Sunday, January 27, 2008



Henry David Thoreau, Journal (Jan. 25, 1852):
I am struck and attracted by the parallelism of the twigs of the hornbeam, fine parallelism.
I don't know any hornbeams in the neighborhood to examine, but pictures of hornbeam twigs I've looked at show that twigs growing out from a branch aren't necessarily parallel to each other. The American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) is different from the European hornbeam (Carpinus betulus), but I suspect Thoreau may have been referring to the parallel lines formed by every other twig segment as shown in this photograph of a European hornbeam:

If you extend every other twig segment in your mind's eye, you can see parallel lines.

A common name for both species of hornbeam, American and European, is ironwood. Donald Culross Peattie, A Natural History of North American Trees (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007), p. 185, discusses the quality of the close-grained wood:
The name Hornbeam has reference to the extreme hardness of the wood — "horn" for toughness, and "beam," an old word for tree, comparable with the German Baum. "The Home Bound tree," wrote William Wood in New England's Prospects, "is a tough kinde of Wood that requires much paines in riving as is almost incredible, being the best to make bolles and dishes, not subject to crack or leake." Hornbeam has been utilized, too, for levers and handles of striking implements, but, as it cannot be obtained in large quantities from so small a tree, it is employed chiefly by local tool makers and does not figure as a wood of commerce. The hardwood lumberman thinks of this as a mere weed tree.
To the series of lamentations by English writers about the destruction of their favorite trees (William Cowper, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Clare, J.R.R. Tolkien), I'd like to add a letter by William Morris (1834-1896) to the Editor of the Daily Chronicle (April 23, 1895), pleading for the preservation of some threatened hornbeams:
I venture to ask you to allow me a few words on the subject of the present treatment of Epping Forest. I was born and bred in its neighbourhood (Walthamstow and Woodford), and when I was a boy and young man I knew it yard by yard from Wanstead to the Theydons, and from Hale End to the Fairlop Oak. In those days it had no worse foes than the gravel stealer and the rolling-fence maker, and was always interesting and often very beautiful. From what I can hear it is years since the greater part of it has been destroyed, and I fear, Sir, that in spite of your late optimistic note on the subject, what is left of it now runs the danger of further ruin.

The special character of it was derived from the fact that by far the greater part was a wood of hornbeams, a tree not common save in Essex and Herts. It was certainly the biggest hornbeam wood in these islands, and I suppose in the world. The said hornbeams were all pollards, being shrouded every four or six years, and were interspersed in many places with holly thickets, and the result was a very curious and characteristic wood, such as can be seen nowhere else. And I submit that no treatment of it can be tolerable which does not maintain this hornbeam wood intact.

But the hornbeam, though an interesting tree to an artist and reasonable person, is no favourite with the landscape gardener, and I very much fear that the intention of the authorities is to clear the forest of native trees, and to plant vile weeds like deodars and outlandish conifers instead. We are told that a committee of 'experts' has been formed to sit in judgment on Epping Forest; but, Sir, I decline to be gagged by the word 'expert,' and I call on the public generally to take the same position. An 'expert' may be a very dangerous person, because he is likely to narrow his views to the particular business (usually a commercial one) which he represents. In this case, for instance, we do not want to be under the thumb of either a wood bailiff whose business is to grow timber for the market, or of a botanist whose business is to collect specimens for a botanical garden; or of a landscape gardener whose business is to vulgarise a garden or landscape to the utmost extent that his patron's purse will allow of. What we want is reasonable men of real artistic taste to take into consideration what the essential needs of the case are, and to advise accordingly. Now it seems to me that the authorities who have Epping Forest in hand may have two intentions as to it. First, they may intend to landscape-garden it, or turn it into golf grounds (and I very much fear that even the latter nuisance may be in their minds); or second, they may really think it necessary (as you suggest) to thin the hornbeams, so as to give them a better chance of growing. The first alternative we Londoners should protest against to the utmost, for if it be carried out then Epping Forest is turned into a mere place of vulgarity, is destroyed in fact.

As to the second, to put our minds at rest, we ought to be assured that the cleared spaces would be planted again, and that almost wholly with hornbeam. And, further, the greatest possible care should be taken that not a single tree should be felled unless it is necessary for the growth of its fellows. Because, mind you, with comparatively small trees, the really beautiful effect of them can only be got by their standing as close together as the emergencies of growth will allow. We want a thicket, not a park, from Epping Forest.

In short, a great and practically irreparable mistake will be made if, under the shelter of the opinion of 'experts,' from mere carelessness and thoughtlessness, we let the matter slip out of the hands of the thoughtful part of the public; the essential character of one of the greatest ornaments of London will disappear, and no one will have even a sample left to show what the great north-eastern forest was like.

<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?