Reviews

Tales of 100 trees

A new book explores how trees have changed the way we live.

The Story of Trees and How They Changed the Way We Live, by Kevin Hobbs and David West 2020. Laurence King Publishing Ltd.

A plethora of books about trees

The last 10 years have seen a remarkable flowering of books about trees. Some deal with one or a few closely-related species, e.g. Mulberry by Peter Coles, Pine by Laura Mason, Yew by Fred Hagender and Tony Hall’s The Immortal Yew, Willow by Alison Syme, Peter Young’s Oak, Apple by Marcia Reiss and Barrie Juniper & David Mabberley’s The Extraordinary Story of the Apple, fig trees in Ladders to Heaven by Mike Shanahan, and Anna Lewington’s Birch. Others have considered a wider range of tree types, e.g. Fred Gray’s Palm, Christina Harrison and Tony Kirkham’s Remarkable Trees, Ancient Trees by Edward Parker & Anna Lewington, God’s Trees by Julian Evans, Noel Kingsbury’s Hidden Natural Histories: Trees, and Around the World in 80 Trees by Jonathan Drori. We’ve also had a novel with trees at its heart – Richard Powers’ The Overstory, and a book devoted to the value of trees in deciphering events in world history – Valerie Trouet’s Tree Story. And we’ve had books that look at other aspects of tree lore, tree biology, and their influence on human well-being, such as Max Adams’ The Wisdom of Trees, Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, and Forest Bathing by Qing Li: Why?

What is it about this life form that it should have spawned such a literary outpouring? And does that justify – yet – another book about trees, such as Kevin Hobbs & David West’s The Story of Trees and how they changed the world [hereafter shortened to The Story of Trees *] that is appraised in this blog item?

Why are there so many books about trees..?

Trees are fascinating. They’ve been around for millions of years, individuals can live for thousands of years, they are the tallest single living structures on the planet, and every human culture has had innumerable interactions with trees and tree products that have shaped the history of individuals and of whole civilisations. Trees endure; they are symbols of longevity. As biological entities that are great survivors of environmental and man-made outrages, trees give us hope – which is sorely needed at the present covid-pandemic time. And, with an estimated 60,065 species of trees to choose from, there’s almost no end of source material for books about them. So, what does The Story of Trees offer us?

Overview…

In The Story of Trees, Hobbs & West claim that they have “endeavoured to feature those that have been, and in most cases continue to be, of cultural and practical value to humankind”. This goal they achieve in a most commendable way. Furthermore, they hope “to inform and inspire those who already have a love of trees, as well as those who otherwise may have taken them for granted”. As one who already has a love of trees – and hopefully does not take them for granted – I was certainly informed by the book: I expect others will be too. Their list comprises 77 angiosperms, 20 gymnosperms, and 3 monocots (2 palms and banana, none of which are proper trees, but all three do have the tree habit, which seems sufficient justification for their inclusion). As evidence of the utility of trees – and the resourcefulness of humanity in finding specific uses for particular species – some genera get several mentions, e.g. Citrus (4 species), Ficus (5 species), and Pinus and Prunus (each with 6 species).

Each of the 100 trees covered has a uniform 2-page layout – and both pages for each tree are open to view at the same time. One page has an illustration of the complete tree (and a smaller drawing of a part of the tree), and formulaic information about: common name(s), origins, climate and habitat, longevity, speed of growth, and maximum height. On the text page is an illustrative drawing – e.g. of an artefact crafted from the wood of the tree – and narrative relating to the tree, in particular its associations with humans. Those single page tree stories are written with the deftness of horoscopes: Always saying something a little – sometimes, a lot – different for each species. In fact, and with due appreciation of the wordsmithery of the authors, the species accounts are much more adept than a set of astrological predictions because they cover 100 items, not the fortune-telling 12 (or, at most, 13…]).

The book’s 1st tree is Ginkgo, Ginkgo biloba, some individuals of which species survived the Hiroshima atomic explosion during World War II. The last entry is Esser’s tree of the Inca, Incadendron esseri. Not officially named or described until 2017 by Kenneth Wurdack & William Farfan-Rios (PhytoKeys 85: 69-86, 2017: doi: 10.3897/phytokeys.85.14757), its scientific name wasn’t officially accepted until 2019, which should also give you a pretty good idea of how up-to-date the information in The Story of Trees is!

This book is very readable, engaging, informative, and entertaining; I enjoyed reading it. But, be warned: The Story of Trees is so jam-packed full of fascinating tree facts that it can be overwhelming: Don’t try and read it in one sitting or your head is likely to explode. Do dip into it, maybe a tree at a time, and your investment will be well-rewarded.

