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Endeavour’s life starts in an unrecorded time, in a subterranean space several inches deep. There, as summer fades into autumn, an oak tree begins life as an acorn.
An acorn is a capsule, protected by a waxy skin. Inside is stored a genetic code and enough nutrients, tannins and essential oils to sustain it during its fragile early weeks. In September, it begins to grow, slowly, until after a fortnight its shell bursts open. For the first time, the acorn’s insides can be seen. The ochre hue of the kernel contrasts sharply with the mahogany-brown of the shell, which cracks under the strain. A root dives downward, a tiny probe, seeking water and nutrients. By November, as the earth above gets a coating of frost, the husk of its shell has been pushed clear. In its place are the earliest signs of a stem, which ventures up, seeking light.
After four months the acorn’s shell is shattered and discarded and gone. The stem is now the central feature of the tiny plant. It continues to rise. At six months, as the April sun begins to strengthen, it breaks through the soil. It seems other-worldly, blanched, ethereal, like a skeletal arm in a clichéd horror film reaching from the grave. Within days this pallor subsides and a vibrant, joyous green overspreads it. The acorn of the previous autumn is gone. In its place is a seedling oak, an oakling, two inches tall, capped with a pair of helicopter leaves that tilt and turn and thrill to the sun. The plant has no longer to rely on its inbuilt store of energy. Now it photosynthesises in the sunshine, the newest addition to a woodland floor, hidden among brambles, bluebells and wood anemone. More leaves appear and already for those who study it closest they display their familiar, lobed form. As summer progresses these leaves emit a golden glow. Soon the oakling stands out among the flowers, exposed to rabbits, voles, browsing cattle or deer, but otherwise filled with promise for the future.
* * *
No one can say for certain just where the oaks that made Endeavour grew. Thomas Fishburn, the Whitby shipwright in whose yard she was built in 1764, left no records. Perhaps they have been lost or destroyed. Perhaps they did not exist to begin with.
Some might say that the trees grew in the snow-carpeted forests of central Poland. Cut with axes in the bitter continental winter, the timber would be floated down the Vistula to Danzig where it would be sold and loaded into the holds of merchantmen bound for Britain. Plying the old sea paths, those once sailed by the portly cogs of the Hanseatic League, the merchantmen would cross the Baltic, thread through the strait that separates Denmark from Sweden before entering the subdued mass of water called the German Ocean that conducted them to England’s eastern shore.
Roger Fisher, a shipwright from Liverpool, voiced a different theory. In 1763 he wrote that the eastern shipbuilding ports of ‘North Yarmouth, Hull, Scarborough, Stocton, Whitby, Sunderland, Newcastle, and the North coast of Scotland’ sourced their oak chiefly from the fertile lowlands that bordered the rivers Trent and Humber.1 Writing at the moment Endeavour’s oak would have been reaching the Whitby yards, Fisher’s opinion cannot be discarded. But, equally, it seems more flimsy the more that it is examined. Fisher was a west-coast man. He confessed to having little knowledge of the ways of the eastern ports. All that he had gathered had come second- or third-hand.
Fisher was writing to a different purpose, too. His book on British oak, Heart of Oak: the British Bulwark, was published in 1763, a loaded year in history. This was the year the Treaty of Paris concluded the Seven Years War. During this conflict England’s woodlands had suffered violent incursions from foresters, determined to supply the growing navy. Like so many before him, Fisher had been left cold by the destruction. He saw it everywhere. The forests, woods, hursts and chases of Old England were vanishing and he filled his Heart of Oak with evidence of this. Contacts in the timber trade had told him ‘fifteen parts out of twenty’ of England’s woodlands had been ‘exhausted within these fifty years’.2 The axe had been thrown indiscriminately. In the river valleys and sunny southern fields, in Wales and the ancient Midland forests, the story was the same.
To Fisher’s mind the country stood as a pivot between the virtuous homespun past and a bleak treeless future. To underscore his theme Fisher evoked a vision of yesteryear. He pictured a landowner, at one with nature, ‘a little cloyed with enjoyment’, and wishing ‘to retire from business, or for the sake of meditation’, taking a saunter in his spacious woodlands. This was the Horatian ideal, liberty from the cares and distractions of the city. Using the present tense to enhance the sense of loss, Fisher described how:
The variety of the scene revives his drooping spirits. On the branch of a full topt oak, at a small distance, the blackbird and thrush warble forth their notes, and, as it were, bless their benefactor. A little farther, the turtle dove, having lost his mate, sends forth his mournful plaint, till, by means of echo from a neighbouring wood, passing through the silent air, the happy pair are again united. Variety of changes draw on the pleasing hour amongst the massy bodies of the full-grown oaks and thriving plants. The prospect of his country’s good warms his heart.3
Anticipating Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring by two centuries, Roger Fisher was depicting the same vision of a paradise lost. Recent scholarship has indicated, though, that the oak problem was not as grave as he believed. Fisher may well have suffered a form of environmental panic, half seen, half felt, a type that would become increasingly prevalent in times ahead. In the 1760s attitudes like his masked a historical truth. In the mid-eighteenth century, as Thomas Fishburn went searching for faithful timber, there might not have been an abundance of oak – but there was still plenty left.
