Oak is native; elm is not. Oak has its domains, its forest seats. Elm grows where it was put, or nearby. Oak is robust to the point of apparent permanence, and its tannin preserves. Elm seemed so, but we had perennial fears – lightning, wind, or a summer’s afternoon too sultry for comfort. Oak is fertile; the acorn confers legitimacy on the heir. English elm is barren, the haulm of a single rootstock, devoid of lineage and incapable of change.
Oak is legally there, by forest law. Elm was the highwayman’s tryst, and his gibbet.
Oak was the dynastic tree, the public tree of England, providing the wooden walls which secured its foreign policy. The elm’s lop-sided leaves framed unremarkable lives, and its wood was intimate with them – cradles, chair seats, and coffins for the ordinary.
The contrasts could be multiplied, but they would begin to conceal a more radical distinction between these two most familiar trees. While what is said about the oak is not up for debate, what is said about the elm is moot. And so: the elm inhabited rural obscurity (but also the great parks, schools, universities, and the wealthy outer suburbs where it recalled vanished farmland). It seemed ageless, but usually dated from the enclosures of the eighteenth century. It was the emblem of an unchanging rural landscape which in fact was produced by convulsive change. Elm was an interloper, but came to be regarded as more typical of the shires than any English tree. The elm has gone, but the hedgerows are overrun by it. Remarkably, it still lacks an agreed botanical name.
With the oak we know where we stand. Contradictions meet beneath the elm. Here we say of it what we can.
The single most distinctive feature of mature English elm was its size, and most particularly its height. On deep soils in sheltered locations – the vales of the larger rivers – the elm regularly exceeded 100 foot, and trees of over 140 foot were known.
However, the true gauge of height is appearance rather than measurement. A Douglas Fir of 140 foot is well-grown timber, but after that has been granted there isn’t much to add. Elm, even not of the tallest, had means other than mere stature to produce an effect of the ultimate grandeur.
Breadth played an important part. The loftiness of the elm (this was the adjective perhaps most often applied to it) was a combined measure of height and breadth. The widest point of an English elm would generally be high up in the canopy, where that span gave strongest expression to the support needed to maintain it.
The tendency of the tree to surround itself by its own sucker growth of differing ages made it typically the centre and culmination of a stand of lesser trees. The impression of height was contained in a drama of gradation, a hierarchy.
In due course height is assimilated, and loses its power to impress. That process was slowed by the sheer frequency of elm in the landscape. Comparison kept wonder alive. The eye would make its way from tree to tall tree, led on along their alignments in the hedges, gauging remove and perspective. The measurement of height was the reason for this exercise, but it gave place to an assessment of distance.
That lateral measuring could take on a temporal quality. The furthest elms were those which it would take longest to reach, supposing a move were to be made. One imagined others still more distant, further ahead.
There have been more meditations beneath elms than other trees. They marked a place to think beyond.
A figure of eight. Low down, a fuzz of epicormic shoots growing out at right angles to rusticate a massive trunk. The lower branches, either horizontal or pendulous, forced down and out by the shade of the crown. Higher up, the first bowl of the figure of eight begins to close and the trunk is seen again. This is the elm’s waist. Were there nothing above this, the tree would already have been a substantial one. But beyond that point the main branching begins, fanning upwards and outwards to suggest a dome. Seen in the distance, the elm had the outline of a thunder cloud.
At close quarters this form was invisible. Looking up into an elm there was nothing to see but a riot of foliage. To come close to an elm in full leaf was to find its form vanish, to lose it or consign it to the mind. At the tree’s base, in the thirsty shade rank with nettle, Jack-in-the-Hedge, and the elm’s own suckers, the canopy above was a memory in all but the calls of rooks or pigeons overhead. That realm was unattainable (who could climb an elm?), and not only in practice. The view of it already belonged to the past.
Vertical, as far as the trunk was concerned. The most powerful branches at the base of the crown also reached steeply up. But others, further down the trunk, approached the horizontal or dipped below it. The fine tracery of the elm’s terminal twigs knitted this form together to a degree seen in almost no other tree. Watercolourists indicated its winter appearance with a wash of grey, often bordered by a fine, unbroken line. The parabola ascends, gathers at the waist, flares out to encompass the fan of the upper crown which is the perfection of accomplishment, and then descends again.
The vertical expresses vigour and the will to resist gravity. Every degree away from it acknowledges with increasing candour that gravity will have its way. In the elms, the vigour and the concession were unified. The simultaneity of hope, attainment and decline was sloganised across the fields by these great semaphores, affirming the agreement of the season with what lay before and after it.
The elms promulgated themselves and their homilies along the hedgerows, all the way to nowhere in particular, nowhere which knew a different rule.
Even before disease came and the elm went, its tendency to disappear was evident in lesser ways. When the sun was high in summer, no other trees so overshadowed themselves. Cliff-faces of elm, overhung by their own canopies, exuded darkness. Only their crowns high above caught the light in clefts and on swags of foliage. At dawn in autumn and winter, and also in the evenings, the further trees were abstracted into mist.They, the furthest or imagined ones, later became a resource. The great trees would be found down the next lane, on the next visit to the farm, or in the next shire. They were the significant trees, the ones we could assure ourselves were healthily out of view. They belonged to the future, and would be all right. Many would escape, or at least some would adjust. Some token would certainly be left. The disease, having made a point, might relent.