Rowan by Oliver Southall, 2023. Reaktion Books.

What is the connection between an angiosperm whose leaves “arranged around a dark black void … evoke portals to the spiritual otherworld” (p. 198), Scotland’s highest-altitude tree [as of 15th June 2023] (Sarah Watts, British & Irish Botany 5(2): 167-179, 2023),* Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, and John Everett Milais’ portrait of John Ruskin? The rowan tree,** both the subject and title of Oliver Southall’s book [which is appraised here].

 Taking its place amongst Apple, Ash, Birch, Cherry, Mulberry, Oak, Pine, Willow, and Yew, Rowan is the latest tree-based book in Reaktion Books’ plants-and-people-themed Botanical series. And I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing several of those titles for Botany One over the years (e.g. here, here, and here). However, whilst Rowan continues that trend, the rather erudite introduction to this blog item is intended to give a flavour of the distinctively different direction that Southall has taken.

Rowan is a typical Reaktion Books title

As for other books in Reaktion Books’ Botanical series, Rowan has the familiar formulaic layout, and its 248 pages are divvied-up between an Introduction, six Chapters, a Conclusion, a Timeline, References, Further Reading, Associations and Websites, Acknowledgements, Photo Acknowledgements, and an Index.

Whilst I’ll say more about the main sections’ content elsewhere [see Rowan is a different Reaktion Books title section], some comments about the rest of the book are pertinent here as similarities. The Timeline for rowan extends from ‘54-36 MYA’ [millions of years ago] – noting the possible appearance of the first ancestral rowan – to ‘2000-present’ – during which period rowans were planted in boulders enclosed by sheepfolds. Sources to support statements made in the main sections are indicated in-text by super-scripted numbers, and expanded upon in the References section. With approx. 17 pages, that listing contains >370 references, and is a very good mix of journal articles and books. Generally, declaration of sources used is very good with only a few instances where such sources appear to be absent within the text – and mainly in the Introduction. If you’ve not had enough ‘rowanabilia’ from Southall’s own book, >75 books of Further Reading will help you take that new-found interest further. Additionally, details of 13 Associations and/or Websites will present even more opportunities to pursue your rowanesque interests. The Index occupies approx. 5.5 pages of 2-columned entries, from “Æ see Russell, George William”, to “Yeats, reimagining of rowan as Celtic emblem”. By way of entries for: berries (of Sorbus aucuparia); Clearances (Scotland); druids; early Irish literature; forest spirits (Finland); gender, conventions of; Heaney, Seamus, ‘Song’; Imbolc; ‘Joseph Rock’ (rowan cultivar); leaves (of Sorbus aucuparia); magic see witchcraft; Norse mythology; Order of Celtic Mysteries; pentagram see berries; quicken tree of Dubhros; Russian State Pharmacopeia; sorbic acid; Thor (deity); urban trees; Vikings; Wordsworth, Dorothy; and Wordsworth, William, you’ll probably get an inkling of the subject matter of Southall’s ‘take’ on the topic of rowan.

Throughout, the book is copiously illustrated – in both black-and-white and colour [my favourite is the stunning 2-page spread entitled “A flock of waxwing feed on frozen rowan berries”]. Rowan is also very well-written, and quite poetic in places (as probably befits the book having been penned by a published poet). Probably related to the wordsmithery beloved of poets, the book introduced me to lots of unusual words – e.g.: numinous, colloguy, blazon, theophanic, chthonic animism, euhemerist, apotropaic, metonymic, variorum, shielings, circumambient, crizzled, umbrageous, bosky texture, gnomic eccentricity, hermeneutic, anamnesis, and asemic). However, whilst I’m all for improving one’s word power, so many examples of ‘new’ words made Rowan a challenging read.

Challenging words aside, the poet’s craft is writ large in some of the book’s phrasing, e.g.: “Almost certainly, you can imagine the frothy corymbs of clotted-cream blossom in spring and that defining burst of late-summer colour as the lightness of flowers gives way to the clustered gravity of scarlet berries” (p. 7); “Whatever the precise logic of the belief, such examples offer a window into the ingenuity of the imagination, its capacity to craft a psychic defence against otherwise insoluble problems” (p. 81); “The rowan, then, was an important part of the complex ecology of the Wordsworthian mind – and thus of the development of English Romanticism and its environmental thought” (p. 154); and “Here, determined renunciation fades into introspective silence; the reader is abandoned on the brink of a Proustian reverie for which no words can be conjured by the poet” (p. 168). Continuing the theme of difference…

