Just when the ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ dissolves into ‘Death and decay in all around I see’,
the oaks stands supreme. When most other trees have lost their leaves, the oaks hang tenaciously onto theirs until some good hard frosts and a howling gale or two make them give up.
Out of the 500 or so varieties that grow around the world, two are native to this country: the Common or Pendunculate, which has stalked-acorns and short-stalked leaves, and the Sessile, which has stalkless acorns and long stalked leaves. The three main introduced varieties are the Red Oak which turns a vivid red in autumn, the Turkey Oak which has bristly acorn cups and the Holm Oak, which resembles a giant holly with its evergreen, glossy, spineless leaves.
There can’t be many trees that have as many uses as oaks. In the New Forest the old custom of letting pigs
loose to feed on the acorns is still exercised. This is manna from heaven to pigs and because they hoover
them up at such a rate, it means that there is less chance of horses and ponies being poisoned by the things.
The bark has been harvested for centuries to extract tannin to tan hides. The heartwood itself is one of the
most valuable timbers as it has such long-lasting qualities. There’s hardly a thing it’s not useful for – fence
posts, hand rails, floorboards, furniture, church pulpits, staircases and panelling in mansions, ladder rungs
and cartwheel spokes, and, because it is impervious to alcohol, beer barrels and wine casks are also made of
it. Then there are all those timbered houses still standing centuries after they were built.
And don’t forget the ships. A little island like ours needed ships to defend itself so it was as well that we had
more than just a few oaks around. The keel, frame and ribs of every great sailing ship, from the Viking era
on, were made of oak, and a single man o’war took the timber from 3000 trees – good job they self-seed at
such a phenomenal rate.
On a warm, sunny late autumn afternoon, little swarms of midges danced their strange little up and down
dance over the surface of a muddy patch beneath some trees. I say midges with only a modicum of
confidence as they might well have been mosquitos or gnats. What I do know is that there are certain
midges that swarm in these conditions during late autumn and winter months and I also know (because I
have a book which tells me so) that they are fragile, slender little things and that there are two families of
them, one of which can bite while others cannot. This is because they have poorly developed mouthparts and
no piercing proboscis to penetrate all those uncovered bits of me and you that some of them enjoy.
You have to have some sympathy for them as this means that the adult can’t feed and thus becomes a
deceased midge rather quickly. Mind you, it has probably done most of its feeding in its previous existence as
a larva, tucking into decaying plant life. All the same, this hapless little midge doesn’t seem to have much
fun and it does make you wonder whether God was having an off-day when it was time to create it.
I’m not being ungrateful to those who work so hard to make towns look festive at this time of the year, but
just for a moment, an elegant birch, with branches and twigs traced delicately against a rare patch of sky and
twinkling with leaves that hang like droplets of liquid gold, made even the brightest man-made decoration
look dull. The leaves, of course, will be down in the next high wind, whilst all those other fairy-like creations
will, hopefully, stick it out until Twelfth Night. All the same, my thanks to all those thoughtful landscapers
whose imagination give us trees in the middle of shopping precincts.