The Reading Room

The Observer’s Book of Trees

Remembering the Observer’s Book series…

Regulars may recall a previous post of mine in which I review my copy of The Observer’s Book of British Wild Flowers, an early edition to the wonderful and much missed Observer’s Book series. Here then is my 1966 copy of the guide’s book on Trees, a brilliantly useful book which I take on my ramblings across the English countryside and through its woodlands.

First published in 1937 by Fredrick Warne & Co, it is numbered 4 on the spine and its cover in the same style of the earlier books before the ‘white’ and glossier editions many of us growing up in the 70s and 80s will be familiar with.

A book of more than one hundred tree varieties, it has many wonderful colour and monochrome illustrations and photographs including bark, leaf and twig identification tips. Compiled by the author of their Wild Flowers book; W.J. Stokoe, it is a comprehensive pocket sized guide to the trees and larger shrubs found in the British Isles.

Beautifully written, Stokoe describes the importance of our trees which so many of us take for granted. Trees are majestic, natural structures, they give back so much which we take for granted, they breathe life, provide timber, shelter, food and well being. That we have systematically set about destroying great areas of woodland and forests across the planet says much for our legacy and reminds us of the damage done by ignoring naturalists and scientists in the race to expand our footprint.

And this guide shows us the individuality of each specimen, the nuances in bud and leaf, bark and branch. The photographs are black and white interspersed with simple coloured illustrations of cones, nuts, leaves and berries. Reading this book I am reminded of a time in my childhood when I knew the identities of trees, sought out the best conkers and those specimens which encouraged the growth of weird and wonderful fungi.

As I write I am looking out at a line of Scots Pine and Douglas Fir trees, they create a stunning backdrop and I wonder their age and the footfall they have witnessed over decades past. This book prompts thoughts of the greater good of trees and the life it gives to a hidden underworld we rarely witness. The book tells us the full life span of a Douglas Fir is approximately seven hundred and fifty years, a staggering fact and what better appreciation can we ask for?

There are obviously many more books on trees available today, I can use my smartphone to identify whatever I see, there are millions of photographs of trees to use in identifying them but I like the idea of using this fifty three year old book with its monochrome images. It requires more work on the part of the user but it worked very well for a previous generation and gives me that sense of wonder I first felt as a child discovering the landscape for the first time. The Observer’s series was and continues to be a wonderful thing indeed.

See also: The Observer’s Book of British Wild Flowers

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