Rowan is a different Reaktion Books title

Although Southall touches upon the more practical uses that humanity has made of the tree [all more or less dealt with in the Introduction], “The rowan is not a tree whose first importance to humans has been practical in a directly mechanical sense. Its special fascination and power – ritual and magical, aesthetic and emblematic – derive mainly from its beauty, its unusual taxonomic characteristics and its predilection for precarious and remote locations” (p. 31). And that more philosophical view dictates the way that rowan [and which tree is exclusively Sorbus aucuparia (M Räty et al.) other than in the Introduction] is considered in the book’s six chapters and Conclusion, and why Rowan differs so much from the other tree titles in the publisher’s Botanical series.

The author’s hope is that, “taken together, the stories I tell with rowan will gradually reveal the rich and intriguing part that something so apparently simple as a tree can play in our collective earthbound life” (p. 37). Accordingly, in Rowan: Chapter One “examines the mythology*** of rowan in a transitional period, as poets and scribes adapted native lore to Christian frameworks, fitting it to new ideological needs” (p. 41). Chap. Two is devoted to the folklore of rowan, and “explores the tree’s role in the obscure lives of people such as Agricola’s nameless Karelian peasants – people who eked out a tough and precarious existence in Europe’s northern latitudes: in Ireland, Scotland, upland regions of England and Wales, Scandinavia, the Baltic and northern Russia” (p. 73). In Chap. Three “ we explore an antiquarian and folkloric impulse that has continually shadowed, and often fed into, the modernizing ideals of political nationhood, making it possible for artists and writers to find new symbolic meanings for the rowan” (p. 101). Chap. Four “takes Ruskin’s portrait as a springboard for reading the presence of rowan trees in Romantic literature and painting, arguing that appreciation for the species is a marker of shifting attitudes to natural beauty” (p. 135). Chap. Five “carries us into the twentieth century, exploring the significance of rowan in Russia’s post-Revolutionary literature of exile and displacement” (p. 36), especially Russian writers Marina Tsvetaeva and Boris Pasternak “whose meanings allowed the rowan to serve as the threshold to an alternative, counter-factual Russia: an imaginary, yet very real refuge from the economistic autocracy established – murderously – in the decades of Stalinization” (p. 163). Chap. Six looks at “writing and art that deal with land-use change and rural-to-urban migration, as well as poetry and religious anthropology that draw on occult associations of the tree to forge personal, counter-cultural mythologies” (p. 36), and highlights works of contemporary artist Andy Goldsworthy (Naomi Blumberg), poet, novelist and classicist Robert Graves, and poet and scholar Kathleen Raine. “Finally, in the Conclusion, we consider the tree’s future as a source and symbol of ecological regeneration” (p. 36). All of which should give the would-be reader some idea of the ideas considered and the language used to deal with the plants-and-peopleness of rowan.

Or, to put it more succinctly, Rowan concerns the ‘mythology’ of rowan – in the expanded sense of “social significations at play in everyday symbols and images” (p. 30), a notion attributed to French literary critic Roland Barthes. As abstract – and as different from a more typical Botanical series title – as that may sound, Southall’s book worked well for this botanist, and delivered a decidedly different – but welcome – plants-and-people tome on a tree theme.

Summary

Oliver Southall’s Rowan is a very thoughtful account of the role played by that iconic tree in the mythological, magical, artistic, and literary development of humankind throughout the millennia. However, I suspect it’s not going to be ‘everybody’s cup of tea. But, if you take the plunge and give it a try, you’ll be rewarded with a different kind of plants-and-people book, making the point that the connections between plants and people are myriad and multifaceted.


* And this plant was also Scotland’s favourite tree of 2020. In the interest of some sort of balance, do note that other nations within the United Kingdom also have ‘tree of the year’ competitions.

 ** Yes, I do now appreciate how daft it probably was to pose a question whose likely answer includes the name of the book that’s shown immediately after this blog item’s title…

*** For readers concerned that there will be no biology in the book, I’m happy to say that, Southall delivers a commendable account of the ecology, taxonomy and evolutionary history of Sorbus – with appropriate mention of the tree’s utility – in the Introduction. Although Southall acknowledges the existence of other species of the genus Sorbus [and nine – but not S. aucuparia(!) – are separately listed in the Index], the book is dedicated almost entirely – to S. aucuparia, the rowan or “common mountain ash” (p. 8).

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