The New Sylva, A Discourse of Forest and Orchard Trees for the Twenty-First Century, by Gabriel Hemery and Sarah Simblet

Reviewed by Hayley Anderton

sylvaWhen Shiny New Books asked me if I’d like to review The New Sylva I thought it sounded interesting. When it arrived I thought it looked interesting and imposing – it’s a big book – and half tagged it as something I could pass onto a friend who works in woodland conservation for whom it would have made a perfect gift (I would have been the best friend ever) post review. Having had a proper look at it I’m keeping it, it’s just too beautiful to let go of.

Three hundred and fifty years ago in 1664 John Evelyn wrote ‘Sylva‘, it was the first book published by the Royal Society in London and helped change perceptions of trees and forests inspiring generations of woodland owners in how they manage their land. The New Sylva marks the anniversary of Evelyn’s original work as well as comprehensively updating it; I say this with all the authority of someone who has read the introduction as I’m not honestly familiar with Evelyn’s original. Something else the introduction gave me to reflect upon is this; 350 years isn’t such a long time measured against the life of an oak tree, it’s 2 or 3 generations at most if they’ve been planted for timber. When Evelyn was writing the navy used roughly 8000 trees a year to produce ships, it’s a huge amount of timber which immediately puts into context the economic significance woodland once had in this country. Economics are not the whole story though, trees, hedgerows, woodlands, forests – they’re part of our culture, our folklore, our personal histories, and most definitely a part of our future. We need trees.

The New Sylva is broken down into 6 sections, the first deals with Evelyn his history and legacy. Chapter 2 is of the earth and environment, chapter 3 is the bulk of the book devoting itself to over 40 significant tree species and examining their biology, distribution, and habitat, silviculture, timber and over uses, pests and diseases, and the future. Chapter 4 looks more specifically at silviculture and forest produce whilst chapter 5 deals with the future of forests. The last section is glossaries, notes, further reading suggestions and the like. It’s part encyclopaedia part manifesto.

It’s the future that interests me most here, trees provide valuable habitats, are basically nice to look at and are extremely useful. People who live in urban areas, as I do, have an uneasy relationship with trees, close to buildings they’re not always a good thing, but on the whole they make the city so much more attractive and seeing them daily keeps us in touch with the seasons. I would dearly love to see, as this book argues for, more imaginative planting in parks, in hedgerows, and in gardens. It would be fantastic to have more apples, quinces, mulberries, hazelnuts, and so on, growing where they could be foraged from as well as providing a more diverse habitat (I know there are hazelnuts near me because I see the shells the squirrels discard every autumn but I’ve yet to find the actual tree) never mind that they’re also good to look at. City parks, traffic islands, car parks, and all those odd little spaces in towns where councils seem inclined to spend a lot of money on geraniums and begonias could be so much more exciting…

Horse chestnut leaves and fruits in autumn. A drawing for The New Sylva by Sarah Simblet.
Horse chestnut leaves and fruits in autumn. A drawing for The New Sylva by Sarah Simblet.

 

It’s a real credit to Dr Gabriel Hemery that this is actually an enjoyable book to read as well as an interesting one. Necessary information regarding biology and pests/diseases is balanced by history and folklore, the result is undoubtedly scholarly as well as being entirely accessible by the lay person; it’s a book that keeps you reading on. What really makes it though are the absolutely stunning illustrations. It’s a huge shame that I can’t share them all here but this is simply a beautiful book to look through and that’s why I can’t bear to be parted from it now I’ve seen it. There are full page and double page illustrations of whole trees which are lovely but it’s the detailed botanic drawings which I’ve really fallen for. Some of these are small – a trail of feathers falling across a page and through the text, my favourite are a sequence of frogs spread across 4 pages, others also take up whole double page spreads as each leaf or branch is shown in perfect life size. I would have adored these illustrations as a child – it’s the kind of book I’d have begged to be allowed to look at as a treat – they turn it into a treasure, a potential heirloom, something very special indeed.

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Hayley Anderton blogs at Desperate Reader, she lives in a small city centre flat where she dreams of having a lot more space for books and an orchard.

Gabriel Hemery and Sarah Simblet, ‘The New Sylva’ (Bloomsbury: London, 2014) ISBN-10: 1408835444, 400p, Hardback. (A digital sampler of the book can be seen here.)

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