• Roger Waterhouse

The Speed of Giants


I've recently read two books about trees, both of which I would recommend. One is "The Hidden life of Trees" by Peter Wohlleben (Greystone Books, £16.99). The other "The Wisdom of Trees" by Mark Adams (Head of Zeus, £14.99). As the titles indicate, these are not technical handbooks. Both are written by men with a passion for trees and a deep understanding of them. Both are foresters, though Wohlleben is a forester turned writer, while Adams is primarily a writer who loves trees. One works in the Eifel mountains of Southern Germany, the other in Northumbria. Both start from the premise that trees are living, interacting, communicating beings, albeit without consciousness. Both know their science - though Wohlleben's knowledge seems wider and deeper. Neither is mystical, though the German inclines towards the animistic at times. Both books are well written and very readable. The Adams book is beautifully illustrated with images from John Evelyn's 1776 classic "Sylva", though often these are decorative rather than germane to the text. However well you think you know your trees and your woods there is a lot to be learned from these books, especially the Wohlleben one. It is bound to challenge sorts of things you thought were unquestionable. And I would judge it as a masterpiece of ecological writing.


But I didn't intend this as a review of books. One of the points strongly made by Wohlleben is that tree time is so much slower than that of most plants and animals. An 8 inch long beech twig in the forest might be 25 years old. and a trunk with a diameter less than an inch might be 80 years old. This I found surprising, but not incredible.

We used to have a huge lime tree at the end of our drive. It had been one of a row of trees, the rest of which had been felled many yers ago. And I mean probably 100 years ago. The trunks had completely rotted away and just left holes - but the root systems continued to throw up suckers year after year, and in spite of regular coppicing, still do.

The remaining lime overshadowed the orchard we had planted, and stunted most of the trees. So, reluctantly, we had it taken down. It was probably 80 or 90 feet high, and yielded a lot of usable wood (we planked some of it). And the felling confirmed by the tree rings that it was well over 100 years old.


Recently, we had to remove another giant. This was a poplar, sited at the western end of our lawn. Throughout the summer months the evening shadows just got longer and longer. We had the top 20 feet removed, but a few years later it was as bad again, so, come the winter, we decided it had to go.

Christian is our professional tree worker and he enjoys the challenge of an 80 or 90 foot tree.

So, up he went, removing all the lower branches.

Then, in the approved manner, he took the top off.

And finally, he felled the trunk.

So, what was the age of this venerable giant? 90? 120? 150 years?

The answer is 23.

We know, because we planted the tree as a 4 year old sapling 19 years ago. And if you count the rings, that's what they confirm.


You live and learn. I am quite sure that Herr Wohlleben is absolutely right about beech tree growth in primeval forest conditions. We hadn't read his book when we planted our poplar. It wasn't in a forest, but it wasn't in an entirely open space. It was surrounded by hawthorn, cherry and crab apple. We didn't think that within our lifetime it would totally overshadow the competition.

But we should have taken warning from another poplar (which pre-dated us) growing by the river. When it got to about 40 feet I took it down and used the wood. Nobody uses poplar wood. I turned it, and made a series of very light bowls, one of which my son is still using for salads after 15 years.

So, I now have a lot of poplar wood, some of which Christian has planked. The crutch pieces i shall turn into bowls. But the wood is so full of moisture that I when I turn it green I know it will throw out a spray of sap.

And what I also know is that the tree is far from dead. Its root system extends outwards at least 20 feet in all directions, and every year it sends up suckers from all its roots. Even if the stump dies off, and the bole eventually rots, I think the ghost of that poplar will haunt us for years to come. It will add longevity to its speed.

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