Country & Garden: A Short History of the Long-Living Oak

Article excerpt

THE PHOENICIANS captured two Egyptian priestesses from Thebes and sold them to Libya and Greece. Converted by myth into a black dove, the second priestess allegedly created her new shrine in northern Greece, at Dodona. This was, long before Delphi, the home of the oracle, where a sacred oak tree delivered its message to the guardians though a rustle of the leaves or the chink of brazen vessels suspended from its branches.

So said Herodotus in the fifth century BC of a period already enshrined by myth. (It was said that a piece of the first Dodona tree was used to carve a figurehead for Jason's ship, the Argo). Today, a mere five generations on in oak terms, a tree still stands at Dodona and the place retains an atmosphere of eerie tranquillity.

The oak's alternative names - Father, the Druid, Jove's Nuts - show the veneration in which this wonderful tree has always been held. Plutarch, recalling the custom of crowning victors with a wreath of oak leaves, wondered whether the custom was connected to the Arcadians, whose name derived from the acorns that Plutarch thought were man's first food. Shakespeare, who read his Plutarch closely, took care to give Coriolanus an oak wreath after a military triumph.

Superstition can be baffling. You can carry an oak leaf to keep away flu, or an acorn to guarantee lasting youthfulness and good luck; why, though, did the druids think that carrying two twigs of oak to a forest meeting was a guarantee of safety, and why did Mediterranean people think they could ward off lightning by keeping oak branches in their homes?

No tree attracts lightning with such consistency as the oak. "Why should anybody think that Zeus keeps his bolts to punish liars?" Socrates asked in The Clouds. "An oak is no perjurer." His companion, for once, had no answer.

The stricken oak has been a literary cliche since Aristophanes began writing. Mary Shelley's inquisitive hero, Victor Frankenstein, was drawn to science by the spectacle of electricity blackening an oak just outside his family home in Geneva. Other writers, from Charlotte Bronte downwards, have used the image of the blasted oak (Mr Rochester, blinded after the fire at Thornfield Hall) to poignant effect.

The oak is associated with honour, purity and courage. Coleridge's Christabel, when she goes foolishly into the woods as no poetic heroine ever should alone at night, kneels in prayer under "a huge, broad-breasted old oak tree". Much good it did the poor girl; prayers and an oak were no defence against the powers of wicked Geraldine. The great 18th-century actor David Garrick had a more uncomplicated approach to the tree. "Hearts of oak are our ships, hearts of oak are our men," he wrote in a rousing hymn to the glory of the British navy. …