James Canton, THE OAK PAPERS

James Canton, THE OAK PAPERS

“If we all operated in oak time, I think we’d be a lot calmer, a lot more chilled out.” Naturalist and author James Canton explains to Zibby how he wanted to combine his academic background in wild writing with his experience as an ecologist to write a book about what humans can learn from oak trees. Through meditation, journaling, and historical research, James shows readers how to slow down and take time to really observe the world around us.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, James. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Oak Papers.

James Canton: You’re very welcome. It’s nice to be here, Zibby. It really is.

Zibby: Where are you Zooming in from, by the way? You’re in London? Where are you?

James: For all the New Yorkers out there, or the Americans, I’m actually in that little old island, England, about an hour northeast of London where I come from. I’ve now kind of camped out in a field for the last twenty-odd years, not exactly, but in a really lovely little English village in a very old cottage that was once used by farm labors. Really nice.

Zibby: That jives with your whole treatise on nature and books and the old-school way of living, if you will. Why don’t you tell listeners what The Oak Papers is about?

James: Sure, Zibby. A few years ago, I was working in a secondary school, in a high school, in rural Essex where I live. I just decided one day that I would go and visit an eight-hundred-year-old oak tree. It wasn’t completely out of the blue in the sense that by then, I was teaching a master’s class in wild writing. I come from a literary background. I really wanted to build my knowledge, my skills as a naturalist, as an ecologist. I thought this might work out as a really good project. I thought I could spend some time with this tree, get to know some of the bugs and the beasties that live around this tree. I got in touch with a guy who went under the title of curator of trees on this small English estate, lovely guy called Jonathan Dukes. I literally contacted him out of the blue and said, “Look, I’ve got this plan that I want to come and sit by this tree for all different times of day and night and through the seasons, in the rain and the snow.” I met him. He doesn’t say too much, as a lot of wood men and women do, as I realized. He just nodded a bit. He was kind of like, yeah, I get that. He very kindly and the estate very kindly agreed that I would have free access. I could go in through literally a small gate at the back of the estate whenever I wanted, which was a really quite incredible ticket to freedom, as it felt at the time. This is how the project began. I literally went and sat by this eight-hundred-year-old oak tree that was still a big tree four hundred years ago when the English Civil War was taking place. This kind of thing, it had this incredible history. I mention that because we know, we have documentary evidence that there were parliamentary troops camping up by this tree as they went to siege Colchester in 1640s, incredible history. This enticed me into spending some time with this tree.

Zibby: Wow. I loved how you did it as a journal, how you had different days. You felt so in the moment with you. This whole book was an exercise in mindfulness. The fact that you wrote it in the present tense and you just had us there with you, like I am sitting — I think it was in the present tense, or at least — yeah, “I feel so much calmer.”

James: Yeah, large sections of it are.

Zibby: I was like, did I make a mistake? The immediacy of it and the way you experience nature brings us in as if we are sitting there too, not to mention that you must have found every single literary reference to an oak tree in the planet.

James: My background was, I’d fairly recently completed a PhD. The idea of doing research, it’s still very much part of my world. After I’d spent a bit of time with this tree, after a few months, I started thinking, I need to know more about humans and oaks. In the States and in Britain and in a number of countries around the world, as I learned, we have this very special relationship with oaks. We might have slightly different species of oaks in our lands. Often, people do feel this real close connection, this close affinity to oaks, and obviously, often to the most ancient and most magnificent examples, individuals if we like, of the oaks that we hang around with. You’re absolutely right. As soon as I started spending time in the British Library exploring this incredible cultural history, I realized you could go back to the earliest written texts in Western civilization. You could go back to Homer. You go back to The Odyssey. We’re reminded that Odysseus, before he can set sail back to Ithaca, he has to get the word of truth from the gods in the Temple of Dodona. How are those words given to him? They come through the susurrations, is the word, the susurrations of the oak leaves, the whispering of these leaves that is in interpreted by the priests. They told Odysseus to go home. Right through, as you say, I spent a lot of time going through as many cultural references as I could. I just wanted to place them through the book as much as possible. That’s very much what I did.

Zibby: A lot of them were really beautiful. Who knew? Odysseus, oh, my gosh, I read The Odyssey for school in seventh grade. Now you’re taking me back to that whole time.

James: Ancient Greece, indeed.

Zibby: The way you wrote about oaks, the book is not simply about trees and nature. It’s about our relationship to the world, is really what the book is more about. It’s not just about the history of trees. It’s about what it means when we spend time in nature and when we are with a tree and what it does to our own reflection when things around us sort of pause. It’s interesting that this comes out at the end of the pandemic where things have actually paused for a while.

