IN so many ways, university professor James Canton’s book contemplating humanity’s connection to the mighty oak tree has arrived at the perfect time.

James, 53, penned The Oak Papers after spending two years visiting the 800-year-old Honywood Oak, which sits in the Marks Hall estate, in Coggeshall.

The book has been in the works since 2012, but James admits he has only just “scratched the bark” on our link, reliance and fascination with this ancient species of tree.

The book has already attracted significant interest.

An abridged version is currently being read as BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week.

Its timing is interesting, as many have recently discovered a renewed love for the nature on our doorsteps amid the coronavirus pandemic.

But it is also set against the backdrop of an ever-increasing focus and reliance on machines and technology, with humanity drawing further away from things born of seed and earth.

“With the Oxford Junior Dictionary removing words like ‘acorn’ from its pages, it rather feels like there is a risk future generations won’t care much for nature at all,” said James.

“But in many other ways, lockdown has been amazing for people rediscovering the value of just going down to the park, or going for walks through fields.

“The pandemic has forced people to stay local and appreciate their neighbourhood.

“I live rurally, but am originally from urban London, so find it so nice to be in this part of the country.”

A lecturer in literature at Essex University and a father-of-three, James, who lives near Halstead, became fascinated with the Honywood Oak during his 17 years working as a teacher at Honywood School, when he would pass the tree daily.


Ancient - James spent two years examining every inch of the old oak

While the magnificent tree was James’ inspiration, it also served as his gateway to a deeper examination of humanity’s connection with the oak.

The book draws upon the history of the estate, where a forest of 300 oaks was felled, as well as interviews and conversations with experts, forestry scientists and naturalists.

“I spent a long time by the Honywood Oak, but also a long time in the British Library, speaking to forestry scientists and seeking clarity on how trees communicate with each other,” said James.

“In the past 20 years or so there has only just developed an appreciation for how plants communicate which is kind of mind-blowing in itself.

“Over time I built up more and more of an enthusiasm and passion for it.”

James garnered an understanding of the species of birds and bugs which make their home in the delicate ecosystem of the Honywood Oak.

“It started from a ‘nature’ point of view and I quite quickly realised there is a close association between humans and oak trees, which has existed since pre-history,” he said.

“In Britain we have associated ourselves with oak trees right through the period of the Empire and our Imperial history – the HMS Victory for example was made out of 6,000 trees, 2,000 of them were oak.

“British identity is linked to them, which we all know but perhaps don’t really think about and appreciate anymore.

“If you look around the globe at wherever they grow, countries connect with them in a different way – Germany see them as essential to national identity, as does Latvia and in the United States.”

But at the heart of the book lies ponderings on human connectivity with nature – the calm and stillness reflected onto us by our living world.


Sun - the book examines our connection with nature

It is a difficult feeling to describe, but James attempts this in the book’s concluding words as he sits beneath the Honywood in the morning sun: “The oak stands massive, iron cast in this fading darkness – a vast, round-shouldered presence.

“A breeze stirs the leaves, a breath that seems to seep from the dawn.

“The barking of the deer destroys the silence with a fierce, devilish cry. Then it is gone and the vacuum is filled with peace.”

Above all, the book examines how nature is a place away from the anxieties, pressures and noise of daily life.

Published by Canongate books, The Oak Papers was launched last Thursday and is available online and in stores in hardback for £13.