Professor Spends 2 Years Sitting with an Ancient Oak

James Canton went to learn about the tree, improving his own well-being along the way.

James Canton with the Honywood Oak
James Canton with the Honywood Oak.

Helen Canton

Like Henry David Thoreau went to the woods, James Canton went to a very old tree.

Specifically, the professor from the University of Essex in the U.K. spent two years sitting with and studying the 800-year-old Honywood Oak in North Essex, England. Canton originally went there to observe the oak, but came away better understanding not just the tree, but also himself.

Canton's new book, "The Oak Papers," reflects on what he learned in his time spent with the ancient oak, listening to the natural world.

Canton teaches Wild Writing at the university, which explores the connection between literature, landscape, and the environment.

Canton talked to Treehugger via email about his adventure with the Honywood Oak. (The interview has been slightly condensed.)

Treehugger: What prompted the start of your tree odyssey? Why did you first start sitting under the 800-year-old oak tree?

James Canton: Love the notion of a tree odyssey! In many ways, The Oak Papers was rather like a long voyage. It began back in 2012 when I was teaching in a local school just down the road from the Honywood Oak that lives on the Marks Hall Estate, a small, English estate in what was once thousands of acres of ancient woodland. I had also begun teaching at the University of Essex and my initial plans had been to learn some more about the ecology of the oak tree - build up my knowledge of the ecosystem and of some of the creatures that live within the realm of the oak. 

One sunny summer’s day, I went to the Honywood Oak and met a man there called Jonathan Jukes who had the title of ‘curator of trees’ and spoke with him about starting a project whereby I would go and sit beneath the Honywood Oak at all times of day and night and simply observe the ways of the tree. I very clearly remember wondering at the time if he would dismiss the idea outright, but Jonathan was great - he’s a quiet and considered man - and he simply nodded his head and said, ’Ok, sure.' So, I could go whenever I wanted on to the estate and make my way in through a little hidden gate to this stunning place and spend time quite alone with only the Honywood Oak for company. 

At that time, I was also going through the break-up of a long-term relationship. Looking back, I now realize just how much of a solace the capacity to go and sit beside that ancient oak tree was for me. There was such a sense of peace and calm - a stepping away from my everyday world. It was a magical experience - especially those first few times going on to the estate alone, at dusk or dawn, or even in the middle of the night, and simply being there beside that great tree.

Then I heard from Jonathan that only sixty years before, there would have been some three hundred oaks of around the same age also in those grounds. They had all been felled, cut down for cash. The Honywood Oak was the only one that survived the chop. Somehow that made the presence of this vast, aged tree even more special. 

Honywell Oak
The oak is 800 years old.

James Canton

What is the story of the Honywood Oak? Did you know much of its history when you first began spending time near the tree?

The Honywood Oak really does have a remarkable tale to tell. The tree would have been a sapling when the Magna Carta was signed in 1215. During the English Civil War, we know that Roundhead troops - Parliamentarians under the command of Thomas Honywood - camped beside the tree in 1648 before heading down the road to the siege of Colchester. Even then, over four hundred years ago, the oak would have been an impressive size.

I knew something of this history when I first went and sat beside the oak but it took time to dawn on me the extent of this single oak’s experiences across the backdrop of human history — to see that this oak tree has lived through thirty generations of humans and is still going strong.

How much time did you spend near the oak?

I went to the Honywood Oak at least once a week or so for around two years. For many months, it was more like a daily pop in to say hello. Doing so became part of my life. The oak was on the way between the school where I was teaching and my home - so stopping off there became part of my routine. I would sit on a bench beside the oak with a pile of reference books, my notepad, and binoculars and simply pass the time.

The tree is some 28 feet round and there’s a little nook on the west side of the oak where you can tuck down, so I spent quite a number of hours there, too, and experienced that simple truth of observing the natural world that if you stay quiet and still in one place, creatures will come to you. I vividly remember being tucked down on the oak when a treecreeper flew by my nose and disappeared into a crevice in the bark a couple of feet from me.

Honywood Oak in winter
Canton sat with the tree in every season.

James Canton

Did you sit with it in all kinds of weather, in every season?

I went there in all kinds of weather conditions - snow, rain, storm, and sunshine. That was the glory of it all. I delighted in seeing the oak in such varied climates - spotting the various tracks of animals in the snow beneath the tree, or watching woodpeckers working away on the very upper branches.