James: That’s absolutely right. This was something that I started to experience. I think this is how the nature of the book shifted from what I’d initially envisaged as a study of the oak and its habitations and the creatures that it lives with into something that was far more human-centered. I realized that every time I went and sat by this ancient oak tree, I felt calmer and more peaceful and more at ease in my world. For a while, I just kind of bathed in that. It has to be said. Then part of me started to say, why? What’s all that about? I’ve done this research into — the whole process was kind of ongoing. As you know, in the book, what I do is I go and talk and interview, informally, a number of experts. I spoke to an environmental psychologist at one point and literally said, “Look, Mike, why do I feel calmer when I’m sitting next to an oak tree or sitting in an oak tree?” He explained some of the current science to do with our brain patterns and the shift that is scientifically proven that takes place as we step into green spaces, natural spaces out of more urban, human-created spaces, what the scientists call stepping from stressed states to meditative states. Things started to make sense. I genuinely realized that there was a genuine sense in which my well-being was being improved by being with the oaks.

Zibby: I need to find an oak tree pronto. This is basically what you were just saying. You said, “I became even closer to oaks. I made being beside an oak tree part of my daily ritual like a religious practice. Rather than merely visiting the Honywood Oak on the way to or from work, I now sought to spend more time each day in that still world beside an oak tree. I would turn from all that troubled me in life and work in order to sit beside an oak and focus my thoughts on the presence of that tree. By an oak tree, my mind became calmer. It was a form of mediation. I spent more and more time in the company of oaks. I leaned on oak trees for support. In many ways, it was a stepping away, a withdrawal from my own species. I can see that now, the silent, sentient ways of the oak becoming something I strove for as though they were personality traits that I could take on if only I spent enough time beside or within an oak tree. It was a deeply meditative way of being that I searched for. I believed such a state would keep me sane. Whether I was fleeing from being human or seeking to be of the tree, I still do not know. At times, it felt as if I was drifting too far, like sailing too far from the shore. And I did turn, at times, to the thoughts of others. I sought out those sympathetic souls who kindly offered me their wise words on what oaks meant to them, how it was that oaks offered us peace and calm, and even what it meant to be the oak.” So beautiful, oh, my gosh.

James: I was just thinking I should add for the listener that there was a personal aspect to this. I was going through the breakup of a long relationship. I went through some difficult times through the five years or so that I ended up taking to write this book. As you put so well in that passage, you read it really nicely, there was this sense that time — I think most adults, through their life at some point, will experience difficult times and also, hopefully, experience the solace that you can get as a human by stepping into the natural world. For me, that was linked with stepping into the enveloping embrace of oaks or something like that. I started to go not just to the eight-hundred-year-old oak tree that was a drive away and near my work, but to a local oak that was just a walk away that I could step up into and actually sit within as well. That was, again, a step up in the experimental experience, if you like, that I was undertaking getting to know oaks. It was a powerful process at times. It really was.

Zibby: It’s so funny because — this is how you know the power of a good book. This weekend, I went to a wedding in Virginia, which was a seven-hour drive or whatever. It was in the middle of these rolling hills in the middle of nowhere with this vast expanse. It was called The Inn at Willow Grove. There were all these willow trees when you first go in. I would normally not even look twice at a tree. I’m a New Yorker. I know that sounds terrible. I just don’t really notice them. I notice if one is strikingly beautiful. I’m like, oh, that’s so pretty. It’s just not in my — after reading your book and finding myself on this gorgeous piece of property for this wedding, I kept going over to all these trees and looking at them in a new way and imagining, similar to the man who owned the land where you would go for your first oak tree and how he put in his will that the trees not be felled — it turned out that they were, one by one, all around the land except for the one remaining — and how it was that I was standing there with all these original trees, and what if all the ones around me had been taken down? I went down a whole thing in my head about it.

James: That’s wonderful to hear. That is praise, indeed. I love that the book has kind of turned your world a little bit, or your vision for a while. That’s so nice. That’s lovely. Thank you.

Zibby: I like how books change the way you see everything.

James: I was chatting to someone yesterday. I was actually selling books on a little market stall in a little craft fair just down the road from me, which was really sweet. It was really nice to chat some people. Someone came up and they said, “Oh, I’ve read this. I read this last summer.” They were really nice. I said, “I wrote it.” We had a lovely chat. They were saying, “You know what? You wrote it, and it went slower and slower, the pace of the book. I just became calmer and calmer as I was reading it.” I was like, “Oh, my goodness, that’s so lovely to hear because that’s exactly what I strove to create in terms of a tone, a pace to the book.” It was, hopefully, not too slow, but meditative in that sense that it offered a kind of oak-time reading. If we all operated in oak time, I think we’d be a lot calmer, a lot more chilled out, perhaps. That was really nice to hear from someone.

Zibby: Living in oak time, I like that. I have to say, I was expecting a little more about your life. I read in the description or something, it was an intersection of a memoir. You were very — cagey sounds negative, so I don’t want to use that word. You just obliquely referenced some of the things about your life, but there was no detail into that, which is fine. Then I wondered, what was that about? Obviously, it was a conscious decision at some point.

