Acorns Oaks and Art

Spring, and the oak tree we planted in the gully beyond the sitting room window has suddenly shimmered into leaf.

I treasure these first days when the young fretted edge of the bright leaves are still frilly, and brilliant green and translucent. They’ll weather into darker green,  leathery- looking foliage as the summer months go by, but this is spring, and the word is verdant. This particular oak belongs to a group known as marcescent , which means they keep their brown leaves until spring, so it’s gone from brown to green in the space of a few weeks.

One of my toddler grandsons and I grew it from an acorn which had rooted itself in one of my pots. Every time we moved house I carefully lugged it along, and every time the grandson came to stay, or visit, he inspected ‘his’ tree. Once I planted it, and it flourished for three years in a corner where it would bug no-one else by taking their light or stealing their space. But then after another heart scare for my husband, we left that three level house to squeeze ourselves into this little cottage by the sea next door to my daughter’s holiday home.

I couldn’t leave the oak behind. It was like one of my grand-children and had enjoyed nearly as much feeding and nurturing as them. So we dug it up, and re-instated it here. It’s not even on our land, but on a paper road, which legend has it was mapped out by a surveyor in England in the nineteenth century, and thus he didn’t realise he’d planned it to run straight down into the sea. So the road will never be activated, and this is a safe space for my tree.

It doesn’t spoil anyone else’s view, and there’s plenty of room for it to spread its branches. It’s grown so much in the six years we’ve been here, that it now hides the neighbouring house across the reserve, and gives me shade in summer, and lets the sun into the sitting room in winter.,

All in all, an ideal tree! I was reading the wonderful American writer Annie Dillard the other day, and she describes communing with a sycamore. She goes on to describe Xerxes, King of Persia – who on one of his marches through Asia Minor with his huge army – came upon a single exquisite plane tree, the same family as a sycamore. He was so ravished by its beauty that he halted his army and stayed there for several days in contemplation of this work of nature. She imagines his army halted, puzzled, thirsty and weary, waiting on the hot and treeless plain. And after a few days, still rapt with the glory of creation, Xerxes, warlord, invader, builder of monstrous palaces which are now lost demesnes, orders a goldsmith to be rooted out of the tents, to come and forge a medal to preserve that moment forever.

But though the Xerxes and his goldsmith couldn’t really manage to embalm that moment in time, the great composer Handel did. Written over two thousand years after Xerxes died, Handel’s opera Serse, opens with the king singing “Tender and beautiful fronds of my beloved plane tree”, from the famous largo: ’Ombre mai fu’, one of the best known pieces of classical music

However, loving beauty didn’t make Xerxes a nice person – it doesn’t, it seems… murderous Nazis like Hermann Goering collected beauty, but it didn’t rub off on them! Xerxes was the man who had the Hellespont whipped with three hundred strokes and chains dumped in it when a storm destroyed his fleet!  We won’t go into what Goering did.

But my oak, unlike Xerxes’ plane tree, is a stranger in a strange land – what is known as an exotic tree in New Zealand, where it is not a native. In its native land – England – it’s host to 284 plants, insects, birds and animals, compared with five in a chestnut, and one in a plane tree. Like my oak here, they are both alien species in England.

So in England, my oak would be hosting birds, plants, insects and creatures, from the oak bush crickets which browse in its crown, to the roe and fallow deer which seek its shade. There are bugs that feed on oak flowers, beetles that eat the bark, and caterpillars that eat the young leaves. The insects attract birds – nuthatch, tree creeper, pied flycatcher, wood warbler, (wonderful names) while the great spotted woodpecker nests in holes drilled in rotten branches.

Acorns feed jays and squirrels,  and all the wild life attracts predators like weasels and sparrowhawks.  Indigenous wildflowers grow at its roots, bluebells, primroses and wood anemones. Lichens and fungus grow on it, and mistletoe, of course, famously grows on the oak for the use of both Druids and Christmas revellers. Though the acorns are poisonous to other domestic animals, pigs thrive on them.

Yet here in New Zealand, I look out on an empty oak, which actually makes me sad. No bugs or beetles, or birds. I have to treasure it for its changing beauty alone, in a country where nearly all the trees are evergreen, and which never change with the seasons. Neither will it last for an age like ancient English oaks planted in the time of Elizabeth the First. My tree has catapulted skywards, and like the other oaks here, will reach its prime in a hundred years, and then slowly decay for the next fifty years.

