A study of a tree: the holm oak

On my daily walks I often take a route through the patch of woodland on Pendennis Headland near my home in Falmouth. The path meanders through lush field maple, sycamore and wildflowers before turning down to join the road, but if you continue off the beaten track you reach two areas of beautiful old oaks.

As you enter the second of these especially a hush descends on the clearing and you become aware you are in the presence of something ancient. A carpet of brown leaves shifts underfoot as you step further in amongst these peaceful sentries. Each of them is striking in its own way, but one tree stands out as being the most majestic. Reaching long arms out across the ground, its crown a Medusa mass of writhing branches, this tree holds me captive each time I am in its presence. Its trunk twisted, its cacophony of limbs, some heavy and grounded, others reaching skyward, gives it an essence of the macabre. There is an almost foreboding element to its beauty.

There is a magnetism to this oak but also an undercurrent of fear that bubbles in the bottom of my gut. Something about those serpent-esque branches and how they reach out towards me. They look as if they were made for motion, as if the tree is caught in a momentary pause whenever I look at it, only to return to an unnerving undulation as soon as I look away. If I look away for long enough, will one of those branches reach out towards me and grapple at my jacket with bony fingers? Will it try to pull me in towards a gaping mouth, or coil around my body and squeeze until my eyes bulge?

I decide the only thing for it is to get closer. A proper introduction is in order. I approach gently, as if to avoid startling a great beast into attack, and place a hand either side of the nearest branch. The bark is more grey than brown and cracked, the branch thick at its base then eventually tapering out along the ground, like a muscular elephant’s trunk caked in dried mud. I close my eyes and feel.

At first I am only aware of the dry bark beneath my skin, but all of a sudden there is a sensation, a sort of vibration, travelling into my palms. All living things vibrate, so could it be the tree’s vibrations as a living entity that I am experiencing? It’s hard to know, and when I ask my partner to do the same on a separate visit to the tree he doesn’t feel anything, so maybe I’m romanticising it. But I do feel something, some sort of energy. It’s similar to when you rub your palms together for a minute then hold your hands apart, palms facing, and you can feel a tingling sensation when the palms get closer.

On this occasion I just felt and absorbed the energy coming from the tree, but on my walk through there the following day I thought it only fair to try to reciprocate; to share some of my energy as a living being with it. So when I placed my palms to its bark this time, after feeling that same vibration or presence, I focused on sharing my own, on opening a two-way channel.

Now each time I approach this tree I say a silent hello, reach up to a branch, and close my eyes. If you’re ever in Falmouth and passing that way through the woods near Pendennis Point, and you see a young woman standing by a great oak with her eyes closed don’t be alarmed. We’re just having a moment.

I believe this tree and those surrounding it to be holm oaks, also known as the holly oak, so named for their holly-like leaves. This species isn’t native to Britain. It was introduced to Britain in the late 1500s, and hails from the eastern Mediterranean. An evergreen species, in young trees the leaves are spiny, but on older trees the leaves have a smoother edge. The leaves on this tree are smoother, as expected – it’s clearly been around a while! To the touch, they’re glossy on top and downy on the underside.

In Max Adams’ beautiful book, The Wisdom of Trees, he refers to the several life stages of an oak, including “stag-headed dinosaur” and eventually “withered wreck”. I feel this oak may be somewhere between the two.

I thought I would leave you with a quote from one of my favourite books, Wildwood by the late, great Roger Deakin:

The enemies of woods are always the enemies of culture and humanity.

Wildwood by Roger Deakin

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