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STUDY OF NATURAL HISTORY.
41 conveniences of a similar nature, have rendered the practice now unnecessary. With us this bad custom is declining, and probably in time will cease altogether.
It is rather a subject of surprise, that in our general associations and commixtures in life, in times so highly enlightened as the present, when many ancient prejudices are gradually flitting away, as reason and science dawn on mankind, we should meet with so few, comparatively speaking, who have any knowledge of, or take the least interest in natural history; or if the subject obtain a moment's consideration, it has no abiding place in the mind, being dismissed as the fitting employ of children and inferior capacities. But the natural historian is required to attend to something more than the vagaries of butterflies, and the spinnings of caterpillars ; his study, considered abstractedly from the various branches of science which it embraces, is one of the most delightful occupations that can employ the attention of reasoning beings: a beautiful landscape, grateful objects, pleasures received by the eye or the senses, become the common property of all who can enjoy them, being in some measure obvious to every one; but the naturalist must reflect upon hidden things, investigate by comparison, and testify by experience, and living amidst the wonders of creation, it becomes his occupation to note and proclaim şuch manifestations of wisdom or goodness as may be perceived by him. And perhaps none of the amusements of human life are more satisfactory and dignified, than the investigation and survey of the workings and ways of Providence in this created world of wonders, filled with his never-absent power: it occupies and elevates the mind, is inexhaustible in supply, and, while it furnishes meditation for the closet of the studious, gives to the reflections of the moralizing rambler admiration and delight, and is an engaging companion, that will communicate an interest to every rural walk. We need not live with the humble denizens of the air, the tenants of the woods and hedges, or the
AN ANCIENT OAK. grasses of the field; but to pass them by in utter disre. gard, is to neglect a large portion of rational pleasure open to our view, which may edify and employ many a passing hour, and by easy gradations will often become the source whence flow contemplations of the highest orders. Young minds cannot, I should conceive, be too strongly impressed with the simple wonders of creation by which they are surrounded : in the race of life they may be passed by, the occupation of existence may not admit attention to them, or the unceasing cares of the world may smother early attainments—but they can never be injurious—will give a bias to a reasoning mind, and tend, in some after-thoughtful, sobered hour, to . comfort and to soothe. The little insights that we have obtained into nature's works are many of them the offspring of scientific research; and partial and uncertain as our labors are, yet a brief gleam will occasionally lighten the darksome path of the humble inquirer, and give him a momentary glimpse of hidden truths : let not then the idle and the ignorant scoff at him who de. votes an unemployed hour,---,
“ No calling left, no duty broke,” to investigate a moss, a fungus, a beetle, or a shell, in “ways of pleasantness, and in paths of peace.” They are all the formation of Supreme Intelligence, for a wise and a worthy end, and may lead us by gentle gradations to a faint conception of the powers of infinite wisdom. They have calmed and amused some of us worms and reptiles, and possibly bettered us for our change to a new and more perfect order of being.
We yet possess two forest trees, beautiful and unmu. tilated! An oak in Shellard's lane has escaped the woodman's ax, the hedger's bill: it stands on the side of the waste, and has long afforded shade and shelter to an adjoining farm-house. These circumstances, and not being valuable as a timber tree, may have contributed to its preservation : its hamadryad is left alone in the land to mourn her lost companions. This tree is not mentioned as being at all comparable with the gigantic productions of the kind that we have accounts of, and
AGE OF TREES.
43 perhaps by- many would be passed by unnoticed ; yet it is deserving of some regard, from the vegetable powers that have existed, and still continue in its trunk. The bole, at some very distant period, by accident or design, appears to have lost its leading shoot, and in consequence has thrown out several collateral branches : three remain, which have now grown into trees themselves existing in full vigor, and constituting a whole of much beauty. It is a characteristic specimen of an oak, with all the corrugations, twistings, furrows, and irregularities, which this tree with a free growth generally exhibits; expanding its three vigorous arms to the Sun of Heaven with a pendent, easy dignity, that seems like an enjoy. ment of unrestrained liberty. We have no good criterion to regulate our judgment with regard to the age of trees of considerable antiquity. In young ones the rings of the wood will often afford a reasonable ground for opinion; but in old trees these marks are absorbed, obscured, or uncertainly formed, so as to be no sufficient guide. In particular cases, such as inclosure of waste or other lands, formation of parks and plantations, the times of planting are sufficiently recorded; but generally speaking, neither oral tradition, nor written testimony, remains to indicate the period when a tree sprang up. This oak, however, from all the signs of age that it retains, must have existed as a sapling at some very distant day, and is the most undoubted relic of antiquity in the vegetable world that we possess.
