the belief that “to be without trees would, in the most literal way, to be without our roots”, this meditation on beeches could easily have creaked with tired puns. Fortunately, Richard Mabey writes elegantly and unassumingly, particularly when roaming into the realm of paean rather than history.

By exploring our understanding of trees, Mabey shows just how knotty their mythical and cultural meanings can be – there is a wonderful section on the “body language” of beeches that highlights our temptation to anthropomorphise. The meaning of the word “natural” is challenged in an engaging manner, although Mabey treats the issue somewhat casually.

The beech tree comes to stand as a model for irregular, unbounded nature itself. But Mabey’s material resists structuring, which makes reading Beechcombings like meandering through a dense forest: the odd passage has an uncanny resemblance to a section you’re sure you passed earlier, and the paths is constantly broken by anecdotal side turnings. In fact, it is often pretty difficult to see the path at all. Mabey posits some interesting questions, but, ever the deferential naturalist, proves too polite to impose any answers.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan