What secrets lie in the branches of an 800-year-old oak tree? Teacher and futurist James Canton reflects on the connection between humanity and the oak tree, and ultimately, nature’s role in human redemption.
Thomas Hardy wrote, “to dwellers in a wood, every tree has its voice.” Odysseus heard the susurrations of the leaves guiding him home to Ithaca. James Canton sat under an 800-year-old oak tree and listened. What he found was nature’s wisdom—and a reminder of our deep-rooted connection to trees.
At the end of a long-term relationship, Dr. James Canton—author of The Oak Papers and professor at the University of Essex—sought solace from the turmoil of everyday life and decided to venture into the woods. He came across an 800-year-old tree called the Honywood Oak. Like Thoreau before him, Canton decided to sit and stay for a while.
For 2 years Dr. Canton returned to visit the ancient being, developing a bond not only with the oak, but the wildlife and unique ecosystem within and around it. He became a part of the environment and pondered that perhaps he always had been. As he sat, at every time of day and night, in all weather, Canton began to hear the susurrations. He heard the tree’s voice. Yet instead of embarking on an adventure to the far reaches of the earth, he realized that his journey had already led him home.
Canton writes: “Human beings and oaks have lived beside one another as neighbors since the earliest times and we continue to do so. We no longer need the bodies of oak trees to build our homes, or to fuel our fires, and we no longer need acorns to sustain us through hard years and meager harvests. Yet on some level, we still lean on oak trees. In ways we do not fully understand, we need them.”
Dr. James Canton spoke to Spirituality & Health about his process for writing The Oak Papers, the importance of our connection to the natural world, and what oak trees can teach us today—for we are not disconnected from nature, we are of it.
S&H: You took refuge in the oak tree after your long-term relationship ended. Was it difficult to write about the end of your long-term relationship?
James Canton: Yes, certainly, it was hard to write about the ending of that relationship. Yet, in many ways, the writing of The Oak Papers was a chance to express aspects of that loss in the context of the wonder, joy, and peace that I found by being beside an ancient oak tree.
The book is far more about my own experiences of being with an ancient oak tree, my research into the cultural and spiritual links between humans and oaks across time, and the health benefits of spending time in the natural world.
You’ve founded this deep connection with the Honywood Oak. Why do you think it’s important for us to have a connection with nature?
It’s not merely important. It’s vital. One of the more positive outcomes of the pandemic, for example, has been seeing the ways in which people across the globe have turned to the green spaces around them for solace. In cities around the world, the parks and urban green spaces have filled with humans desperate to step out into the outdoors. This has been a central reminder that we, as humans, are a part of the natural world—we are of nature. On one level, we are just another species, like any other of the hundreds of thousands that we share this planet with, even if we happen to be one that massively impacts every other living species by our presence!
[With your subscription read: “Dynamize Your Garden With these Biodynamic Practices.”]
In my research for The Oak Papers, I saw how environmental psychologists have measured the impact of being in green spaces by placing mobile EEG monitors on volunteers. When these people walked in more natural sites around the city—parks, recreation areas—their brainwaves shifted to meditative states as opposed to the more stressed states found when they walked around human-constructed urban worlds. We know this truth intuitively in the way we feel peace and calm walking the woods. Now we have the scientific proof to back up that innate, in-built knowledge. For our own wellbeing, we need to be in natural places.
Our recognition that we are a part of the natural world, are of nature, is an absolutely essential part to ensuring we actively seek to maintain the health of the planet.
Oak trees have a special place in British history and culture. What kind of insights can oak trees offer us today?
One of the key messages I learned from my time studying for The Oak Papers is how humans have always relied on oaks—for fuel for their fires and wood to build their homes, but also for food in the form of acorns during hard times. We might not need these aspects of oaks today (though there is a good argument for preparing acorn flour bread, as still used by many indigenous peoples around the world) yet the spiritual and health benefits which humans have also always understood from being beside oak trees certainly still hold true.
Spending time by an oak is a naturally calming thing to do. In The Oak Papers, I went to study the ecosystem of the oak tree and recognized the positive impact which sitting beside an 800-year-old oak tree can have. Stepping out of our daily world, seeking a local oak or another tree—it doesn’t have to be an 800-year-old oak!—and spending time there, does wonders for our wellbeing.
What are some key lessons we can learn from the natural world that we can use during these times?
As I mentioned earlier, we have seen how during this pandemic, people have turned to their local natural spaces. Learning that lesson—the requirement that we need to be in green places—sits alongside the more fundamental understanding that we are on an existential level a part of nature, that we shouldn’t see a divide between us and the natural world.
The spring that sprang last year was one that many more people seemed to be delighting in and recognizing—perhaps because we were all rather more attuned, perhaps because we weren’t so immersed in our daily commutes, our urban business worlds. That felt like a really positive aspect of the pandemic—seeing the swallows on the day they arrived back from Africa was one of the highlights of my year. Many people have reported how they have been more actively connected with their local birdlife this year.
Even on the level of homeschooling, I fondly recall the time spent pond dipping with my two daughters during the ”school day” and the wonder of sharing some moments together delighting in experiencing the wild creatures living in the depths of their watery world in the small pond we dug together in our back garden.
How often do you write outside, in nature?
I write a lot outside. Often, I will write a first draft outside, in situ, if you like. One of the wonders of the smartphone age is the voice memo—I use that a lot for note taking when out wandering and exploring, though alongside a notebook. Then there’s a sense of writing-up later on—in the still and quiet of my study.
For The Oak Papers, for example, I spent a great deal of time simply sitting on a bench beside the ancient Honywood Oak and observing—and writing those observations and reflections in a series of notebooks. There was also a number of meetings that I had with other people who knew about aspects of oak trees—whether practical or spiritual or both—and so often I found myself scribbling down snippets of conversations had in woods and beside trees. Then there was a years long editing process and only some of those diary entries made their way into the final book alongside some of those conversations.
You teach an MA program called Wild Writing—what are some recommendations you make to your students? What, for example, do you suggest they look for when in nature?
The MA in Wild Writing is very much about being out in the natural world and we often step from the seminar room into the glories of the campus at the University of Essex. It’s a really beautiful old English estate. There’s a wonderfully bonding element to a group going into the wilds together—perhaps to explore a particular aspect of the landscape, or to gather beside a tree and read a poem or a section of text.
[Also read: “Journaling Animalia.”]
On an individual level, that central tenet of simply stopping and observing the natural world is a key message which we have learnt from the earliest naturalists. If you put yourself out into the wilder spaces of the world and then merely pause, the wildlife will come to you. I learnt that when sitting beside the ancient Honywood Oak. Sitting still and merely letting the birds, insects and other beings that inhabit that world show themselves to you, is so much more effective than moving about trying to see them—and so much more peaceful in the process!
Hear more from James Canton, connect on Instagram @jrcanton1 or Twitter @jamescanton. Visit TheOakPapers.com.