James: It’s a good point, isn’t it? I teach quite a lot of books that are nature-based. Often, people are very open. They use nature as kind of a background to their own personal disclosures. I talked with the editor about this. We wanted to include that personal narrative. I was like, “I’m really happy to do that, but I don’t really want — this is not meant to be a book about me.” Obviously, I’m the storyteller. I’m the narrator, but it’s a factual book about oaks and my experiences and time with them. I don’t want people to get caught in my story. What I really would love is people read this book and then it affects them in the sense that they start going to trees and they start to appreciate their local trees a bit, as you did at your lovely wedding. That was really what I would like to happen in terms of the book rather than people follow it as a, as some people brutally call, a misery-memoir type thing, and nature memoir. I was like, I don’t really want that. I want it to be more uplifting than that. I want it to be more centered around a more meditative pace of recognizing the value that the natural world can have for us as humans and how it has had that through our history from the first time we stepped into becoming farmers away from the hunter-gather narrative of our lifestyle. This was very much more what I wanted to create in the book. It’s a good point because there was an editorial meeting where I thought I was going to be told, look, it’ll sell a lot more copies if you tell us everything about what happened in the breakdown of your relationship. My editor was great. I was like, “That’s not really what I want to be doing.”

Zibby: What you really did well, also, was set the stage for the sadness — that’s not even the right word, but how it was almost a tragedy when all of the trees were cut down, and the flippant way in which those decisions are made and the repercussions of that and what we’re taking away when all these trees were cut down just for local timber and what that does to a community and what that does to the people who get ancillary benefits from that and just so many other ripple effects from one generation’s decisions forever.

James: That’s right, exactly. I say about that first meeting with Jonathan Dukes literally under the oak, he told me this story then and there. I didn’t know it. As you hint towards, the story was that — he put it something like this. If we’d been standing here sixty years ago, we’d be standing with about three hundred other oaks of a similar age. I didn’t know this. I live nearby. I didn’t know this story. I was genuinely quite shocked. Initially, you think, god, what were they doing? That’s my grandfather’s generation. What were they doing? Then down the line, you pause and you think, two generations down, my grandchildren, what are they going to be saying about what we’ve done or haven’t done in terms of climate change, in terms of an environmental narrative, etc.? This was something that I just realized, this needed to be part of the story as well. I’d have to do that. One of the people that I met and introduce his voice in the story was someone who worked there as a teenager. He was a very lovely guy. I met him at one point, and I talk about it in the book, collecting money for those who fell in the First World War and their generations on, but he wouldn’t talk to me about what had happened in those woods with the three hundred dead trees. Very powerful in that calm, quiet, silent way that often these wood men and women that I met have. You’re tempted to think they’ve become tree-like in their ways, if you like. They become wise and calm and quiet.

Zibby: As an English teacher, I’m sure you have a bazillion pieces of advice for aspiring writers. What would you say as advice? What pieces of that advice did you use when writing this book? What tricks and tools did you employ to create this one yourself.

James: That’s a good question. When I was teaching my second years in the last academic year, obviously, we’re all teaching on Zoom, etc. With one class of my second years — I teach creative nonfiction too. I actually pulled out the files that became The Oak Papers just to illustrate — I don’t have them here, but they’re about nine inches thick of folders of paper. Not all of it is my writing, but a lot of it is. This book went through three solid edits and a number of versions before it became this final version. That’s something I always try and stress to students, to work at material, to write on a daily basis if you can, even if it’s just small bits. You see that I include quite a lot of diary entries that I wrote in situ at the oak. Often, they’re just small, little snippets, but it keeps the writing process going. If you can be writing on a daily or a weekly basis, I always think that’s the best advice you can give to people. Then if you can, leave it after a while and go back and have a little reread of it. Edit it. Work it. Evolve it, which is what The Oak Papers was all about. That’s why it got called The Oak Papers, because I had so much paper about oaks.

Zibby: What is coming next for you now? Any more books in the future?

James: Yeah. I think probably a number of writers might say this, but the pandemic’s been really hard, obviously, a terrible thing in many ways, but it’s allowed me more time in my day because I’m not commuting into the University of Essex. It’s meant I’ve been writing. I’ve completed another book a bit ahead of time. I’ve got a meeting with my editor on Friday to talk about getting that secured.

Zibby: That’s exciting.

James: That will be coming out with Canongate hopefully next year, and with HarperOne as well. We’ve signed all the contracts, so that’s really good.

Zibby: That is really good.

James: I’m currently working on a book that’s more to do with rewilding and the idea of helping the natural environment individually, whether it’s in a nice flat in New York, whether we can have some flowers as window boxes, or not mowing your lawn in May, or persuading farmers to be planting more wildflowers.

Zibby: Amazing. Thank you. Thanks for chatting about The Oak Papers with me. I’m glad that you consolidated them into a nice, slim book that I can have all the way across the ocean. Thanks so much. I look forward to seeing your next book when it comes out.

James: Thank you, Zibby. I really appreciate your enthusiasm. I love the fact that you were distracted at your wedding by some gorgeous willows. That’s really good to hear, indeed

Zibby: I’m so glad. Have a great day. Thank you so much. Bye-bye.

James: Thanks so much, Zibby. Bye.

Zibby: Thank you. Take care.

THE OAK PAPERS by James Canton

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