I was so fortunate. It was a blessing to witness the life of that tree for so long. I even climbed into the oak on two occasions - up into the central bole high above the ground, with the assistance of professional arboriculturalists and ropes - to see the life of the oak from deep within the canopy of the tree.

What did you start to experience the longer you spent with the tree?

Well, I certainly experienced a wonder and delight - from seeing the first touch of lime-green leaf as the buds unfurled, to witnessing the multitude of creatures that live under the auspice of that ancient oak. There was at times a kind of ecstasy to being there, to becoming immersed in the life of that oak. But what I also became to realize was how grounding the experience was - I knew a peace and a calm sat beside the Honywood Oak that I did not know beyond that place in the rest of my life.

closeup of Honywell Oak bark
Canton studied every aspect of the tree.

James Canton

What reflections did you have on our dependency on the oak tree throughout history?

For me, some of the most startling revelations as I began to research the history of oaks and humans were to do with how essential they have been to our existence. Across the Northern hemisphere of the globe, wherever oaks have grown they have been closely linked to us. Not only have oaks offered hard wood to build our homes and fuel our fires, but they have provided sustenance, too. For the early farming communities of the Neolithic - six thousand years ago and more - the acorn crops offered these distant ancestors a way of sustaining themselves and their animals when harvests were meager or winters were harsh. Oaks and humans have been tightly tied since distant prehistory.

Perhaps that is why oaks feature in so many mythological tales that have come down to us from those times. Many indigenous peoples around the world still recognize how significant oaks have been to human development on that planet - many indeed still use acorns to make flour for their bread. 

Across the world, even in more recent times the development of many countries has been closely linked to oak trees. In England, the oak is still linked to the national identity. You could argue Britain’s imperial past relied on oak trees. Britain’s naval fleet was built of oaks. An opera from the eighteenth century by David Garrick spoke of how ‘heart of oak are our ships, heart of oak are our men’. Nelson’s ship HMS Victory was constructed from some 6,000 trees, 90% of which were oaks. In other European countries, including Germany and Latvia, the oak is also central to national identity. Indeed, it’s the oak that is the national tree of the United States, too. 

James Canton book reading in front of Honywell Oak
Canton does a book reading in front of the Honywell Oak.

James Canton

At Treehugger, we often write about the benefits of being in nature. What did all that time with the tree do for your well-being?

It’s such an important point. At times, during this project I wasn’t in a great place due to breaking up from a relationship yet one of the things I learnt was how my well-being was improved by time beside the Honywood Oak and other oaks. I teach the virtues of being in nature - the poster for the MA Wild Writing shows a glorious landscape with the words ‘Our Outdoor Classroom’ - so I was already a strong advocate of spending time in nature, quiet observation and writing in the natural world. Yet I experienced that truth in some profound ways over the years I worked on The Oak Papers.

Scientists now know of the positive impact of phytoncides - the chemicals released by plants and trees — on our physiology. Forest bathing (Shinrin yoku) is increasingly being recognized as a tonic for our well-being and immune systems. At one point in the book, I talk to an environmental psychologist who tells me about an experiment conducted in Edinburgh when they had placed mobile EEG sensors on participants. As they stepped from urban to green spaces, their brains shifted from more stressed states to more meditative states - the chatter decreases, the amygdala calms down. So we have strong scientific backing to what we know intuitively — stepping into the woods is good for our well-being

Honywell Oak
Canton visited the tree at least once a week.

James Canton

What lessons do you think we can learn from the world around us if we slow down to listen?

By being still and silent in the natural world, we learn to experience the world - we see and hear the other living beings that exist around us. We can learn to recognize that we are of nature rather than seeing ourselves as separate. That is a vital truth to learn. That fact is essential if we are to truly start to address matters of climate change and the emergency that we face on this front - by noticing our place as fellow living creatures in a global ecosystem we begin to change our ways of being in the world.

In many ways, I feel that by peering back into the patterns by which the hunter gatherer folk of the Mesolithic lived thousands of years before us, we can learn much about maintaining a harmony with the earth. That knowledge is there within many of the traditions of the indigenous peoples around the world, too. We would do well to listen to those voices. 

You can follow James Canton on Instagram at @jrcanton1.