The elm, and the beach, in age, frequently present very decided vestiges of a former day; but the oak of centuries has impressed upon it indelible characters of antiquity, and is a visible vetustum monumentum. The wreathings and contortions of its bark, even its once vigorous, but now sapless limbs, with their bare and bleached summits, stag-headed and erect, maintain a regality of character which perfectly indicates the monarch of the forest, and which no other tree assumes. We have many accounts in different authors of the prodigious size which the oak has attained in England; but most of the trees, that have arrived at any vast circumference, seem, like this our village oak, to have lost
AGE OF TREES. their leaders when young, and hence are short in the but : yet we have records of aspiring timber trees of this species of astonishing magnitude, though perhaps none of them exceed those mentioned by Evelyn, cut down near Newberry in Berkshire, one of which ran fifty feet clear without a knot, and cut clean timber five feet square at the base; its consort gave forty feet of clear, straight timber, squaring four feet at its base, and nearly a yard at the top. The “ lady oak,” mentioned by Sir E. Harley, produced a but of forty feet, and squared five feet throughout its whole length, thus producing twenty tons of timber, a mass of surprising grandeur ! But the most magnificent oak ever known to have grown in England was probably that dug out of Hatfield bog: it was a hundred and twenty five feet in length, twelve in diameter at the base, ten in the middle, and six at the smaller end, where broken off; so that the but for sixty feet squared seven feet of timber, and four its entire length. Twenty pounds were offered for this tree.* This extraordinary vegetable should have been preserved in some museum, as unequalled in ancient, unapproachable in modern days; exceeding in magnitude even that famous larch brought to Rome in the reign of Ti. berius,t and reserved as a curiosity for many years, which was one hundred and twenty feet long, and two feet in diameter its whole length.
Indigenous, flourishing, and inured to all the caprices of our climate as the oak is, yet it produces its fruit very precariously, and at times sparingly, like a plant of exotic origin; which does not appear to have been the case formerly, when such herds of swine were maintained by the produce of our woods alone, and grants from manorial lords for permission thus to feed them were recorded with care as valuable obtainments.
The cause of infertility in indigenous trees can arise from no defect of construction in the organs of fructi. fication, but from some obstruction, perversion, redundancy, or vitiation of the natural powers; which is par
* Philosoph. Trang. as quoted in the Sylva. + Pliny's Natural History.
HISTORY OF THE OAK.
45 ticularly manifested by the faculty which they possess at one period of producing fruit, and their impotency at another. This imbecility from one cause or another probably influences at periods every tree or herb that springs from the earth; but in regard to the oak, the most general and probable cause of its sterility is sus. pended circulation. This is more immediately brought to notice from our custom of barking the timber of this tree in the spring. At times our barkers go on rapidly with their work ; yet in a few hours a frost, or a sharp wind, will put an entire stop to their operations, in consequence of the cessation of the flow of sap, which is followed by the adhesion of the bark to the wood. Whenever this nutriment ceases to be supplied, the immature and tender germen must languish; and if the supply be long suspended, it must perish from deficiency of food. That such is the natural effect of spring frosts and sudden chills, more injurious probably to the fruit in this immature state, from its greater delicacy, than when it is more developed, is reasonable to suppose : how far a change of seasons may have taken place to accomplish the injury alluded to, more commonly now than in former periods, we have no criterion for proving; but if failures of the acorn crop took place as frequently in times when swine's flesh was mostly the diet of the middle and lower classes of people as they do now, the privations of our forefathers were severe indeed.
An interesting volume might be formed, entitled the “History of the Oak.” The first mention that we know of this tree is that ancient of days, the “oak of Mamre," under which Abraham sat in the heat of the day; and that it was an oak, one of the fathers, Eusebius, tells us, as it remained an object of veneration even in the time of Constantine. We would note all the celebrated querci of antiquity; the use, value, strength, duration, &c., of its timber; the infinite variety of purposes to which its various parts are applied by the mechanic, the dyer, the artisan; the insects, which amount to hundreds of species, that live an ha their being on the oak ; the vegetables it nourishes, ferns, lichens, mosses, agarics, boleti, &c.; the sawdust, apples, gallnuts,