Review: The Company of Trees by Thomas Pakenham

As a writer trees worry me. Faced with an herbaceous border, I’m in my element but charged with talking about a garden based largely on trees I start to flounder. First, there’s the tricky question of identification: I’m fine with the obvious but start to struggle with anything other than ash and oak. Then there’s simply what to say beyond the clichéd adjectives of stately, magnificent and graceful? Given this I was intrigued to see how Thomas Pakenham could fill a whole book talking about trees.

The Company of Trees

The Company of Trees’ isn’t his first foray into the subject: he has published several titles, starting with the popular ‘Meetings With Remarkable Trees’. This featured 60 portraits of trees notable for their age, size, history or simply shape.

Whereas that was a book for dipping into, his new publication is far weightier with fewer of his beautiful photographs and a more obvious narrative thread following a year at Tullynally, his Irish estate, and his travels, collecting rare seeds. What the two volumes share is a writing style that sparkles with his passion for the subject. Early on he states that “Like most sensible people I find them [trees] irresistible” and by the end I was beginning to see why.

To Pakenham, trees are more than just a horticultural exercise and his descriptions bring them alive. Young seedlings are “pushy adolescents”, ancient specimens are “old retainers” while a group of beech are known as ‘the Ents’ and have, he tells us, “very different personalities”.

Each tree death or removal, either through storm, disease or simple necessity is for him a personal loss. Needing to thin his arboretum, he watches as 16 oaks are felled – a process he likens to “murdering your friends”. He describes how the “bigger ones fought back” while the “small ones died without a struggle”.

Thomas Pakenham
Thomas Pakenham

Woven into this delightfully evocative prose are solid horticultural facts and historical detail, often about the great plant-hunters in whose footsteps he literally travels in his search for rare specimens.

He rails against the slow response to the threat of the ‘Four Horsemen’, his name for the new diseases afflicting many of our trees, worries about the effect of climate changes and condemns ‘the Talibans’, as he calls some environmentalists, for what he regards as their puritanical and narrow view of what constitutes a native tree.

Explorations of other great tree collections, including the envy-inducing maples at Westonbirt Arboretum and sumptuous magnolias at Mount Congreve, are set against the account of his own work to both restore and improve the planting at Tullynally.

With lively chapter headings – ‘Knicker-Pink’ is particularly memorable – and a self-deprecating style that does not gloss over his planting mistakes, this is an engaging account of a lifetime’s work and a life-long passion.

The Company of Trees by Thomas Pakenham is published Weidenfeld & Nicolson, priced at £30.

Review copy supplied by The Suffolk Anthology

For more book reviews, see here