Intrepid traveller and a master storyteller
Sometimes one picks up a book with a touch of apprehension and a slightly heavy heart. You know that feeling, when you cannot help but think, this is a book I know I really should read but do I want to?
I have a fear of 'coffee table' books that can contain marvelous photographs but little in the way of text to enlighten us. So it was when I first opened Thomas Pakenham's most recent work The Company of Trees. How wrong can one be?
Three hours later, despite many other relatively urgent tasks that needed my attention, I was still reading and could not put it down. This is a delightful book, a story of a lifetime spent collecting and planting tree species from all over the world.
It is also a diary, covering 12 months partially spent in the author's marvellous estate at Tullynally in Co Westmeath while at the same time describing his travels during that period and over previous decades. It is a personal story, full of humanity and contains fascinating details about his family, both past and present, while all the while, keeping the reader in touch with the numerous species he has planted at his home estate.
It is also a history book, slipping easily from the present to the past to relate some exciting story or other about how some species of tree was first discovered centuries ago in China or Tibet, or more recently in a hidden canyon in Australia.
Many exciting tales of the intrepid plant hunters of previous centuries and the dangers they underwent to bring new plants back to Europe are interwoven throughout the chapters. In that sense it is almost an adventure story and Pakenham himself is no mean plant hunter having travelled to many wild and dangerous spots including one visit to the Himalayan mountainous regions in Tibet where during a blizzard he got separated from his group at an elevation of 14000 feet.
Happily he lived to tell the tale. On other trips he crosses through wild gorges, over raging rivers with only slippery fallen trees as bridges and up steep and frozen mountainsides to continue his quest for some elusive plant or other.
It was comforting to read how when he began planting new areas of Tully nally, he had, like most keen gardeners, many disappointments and came to the conclusion that the only way to get good trees was to grow them oneself from seed.