So like Xerxes and his goldsmith, I just have an impression of an oak. I don’t have the essence of an oak, supporting dozens and dozens of tiny lives and plant growth, but just have to make the most of what the tree and I share – mutual love and memories of all the places we’ve lived in together. Xerxes had his tree immortalised  by Handel’s genius, so perhaps I can lay claim on Handel too, and celebrate my oak tree with  his lovely song from another opera, Semele: ‘Where e’er you walk, cool gales shall fan the breeze, trees where you sit shall cast into a shade’.


PS  You can listen to both Handel’s songs on Youtube, both food for the soul. Enjoy beautiful Kathleen Battle or exquisite Andreas Scholl singing ‘Ombre mai fu’, and the matchless Kathleen Ferrier or legendary Leontyne Price singing ‘Where’er you walk’. I hope you love them too.


Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Morning tea with friends in their airy house overlooking the harbour, all the windows open in the sunshine on the first day after we put the clocks forward for summer. Amongst other goodies we had coffee and gingerbread, and my friend gave me the recipe.

Melt 250 gm butter with a firmly packed cup of molasses or dark cane sugar, stirring to mix. Take off the heat, and add half a cup of dark rum, three quarters of a cup of full cream milk, half a cup of ginger marmalade, two large eggs and the grated rind of three oranges. Meanwhile, in a large bowl sift three cups of SR flour, two teasp baking soda, two tablesp of ground ginger, two teasp of cinnamon, one teasp each of ground nutmeg and cardamom, half a teasp of ground cloves and make a well in the centre.

Pour in the melted mixture stirring to form a smooth batter. Beat in about 120 gm of chopped crystallised ginger. Pour into a greased lined tin 23 cm square according to this recipe. Bake at 180 degrees for an hour and a half until well risen and firm to the touch. Cool in the tin. It’s better kept for two days wrapped in an air tight container before eating, and butter when you cut into slices. The recipe used marmalade instead of ginger marmalade, but I don’t like orange marmalade, and it also suggested the grated rind of two limes and lemons as well as the oranges. I wouldn’t. But I can’t wait to try my bowdlerised version, and I think I’d sprinkle some sugar on the top before baking.


Food for Thought.

Life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one.

Stella Adler  1901 – 1992 Actress, and founder of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in NY, and Stella Adler Academy of Acting in Los Angeles. Her students included Marlon Brando, Judy Garland, Warren Beatty, Martin Sheen, Robert de Niro, Melanie Griffiths, Harvey Keitel and others.


Filed under cookery/recipes, culture, environment, environment, great days, history, life/style, literature, philosophy, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life

43 responses to “Acorns Oaks and Art

  1. I learned a lot in this post today. Thank you!


  2. The wonder of moving from winter into spring is always my favorite. Here in NYC we’re going into autumn. The dark green, leathery leaves are turning a bright yellow and then a papery brown. Too early yet for the brilliant foliage – if we’ll even see it. We’ll see! xoM


  3. How interesting reading your post as we have just entered Autumn where the trees will soon be leaf barren. Ah-h-h-h! My favorite – the majestic oak! When my dad and mom build their house, they chose a piece of land because of the magnificent, who knows how old, oak tree. So sad when it was struck by lightning a few years later and had to be cut down.


    • Yes, It’s fun reading about the seasons in the other half of the world!
      We’ve been freezing while the other half of the world has been talking about sweltering heat and margarita’s!!!


  4. You have become a treasured teacher for me. Here oak is so common that when one falls down they burn it for firewood and I shriek with horror. Why not make furniture I say. As you know in NZ oaks are a much loved tree.


    • Lovely to hear from you Celi… gosh, fancy burning oak for firewood….it must make a very hot fire, does it? Sadly these days, oaks are not so loved here … In the forty years I’ve been here, I’ve seen that the passion for native trees now means councils are quite hostile to what they call aliens and exotics. The Northland District Council cut down nearly three hundred old oaks in the Bay of Islands a few years ago for no good reason, except that they weren’t natives… I couldn’t bear to list for you all the poplars and oaks and willows and other trees chopped down by councils, and Transit NZ… que sera sera…. So my precious oak is an act of defiance against officialdom!!!! Love from NZ


    • Lovely to hear from you Celi… gosh, fancy burning oak for firewood….it must make a very hot fire, does it?
      Sadly these days, oaks are not so loved here … In the forty years I’ve been here, I’ve seen that the passion for native trees now means councils are quite hostile to what they call aliens and exotics.
      The Northland District Council cut down nearly three hundred old oaks in the Bay of Islands a few years ago for no good reason, except that they weren’t natives…
      I couldn’t bear to list for you all the poplars and oaks and willows and other trees chopped down by councils, and Transit NZ… que sera sera….
      So my precious oak is an act of defiance against officialdom!!!! It’s one of the reasons I love reading your blog – you are so accepting of everything, no politically correct plants!!! Love from NZ


  5. Oh, so nice to read about spring in October Valerie, all due to the internet!
    I remember the spring here, back in March, and how it made all natural to bloom out of cover of cold (there is no snow).