Opportunities taken…

What is The Story of Trees about? It’s about trees(!), but – and maybe more importantly – the ways that humans have interacted with those plants for millennia – 400,000 years in the case of the Clacton spear, an object made from yew (Kenneth Oakley et al., Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 43: 13-30, 1977; https://doi.org/10.1017/S0079497X00010343; Lu Allington-Jones, Archaeological Journal Vol. 00, No. 00, 1–24, 2015; http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00665983.2015.1008839). To give an idea of the tremendous range of information contained within The Story of Trees, I hope that the following questions will act as suitable teasers (and could even double-up as a set of questions for a ‘trees and people’ round in a botanist’s pub quiz…):

Fruits from which species of fig tree are sweeter, black or green?; Ink made from which tree’s fruit was used by Spanish Conquistadors?; What culinary nut was dyed red prior to export in the late 19th century?; The ray-like arrangement of which tree’s leaves symbolised the Egyptian sun god Ra?; What tree was accepted as currency for tax purposes?; Blossom of what tree is listed as one of the terrors that are to come in the evil days, according to Ecclesiastes, a Book of the Hebrew Bible, and the Christian Bible’s Old Testament?; What tree inspired computer network operating system ‘Banyan Vines’?; What tree was sung about by Ursula Andress as she emerged from the sea in the James Bond film Dr No?; What was signified by an upward-pointing arrow on an oak tree in England?; What species is the tallest hardwood tree in North America?; In the cones of which tree does a Native American myth claim that mice hide to escape forest fires?; What tree have 17th century Gunpowder-Plotter Guy Fawkes and England cricketing legend Sir Len Hutton got in common?; What South African city is known as Jacaranda City?; Which tree is the symbol of International Women’s Day?; and, Wood of which tree was used to make cross-bows for King Henry III of England?

One of the most interesting snippets of information in The Story of Trees was presented as a ‘throw-away’ comment in the Introduction where Wattieza is mentioned. Although it’s not one of the 100 trees show-cased in the book, we are told that Wattieza has the honour of being the “earliest known tree” (at present, until an older fossil is discovered…). It’s not a tree in the true sense of being a gymnosperm or dicotyledonous angiosperm, it is a “tree-fern-like” plant unearthed from the ancient fossilised forest at Gilboa [New York State, USA] (William Stein et al., Nature 446: 904–907, 2007; https://doi.org/10.1038/nature05705), but at approx. 8 m tall it certainly had a tree’s stature. The existence of Wattieza – and its importance – was new to me; thank you, Messrs Hobbs & West.

Opportunities missed..?

The authors claim that their 100 trees are presented in The Story of Trees in approximately chronological order as to humankind’s first significant interaction with the tree. Whilst that’s a nice theme to unify the book and present the trees, I’m not convinced it really works. For example, in the Introduction the authors highlight that their story starts with boxwood objects crafted by Neanderthals c. 171,000 years ago and ends with 19th century golf clubs featuring persimmon [Diospyros virginiana]. But, box [Buxus sempervirens] is the 3rd tree in the book, and persimmon is 27 entries short of the 100th and final one. The Story of Trees’ 2nd entry is yew [Taxus baccata] – the Clacton spear fashioned from wood of which tree has a 400,000 years old association with use by humans (which is mentioned in the book), so why not ‘big-up’ that more ancient use in the Introduction? And why not place persimmon at the end of the book, if that’s the most recent association the authors want to highlight..?

There are no in-text references – not even foot-notes – and no list of sources used by the authors, nor Further Reading listed so that interested readers could pursue their own investigations into the facts provided. You’ll just have to take the authors’ word for the information presented. Whilst I have no reason to doubt that the authors have anything other than good intentions in what they’ve written and have no desire to mislead readers, it’s still an act of faith that all’s well within. I suppose if you do want to check anything, there’s so much readily available on the internet these days that it’s relatively easy to do so. For example, I’ve sourced all the references provided in this item by a little judicious ‘Googling’.

The only other niggle I have is the absence of Authorities for the scientific names of the tree’s covered. But, maybe that taxonomic nicety is a step too far for the book’s intended audience (and is also absent from Jonathan Drori’s 80 Trees [see next section])? It is certainly good to note that Hobbs & West do include the binomial component of each tree’s scientific name.

The Story of Trees vs Around the World in 80 Trees

The Story of Trees will probably not escape comparison with Jonathan Drori’s book Around the World in 80 Trees [hereafter ‘80 Trees’], not least because both have the same publisher. Having now scrutinised the pair, I offer the following thoughts. The Story of Trees features 100 trees, compared with Drori’s 80. A pleasing 67% of Hobbs & West’s trees are unique to The Story of Trees, 33 are shared with 80 Trees. Although there are 216 main pages in 80 Trees, each of the corresponding 199 pages of The Story of Trees is a little bigger, so both books are about the same in terms of overall content. Neither book includes in-text references, but 80 Trees – which explicitly states that it’s not an academic title on p. 229 – does have the benefit of several pages of further reading material for those who want to pursue topics further. The range and number of illustrations of each tree featured is greater in 80 Trees, which also has the more colourful images. The layout is rigidly formulaic in The Story of Trees – with a single page of illustrations and a single page of narrative. In 80 Trees each entry is a little more variable in length. Both are well-written, educational, entertaining, and informative. All things considered, The Story of Trees compares very well to 80 Trees, and can probably best be seen as a complementary volume. In agreement with the publisher’s claim, The Story of Trees should appeal to fans of 80 Trees.