* * *
Ancient, twisted, vast, with their goliath limbs outstretched, almost every English parish had its own loved oak, a timeless presence on the landscape. When the clergyman and naturalist Gilbert White started to document the natural history of Selborne in Hampshire in the 1760s, he set out with a description of the village oak. He wrote mournfully of a ‘venerable’ tree that had stood in the centre of Selborne on a green by the church. The oak had a ‘short squat body, and huge horizontal arms extending almost to the extremity of the area’. For centuries it had been ‘the delight of old and young’. Parishioners had surrounded it with stone steps, and had erected seats around it so that it had become ‘a place of much resort in summer evenings’. The village elders had made it their custom to congregate at the Selborne oak ‘in grave debate’, while the young parishioners ‘frolicked and danced before them’.4
A similar story came from White’s contemporary, Reverend Sir John Cullum, who included a description of the parish oak in the opening paragraph of his History and Antiquities of Hawsted, and Hardwick (1784). Cullum wrote of ‘a majestic tree’ named the Gospel Oak that ‘stood on an eminence, and commanded an extensive prospect’. On his annual ‘perambulations’ Cullum and his congregation would pause in the shade of the tree, and ‘surveying a considerable extent of a fruitful and well-cultivated country, repeat some prayers proper for the occasion’.5 This image of the worshipful parishioners under the village oak is a vivid one, and Cullum was only doing what generations had done before him. A millennium before, the Anglo-Saxons had been buried in hollowed-out trunks of oak. People had pinned oak leaves to their jackets as signs of fealty and carried acorns in their pockets for luck.
If people recognised the oak’s potency as a symbol, they venerated the tree equally for its strength. No tree could compete. A favourite classical tale told of Milo of Croton in ancient Greece. ‘Renowned in history for his prodigious strength’, explained a book in the 1760s, Milo was six times victor at the Olympic Games, ‘he is said to have carried on his shoulders the whole length of a stadium an ox four years old; to have killed it with a single blow of his fist; and to have eaten the whole carcass in one day’.6 The story was subverted by Milo’s demise. Having found an old oak, to flaunt his strength Milo had tried to rip it open with his hands. As he grasped the tree, it closed around him. In an instant the oak had transformed Greece’s strongest man into its most tragic victim. Unable to free himself, a pack of wolves had emerged, tearing Milo to pieces.
People did not need to know Milo’s story to recognise the oak’s strength. They only had to look around them, to the great manor houses and cathedrals that adorned the landscape, to the towers and bridges and a hundred everyday objects from mill wheels to casks, cudgels, daggers and poles. To look at the parish oak as Cullum and White did during these years was to stir associations of quiet, brooding might. Both intrigued by nature, the clergymen may have realised that an oak derives its strength from its shape. A mature specimen can be three times as wide as it is tall. On a January day when the tree is stripped of its leaves you can absorb this. There it stands, serpentine limbs outstretched. When winds whip through these branches they sway and strain like levers, gathering up elemental energy. The forces are channelled backwards, from the budding tips, to the smallest branches and back along the boughs to the trunk. The motion creates massive stress forces. When 60 mph winds gust against the tree, it is equivalent to a weight of 220 tons. Oaks, like all nature, seek equilibrium. They respond by fortifying their wood and stiffening their fibres.
This is what the oaks would have done at Hawstead and Selborne, as would the other cherished English oaks: the Darley Oak in Cornwall, the Bowthorpe Oak in Lincolnshire or the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest. In a society changing fast, these oak trees provided powerful links with the past. They were the perpetual survivors, the time-hallowed, stoic relics of a medieval age. But these were not the trees that had made the country great. Those that had were the young oaks, aged between 50–150 years old, felled in a continuous harvest to build anything that had to last and needed to be strong. As the Cambridge ecologist Oliver Rackham later put it, this left England a place ‘of young or youngish trees, like a human population with compulsory euthanasia at age thirty’.7
Copyright © 2018 by Peter Moore