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If you’re lost in the woods, ask a tree for directions! Author writes about the ‘extraordinary powers’ of plants

NATURE

HOW TO READ A TREE 

by Tristan Gooley (Sceptre £22, 312pp)

We all know that trees are a good thing — so good, in fact, that the Government has pledged to plant 30,000 hectares of them every year.

Trees provide a home for wildlife, cool our cities in summer and help reduce flooding when there’s heavy rain. They also remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into oxygen.

Trees provide a home for wildlife, cool our cities in summer and help reduce flooding when there's heavy rain. Stock image used Trees provide a home for wildlife, cool our cities in summer and help reduce flooding when there's heavy rain. Stock image used

Trees provide a home for wildlife, cool our cities in summer and help reduce flooding when there’s heavy rain. Stock image used

But if you want a deeper understanding of the wonder of trees, then Tristan Gooley is the man for you. He is such a die-hard enthusiast that when he is feeling stressed by Christmas shopping, he goes to stand next to some trees, rather than finding somewhere for a nice cup of tea like the rest of us.

Usually photographed in an Indiana Jones-style hat, he calls himself a ‘natural navigator’ and his motto is: ‘Nature is always making a map for us. Everything outdoors is a clue and a sign.’

Trees, he says, offer all sorts of pointers if you know how to read them. Want to find your way out of a dense forest? Then use them as a navigational aid.

The clues are in their height: if you’re in the centre you’ll be surrounded by towering trees like oaks, which grow slowly and produce thick trunks and high canopies.

To move out of the forest, look for trees which are noticeably shorter.

These ‘pioneer’ trees such as birches, willows and alders will be found on the fringes of a forest where they act as a wind buffer. They are rapid growers but their slimmer trunks also limit their eventual height.

You can also use trees as a kind of compass. They grow towards the light so they produce more branches on their southern side. As a tree grows, it will shed many of these branches; and when a tree loses a branch, it uses resin or gum to form a seal at the junction with the trunk, creating something that looks rather like an eye.

When you see lots of ‘eyes’ on a tree trunk you have a marker showing you which way south is.

You can also use trees as a kind of compass. They grow towards the light so they produce more branches on their southern side. Stock image used You can also use trees as a kind of compass. They grow towards the light so they produce more branches on their southern side. Stock image used

You can also use trees as a kind of compass. They grow towards the light so they produce more branches on their southern side. Stock image used

If you want to hear particularly good birdsong, head for holly, blackthorn or hawthorn that have spines; small birds make their home in these because they offer protection from larger predators.

Want to locate a river? Look out for a ribbon of pale, broadleaf trees like willows, alders and ashes, which typically grow by water.

Here’s an arboreal brain-teaser. You pass a tree and see that someone has carved their initials in the bark. If you return five years later, will those initials have grown out of reach?

Rather surprisingly, although the tree itself will have grown, the graffiti will still be at the same height. Once bark has appeared, that part of the tree will get fatter but not taller, so anything scratched in the bark will stay exactly where it was.

To estimate the age of a tree, look at its girth rather than height. As trees get older their height starts to lessen, but their trunk keeps getting fatter (rather like most of us).

As a rough guide, a healthy tree will add 2.5cm a year to its circumference, so a tree with a 2.5 metre girth is about a century old.

We tend to admire trees most when they are in full leaf, but Gooley writes that one of the most exciting times to examine a tree is early in the year.

Look closely at it then and you will see flashes of pinks, reds and browns in an apparently bare tree; these are the first signs that the buds are swelling. Buds are a marvel of nature — last year’s energy all packaged up in a bundle which is primed to go off in springtime and release all those fresh green leaves.

Gooley is the sort of man whose idea of a fun day out is tramping up and down hills looking at tree roots.

How To Read A Tree is so packed with information that it’s a book best dipped into rather than read in one go, but it will undoubtedly leave you with a deeper appreciation of trees.

Understanding them, Gooley writes, is to possess ‘extraordinary powers’. Your country walks will never be quite the same again.

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