Try before you buy…

If you’re not yet convinced enough to commit to reading The Story of Trees, insights into its subject matter, writing style, and artwork are available here. That source reprints from the book accounts of “Three Trees That Tell the Story of Ancient Cultures”, which species are: kapok [Ceiba pentandra], sacred to the Mayans; totara [Podocarpus totara], heritage of the Maori; and the Judas tree [Cercis siliquastrum], the tree of blood.

A word about the illustrations…

It’s appropriate here to give a ‘shout-out’ for the book’s illustrator, Thibaud Hérem, who has provided 101 whole tree illustrations – one each for the 100 trees described, and a bonus image of Wollemia (mentioned in passing just in the Introduction). His drawings are charming and not only provide a visual appreciation of the trees featured, but nicely balance the text. Whilst those whole tree drawings are not perhaps the most botanically accurate of representations, they do capture the ‘jizz’ [“The characteristic features which distinguish a bird, animal or plant from other species which resemble it”] of the species **, and so would probably help you to identify the tree if you came across it in the wild. And, don’t overlook the small illustrations on the whole tree drawing page: They usually include information that is not found on the main text page.

Final thought

Have those 100 trees featured, as claimed by the rest of The Story of Trees’ full title, “changed the way we live”? They’ve certainly been exploited by humans for thousands of years – as is abundantly described in the book, and must therefore have had an effect on how we’ve lived. So, probably, yes, they have changed the way we live. Accordingly, in Hobbs & West’s book you can read about some of the – weird and wonderful – ways our lives have been touched, influenced, and changed by trees. In so doing it is hoped that the reader will be reminded of what trees mean to us all, and hopefully inspire us all to look after this invaluable resource for future generations.

Summary

Kevin Hobbs and David West have produced a gem of a book with The Story of Trees. It should please anybody who has an interest in trees and how they’ve been utilised by humankind for millennia, i.e. tree lovers from all over the world. With 23,491 of the world’s 60,065 tree species endangered in the wild – i.e. on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, it is important to be reminded of the great debt we owe this life form. If it helps us to respect trees, that’s good; if it helps us to conserve this tremendous natural and renewable resource, then so much the better!


* Which book’s name shouldn’t be confused with Valerie Trouet’s Tree Story.

** I feel duty-bound to point out that the word ‘jizz’ has other meanings, as shown here, and here. Even though there are legitimate botanical dimensions to this slang term (e.g. here, here, and here, I advise you to Google this term with extreme caution(!) For more on the wildlife ID use of jizz, see Henrik Lerner & Håkan Tunón (Ornis Svecica 22: 73–79, 2012).

  • Dear Nigel Chaffey,

    Thank you for featuring the book entitled “The Story of Trees and How They Changed the Way We Live” by Kevin Hobbs and David West, published by Laurence King Publishing Ltd in 2020.

    It seems that writing an excellent novel about trees could garner an author the highest literary accolade. An example from Wikipedia:

    The Overstory is a novel by Richard Powers published in 2018 by W.W. Norton. It is Powers’ twelfth novel. The novel is about nine Americans whose unique life experiences with trees bring them together to address the destruction of forests. Powers was inspired to write the work while teaching at Stanford University after he encountered giant redwood trees for the first time. On 20 September 2018, The Overstory was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.

    On 15 April 2019, it was awarded the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

    As far as I can remember, the book was also featured on PBS in early November 2019, where the author was interviewed.

    Here is the interview:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BIfWvIdJNz0

  • Dear Nigel Chaffey,

    Thank you for featuring the book entitled “The Story of Trees and How They Changed the Way We Live” by Kevin Hobbs and David West, published by Laurence King Publishing Ltd in 2020.

    It seems that writing an excellent novel about trees could garner an author the highest literary accolade. An example from Wikipedia:

    The Overstory is a novel by Richard Powers published in 2018 by W.W. Norton. It is Powers’ twelfth novel. The novel is about nine Americans whose unique life experiences with trees bring them together to address the destruction of forests. Powers was inspired to write the work while teaching at Stanford University after he encountered giant redwood trees for the first time. On 20 September 2018, The Overstory was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.

    On 15 April 2019, it was awarded the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

    As far as I can remember, the book was also featured on PBS in early November 2019, where the author was interviewed.

    Here is the interview:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BIfWvIdJNz0

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