Matthew, P. The Oak. Nottinghamshire Guardian (6 Jul 1866), p.11 col.1-2 (pdf image)
(Letter dated June 1866, original publication date unknown)
Matthew writes on the Oak tree. He starts in poetic mood, describing an oak woodland scene. Then he describes the Continental method of oak husbandry, involving close planting to induce natural pruning of lower branches. He ends by describing the evidence that Scotland was once covered with forests of large oak trees, and blames a cooling of the climate of Scotland for their loss.
His letter was originally printed in The Farmer.
Full text follows:
THE OAK.— The oak — the English heart-of-oak, of which our victorious fleets and seamen were wont to be made — is a thing of the past. We may now bring our royal forests to the hammer. Our floating wooden walls are transformed into those of iron and steel, and the once heart-of-oak seamen will no doubt partake of a similar transformation. The oak has long been my special fancy tree, and will continue so, though suspended as the war-ship material and sea-warrior’s heart. No other tree in the forest lives so long as the oak, or assumes so antique and picturesque a character as when the mode bark moulds itself into shapes of lumps of basalt, and the branches and foliage have taken the most graceful and mature forms, and deck themselves over in all the moss and lichen hoary garniture of time. We cannot conceive that the Forest of Arden was other than of oak, although a few stag head osiers hung over the brook. Oak copse, especially when consisting of the glossy white bark variety, is extremely beautiful. I have never seen circumscribed sylvan beauty more striking than in some oak coppice at my son’s place in Holstein, where the oak grows freer than in Scotland. The ground in the less dense portion of the copse was closed with the lily of the valley, stellarias, trientalis, violets, and anemones. Rich honeysuckle twined luxuriantly through the copse branches with splendid festoons of sweet-scented flowers, and the beautiful olive-green yellow head snake (not venomous) glided along among the rustling dry leaves of last autumn, and up the branches was such an elastic, easy, and swift motion, as to mystify one’s idea of the principles of locomotive power. Here nature had surpassed anything I had seen of flower garden display —
“Where’er she treads, her foot has set.
The primrose and the violet.”
Such was the richness, grace, and purity of all round, that, like Milton’s arch demon, I regretted to tread upon, with rude feet, or disarrange in any way, so beautiful a vestment of the earth. The copse woodbine bowers should be held sacred to the winged birds and insects, the millions of animalcules which can enjoy without disarranging this true garden of Paradise. The only affliction in oak coppice culture is the cutting of it down; but for which the bark makes some amends; besides, without this value, the copse would not be allowed to exist, and the ground be under the plough. In cutting down, the work ought always to be completed before the leaves are developed, just when breaking the bud, the sooner the better, and the whole cleaned off, otherwise the rising shoots from the stools that season will be very much inferior, and the ultimate growth of the next cutting considerably less. It is well to thin the young shoots at say three years old, and again at six years, in spring to form three to six shoots to each stool. This renders both timber and bark of more value. On the Continent, the oak is chiefly raised by planting the acorns. The proper culture of the oak wood has to have the trees of such a closeness as to prune themselves in the natural way — the lower branches gradually dying and disappearing of themselves, from being overshadowed and smothered, or deprived of nourishment, by the upper; the nourishment coming downward through the bark vessels from above, and the upper branches starving the lower. In this way the lowermost branches are first starved, and, as they die and rot, the remains are gradually pushed out by the force of the increasing new wood, so as to leave almost no mark on the timber, when sawn out, where they had been. In dissecting timber, I have found the spot where a branch had been, and where man had not interfered to cut away the branch, only marked in the timber by a small speck of charcoal. Here there had been no absorption, as in animals, but merely pressure exercised. In the case of the smaller twigs dying I found them exfoliate or slough off, as in the case of a dead portion of an animal. Here all that the forester has to do is to keep the tree to one leader and numerous feeders or branches, and, by cropping it, not allow any feeder to become disproportionally large. This can generally be done, if taken in time, by a common knife or hedge-bill. The more numerous the branches or feeders, the less damage ensues when they come to die off, as the tree goes on to add an annual new storey to its height, and loses, by smothering, a proportionate storey of branches. This gradual destruction of the lower branches is much better than excision — excision being only necessary to small plants to bring the plant at first to form one leader and numerous feeders or branches — the more of the latter the better — approaching the form of a larch or spruce tree. In the case of hedgerow timber, a very careful treatment is necessary to compensate for the natural pruning of forest closeness. From the very first any large side branch will require to be checked by cropping at a few feet out from the stem, and as the tree rises in height the lower branches gradually removed — clean cut off without any fracture of the stem, taking care that the cut be nearly perpendicular, that water may not lodge on it. Hedgerow trees ought not to rise higher in clear stem than from 20 to 30 feet, according to more or less exposure. More and better timber is generally obtained by a moderate than a high stem. No branch more than 2½ inches diameter should be cut off close to the stem, but if requiring removal, only to be cut at from 3 to 4 feet out from it. A great portion of Scotland had at one time been oak forest, and only the mountains occupied by Pinus sylvestris. In mosses and alluvial deposits, oaks of large size abound in many places where the climate is now too inclement for oaks. In the north of Scotland, in a rather high position, somewhere in Banff or Morayshire, I met with an oak in a moss which was being reclaimed, so large as to serve as a bridge for carts. One of the main open drains of the moss was led under it at right angles to the lie of tree, and the upper surface of the tree hewn down sufficiently level for the carts to pass along it. This, I think, sufficiently demonstrates that when this oak grew the climate of the north of Scotland was warmer. Several other facts and circumstances corroborate this — such as the remains of forest in the Orkneys and Shetland, an evident proof of considerable change of general temperature, or of great denudation of land in that quarter. — Patrick Matthew, Gourdiehill, Perthshire, June, 1866, in the Farmer.