Your new book is about a very special tree and – perhaps – it’s also about our relationship to time, human time versus ‘nature time’? Could you tell us a bit more about what inspired you to write it? Has your relationship with this tree changed the way you perceive other trees? Can you tell us one amazing thing you learnt about trees while writing the book?
The Oak Papers is a book centred around an amazing individual tree – an oak tree known as the Honywood Oak which lives in North Essex, is over eight hundred years old and which I got to know over two years or so. One of the aspects which I was reminded of during those years was that trees do operate at a different pace to us humans. It’s an obvious point but an important one. When the Honywood Oak was a mere sapling, the Magna Carta was signed. Four hundred years on, Parliamentarian soldiers gathered beneath the boughs of the Honywood Oak before they marched down the road to join the siege of Colchester in 1648. Seeing ancient oaks in such terms seems to somehow make us realise their significance as figures on the landscape. That expanse of ‘nature time’ is what makes ancient oaks such important homes for hundreds and thousands of creatures who rely on the specific environments which such trees offer. If you look at certain insects such as, say, the Forest Silver-stiletto fly (Pandivirilia melaleuca), they live in the heart rot at the very centre of aged oak trees. It is only after hundreds of years that such habitats develop in ancient oaks. Every ancient oak that is cut down is the loss of an environment that cannot be replaced.
I was inspired to write The Oak Papers by learning more and more of the ways of oak trees. I also learnt of the wealth of cultural and historical links between humans and oaks that have been in existence since prehistoric times. We have always relied on oak trees. Today, we are seeing the powerful effects which being by oaks, being in nature, can have on our own well-being. It shouldn’t surprise us. Spending time beside the Honywood Oak has taught me much – one of the most important lessons was of that peace and calm can be found sat by or within an oak tree.
One amazing thing: ancient oaks support more species that any other tree.
What do you think might be the role of writers in the Anthropocene?
Writers can tell us truths about the natural world. They can tell us, too, of the complexity and the wonder of the other species that we share this earth with. In the stories they tell, they can also imagine ways in which we might forge a future where the natural world is respected and the impacts of our species on nature and on our planet are central to the way we exist.
Is there a specific thought or idea that motivates you into taking action over the climate and ecological emergency? (or, if you like, what frightens you the most about the crisis?)
The feeling I have is that people understand more of the climate emergency than our leaders may recognise. We can change our ways. If the recent lockdown has shown us anything, it is that we can alter our patterns of pollution, we can stop flying, we can stop burning fossil fuels. Now, we have to ensure that realisation is carried forward in the future. What frightens me is that structures of power are reluctant to change.
What is the most powerful piece of writing that you have read about the climate and ecological emergency?
There are two texts, I would immediately turn to: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson and The Peregrine by J.A. Baker. Both were published in the 1960s yet both still have such a power in their words that is hard to beat. In terms of more recent texts, Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm is a stunning work and highly recommended.
As a teacher of nature writing can you tell us a bit about your pedagogical process – how do you inspire your students to engage with the natural world?
I’ve been teaching the MA in Wild Writing at the University of Essex since 2009 when the course began. There are two aspects to the course which I think are key to inspiring students to engage with the natural world. First, we spend time outside. It may sound obvious, but stepping out of the seminar room, into the delights of Wivenhoe Park, the campus environment of the university is central to the ethos of the Wild Writing course. Within a matter of minutes, we can be discussing texts or concepts and then stood beside an ancient oak, or strolling the wilder regions of campus. We have a number of field trips, too, as part of the course which means we get to spend longer, out together in specific environments on the trail of writers, following their footsteps, books in hand, sharing thoughts and ideas in those outdoor classrooms. This not only allows an immersion into landscapes and environments but it creates a wonderful sense of belonging among each group of students. The other aspect is having writers as part of the learning process. Whether it be walking Orford Ness with Rob Macfarlane, sitting in Mark Cocker’s dining room having a seminar on Crow Country, getting writers involved is instantly inspiring to the students on the course. Our students consistently tell us that these two factors are central to what makes the MA Wild Writing course so successful.
Do you have a vision for a regenerative future? Does literature have a part to play in creating this future?
Like most, at times I feel optimistic and see something like a vision of a regenerative future. At others, I am less positive. But we must strive and certainly literature has a role to shape that future. Rewilding is high on my agenda right now. So, too, is helping to make people see the impact that being in the natural world can have on how we feel. Understanding and appreciating the wonder of all sorts of aspects of nature – be they microscopic creatures or mighty oaks – is important to impacting how we as humans relate to all the other living beings that inhabit this planet. The Oak Papers is intended to be part of that same endeavour. The pioneering research of forest scientists like Suzanne Simard has shown us that trees can communicate. Others, such as Paco Calvo and Monica Gagliano, are exploring many other amazing aspects of plant communication. There is still much for us to learn.
James Canton has written widely in creative non-fiction forms and taught on the MA in Wild Writing at the University of Essex since its inception in 2009, exploring the fascinating ties between the literature and landscape of East Anglia. His first book From Cairo to Baghdad (2011) explored the writings of British Travellers to Arabia from 1882 to 2003. Out of Essex: Re-Imagining a Literary Landscape (2013) is inspired by rural wanderings in the county. Ancient Wonderings: Journeys into Prehistoric Britain was published by William Collins in 2017 and tells some remarkable tales of life in ancient Britain. His latest book The Oak Papers is published by Canongate on 30th July 2020 and will be on Radio 4 as Book of the Week from August 3rd to 7th.