REVIEWED BY ANDREW BURTON
James Canton (Canongate: 2021)
Within the increasingly popular field of nature writing, I have noticed a couple of distinct offshoots emerging in recent years. One concerns writing about trees and their significance in our lives. In this strand, I would include Roger Deakin’s Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees (2007), Richard Mabey’s Beechcombings: the Narratives of Trees (also2007) and Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees (2016). Another strand is nature as solace and titles in this strand include Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk (2014), Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun (2016) and what must surely count as the urtext of nature writing and wellbeing; Mabey’s Nature Cure (2005).
James Canton has deftly woven these two strands together inhis compelling, illuminating and wonderfully meditative The Oak Papers. In August of this year, the author gave a fascinating interview exclusively for members of Suffolk Book League and the resulting film is available for members to view at www.suffolkbookleague.org. After logging on, a members’ area will open up where you can view this and future filmed author interviews.
When he began writing what would become The Oak Papers, James Canton was teaching at a secondary school and was battling with the fallout of a personal relationship that
had faltered.Instinct drove him to ‘seek solace from the ways of the world’ and he found himself spending increasing amounts of time in and around the 800-year-old Honywood Oak at the MarksHall Estate in north Essex. By getting to know the oak and by researching the historical significance of oaks across the globe, Canton falls under its spell. One of the chief lessons the oak teaches him is the importance of slowing down and being attentive.
The latter parts of the book see Canton getting to know other oaks that are closer to his home and do not require a drive. Climbing into the comforting branches of nearby oaks such as the Field Oak offer him a wider, deep-time perspective on life. The book becomes a spiritual journey to the heart of the oak, the writing frequently lyrical and ruminative, in the best traditions of nature writing.
Many of us have learned to pay greater attention to the natural world during the coronavirus global pandemic. The Oak Papers beautifully illustrates the benefits that flow from such attentiveness. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is curious about the natural world and heedful of our place in it.