For centuries, our local woods were managed on the ‘coppice-and-standard’ system. The ‘coppice’ trees are fast-growing species like beech and hornbeam, which were harvested every 10-20 years to provide wood for fencing, hurdles, tool-handles, roof shingles and the like. The ‘standard’ trees are oaks, well-spaced, which were left to reach maturity, then used in house- and shipbuilding. It’s often struck me that many of these oaks would end up far from the Wealden clay where they’d grown peacefully for a hundred years and more. Only now have I got round to writing about one of them.
Sonnet: THE SUSSEX OAK
Among the coppiced hornbeam, chestnut, beech
And other, lesser trees, this one alone
Was left untouched to swell its girth and reach
To heaven. While its underlings were thrown
And carted off for palings, it lived through
Their several lifetimes; promised, separate
A woodland Nazarite: when storm winds blew
It nodded as they thrashed, intemperate.
Till, stripped of bark and bough, the Sussex oak
– now rooted deep within a man-o’-war –
Shot-splintered, splashed with blood and wreathed in smoke
Fell in a wreck of canvas, rope and spar.
Its vow fulfilled, far from its native land
It went to rot, lost in the unseen sand.