Oaks of Charleville Forest

There has always been a tree in my life I considered *my* tree. My very earliest memory is of a swing, a plastic yellow swing seat tied with heavy-knotted rope onto an old but sturdy fruit tree. It is a dense sensory memory, full of prolific leaf on gnarly branch, lush grass and yellow, and I have to have been *tiny*, just a toddler, because of where that swing was tied. Next was huge old beech guarding over a tiny stream beside my grandparents’ house in Wicklow, far away from the flats I lived in in Dublin, flanked by unruly box hedges the scent memory of which is tickling my memory. There was a little stone wall running along to join a metal gate at the back of the tree that provided sufficient boost for me to climb into the platform where branches divided. We moved to an estate in Dublin and nearby there was the last remnant of old park land, full of old and huge chestnuts and beechs that my mother banned us from exploring alone. Dotted around our estate were still more large trees, cut away from their park but left, thankfully, to thrive in the most part, graffiti and occasional burns marking their transition to more urban living. For me then my tree was an ornamental weeping goat willow my mother planted in the front garden, a small thing but dense, it cascaded leaves over a branch fountain in a helpful manner for us kids to hide in the centre when we were very small. Then we moved to Offaly and there was the oak, instantly adopted as the family tree wordlessly by us all and openly acknowledged as such over the years. I can still see my brother Shane’s hand emerging out of the top of the crown the first time he made it to the top. Since his death at age 23 the family have universally and wordlessly acknowledged it is his tree in particular, but it remains the tree of our family finally settled at “home”.

Acorns from that tree have flourished into their own individual oaks but I have not, as yet, planted one in a place that I feel settled. I don’t think I will always live where I am now, so in the mean time I have a weeping birch in my small garden, a nod to the weeping willow of my Dublin life and to the pioneering nature of the birch, settling a new area before the larger trees move in. I love the delicacy and fizz of birch and aspen, but oaks are the underpinning of my teenage and adult life. While I wait to settle on my “home” tree I greedily loop a thin sense of claim to whole forests now instead, like Blackwood, Deerey (Old Board walk) and Charleville Forest.

I have been aware of the oaks in Charleville forest for most of my adult life, but not properly so. Charleville is mostly ash, oak and hazel , with some interesting stands of beech and the occasional awe inspiring yew. The King Oak, which I’ve spoken about before, is the tree I associate with my kids growing up, an enormous and welcoming tree in which I have a great many photographs of the boys and various friends at a variety of ages sitting, lying in, climbing around and balancing on over the years. For a long time, for long and boring reasons I won’t go into, walking in Charleville forest by myself was not a thing I felt equal to. I was aware of oaks dotted through the forest but never off beaten tracks. Discovering the ability to venture extensively there now is almost as great a source of joy as the trees I have been finding. I am currently hopelessly not up to the task of properly displaying these glorious old trees in photographs, but I intend to try very hard indeed in the next while.

Following my steady diet of books like Rewilding, Feral and The Songs of Trees lately my appreciation for the practice – intentional or otherwise – of leaving fallen oak branches and standing dead oaks throughout the forest has heightened considerably. There are jays in the forest and every time I catch the flash of blue – because that’s usually about all I can get apart from one unfortunate dead one – I grin at the memory of how I found out how important they are to oak forest regeneration. Briefly, jays will collect incredible quantities of healthy, ripe, good-sized acorns and bury them in stashes at useful distances from the tree in open areas with loose soil. Oaks are slower growing than many of its competitors so this distance and open soil is very much to its advantage. Usefully jays seem to favour grasslands and thorny scrub in sunshine, and oaks do not like full shade and benefit from the thorns protection from grazing animals. The jay hides the buried acorn stash with soil and leaves, and remembers where their own stashes are. They eat the acorns throughout the year but ease off on eating them during the period of acorn germination, in April through to August. The stem appears with the first few leaves around June. At this time the Jay will hunt the acorns with these new leaves to feed their young and to teach them to eat themselves. The adult jay will pull it up and eat the acorn, but the seedling is let fall back to the ground. Oak seedlings are not damaged by the loss of the acorn, developing an efficient tap root quickly after germination. The young birds try to do the same but scratch and pull at all plants and seedlings, which clears and loosens the soil for these efficient little seedlings to take root quickly. Everyone wins.

I’ve started to mentally catalogue the saplings pushing through the bramble patches, heralded by blackbirds piping rapidly away as I rustle along in waterproof jackets. As I’ve read a 50km circle is a good range for native seed sourcing I fully intend to bring a couple of the family oak acorns there to try their luck. I intend to map the stands of new trees, see if I can guess rough ages, catalogue them properly. In the last couple of weeks I have discovered two particularly glorious oaks that are new to me but very, very old themselves, and I have just read of another enormous one I have not ventured as far as that I look forward to seeing soon. I intend revisiting a great many times and recording them as well as I can.

In addition to the gorgeous oaks I’ve also been taking great pleasure in discovering butterflies, grasses, sedges, and flowers in the meadow land around some of the youngest trees. I recommend a visit, truly.

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