    “I treasure these first days when the young fretted edge of the bright leaves are still frilly, and brilliant green and translucent” what a marvelous depiction!


  6. Thank you for explaining why some oaks here in New Zealand retain their dry, brown leaves throughout winter. They remind me of waifs and the poverty-stricken in their rags from the slums of English cities in the 1800’s.

    I think there is room here for trees of all persuasions.


  7. Trees have always given me a sense of purpose and destiny. “When the oak is felled the whole forest echoes with it fall, but a hundred acorns are sown in silence by an unnoticed breeze.” Thomas Carlyle


  8. I love the tale of your love and story with the Oak tree, it is so wise and sensitively written…I came to honor it, envision it and see how meaningful great Trees and Nature can pull the best of us…and deepen our hearts and spirits, Love Linda


    • Thank you LInda, as always you add another dimension to the story… I think that’s the wonderful; thing about blogging, writing is only one half of it, and it’s the perception of others that completes it.Love to you,, Valerie


  9. sorry about my misunderstanding yesterday!!


  10. Loved your writing! It is so descriptive and beautiful


  11. Your writing humbles me. I’m so happy for you that it is spring there! It seems so funny that spring isn’t in May but whatever the month it is my favorite season.


    • Dear Maggie, if you can see value in my writing ( and thank you for your generosity) it means that you have the capacity to write too – we can only recognise what is in ourselves.
      Yes, I love spring, but actually, as each season comes, I love that one too…each one has its particular pleasures that I relish. I think spring means a lot more in the North, where you have such cold winters – our climate is quite temperate here, but I remember being very depressed during January and February in England when I was young… wonder if I would still….


  12. Alice

    I am determined to grow and oak from m an acorn. Last year, squirrels stole mine. Time for a fall walk of gathering.


  13. Oh I see, you change your gravatar with the seasons, do you – you clever old thing you!!!


  14. I so love your posts! A paper road – I’ve never heard that expression but will treasure it, so glad that is a safe place for your beautiful oak tree. I love too that it has been nurtured as your grandchildren have! Just thought you’d like to know, I googled Obra Mai Fu and had it playing while I read the rest of your post. 🙂
    Gingerbread – oh yes! Parkin at this time of year, reminds me of my Mum and Bonfire Night which was also her birthday.
    I love what this blogging experience gives me – so many contacts and memories and shared lives. Thank you, it’s very precious! 🙂


    • I’m so thrilled you played Ombra Mai Fu, and lovely to know that you enjoyed the post… it’s a mutual enjoyment, because I always soak up yours, and it is precious to me too. I’m always looking for a good ginger parkin recipe. I love the moist dark sort, but am still searching for the perfect one which they used to serve at a cafe here, but wouldn’t divulge the recipe!


  15. Beautiful, evocative writing, Valerie! Yet sad to think of the oak still majestic but not fulfilling its intended purpose. May we all fulfill God’s perfect will for our lives.

    Thanks so much for visiting and commenting on Saved by Grace!
    Your blog is a blessing and I am now following it, and I invite you to follow Saved by Grace also:
    Love in Him,
    Laurie Collett


    • Thank you so much Laurie for your generous and appreciative comments about my blog…. However, I do feel that the oak is fulfilling its intended purpose, – giving me the joy and pleasure of its existence! And there may be other reasons for its existence that I know nothing of….
      God wastes nothing, so even if I couldn’t see its purpose, I would know that the oak is perfect.
      I would hate to judge my beautiful tree!!!!


  16. I love the change of the seasons…each one brings something special to us.

    Well done, Valerie! You are a very good writer!



  17. Amy

    The tree, season change, your insights, history, … in one beautiful post. Thank you so much, Valerie!


  18. Thank you Amy, it’s lovely to know that you appreciated the elements of the story – writing for other writers is so rewarding


  19. This is such a beautiful piece of writing. You manage to both teach us something new and do so with words which summon us beyond your own world of thought. I’m in love with your tree. I too have a passion for trees as would be obvious if you could see where I live, overlooking bush and river.Thanks my friend, love your work !!! 🙂


  20. I enjoyed this post! 🙂 And I love that quote – it’s so true, isn’t it? No matter what form it takes, art is the salve for the soul.


  21. Sylver, Apologies for this tardy reply, I’ve been in a real bloggers muddle with my messages, and only just found this message from you. I really appreciated it, and loved that you loved the quote… yes, it’s how I feel. -.. life without beauty, whether music or colour or words or whatever, would be empty., wouldn’t it…..


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