On the mighty oak

An oak in its prime is a marvel of nature. Throughout history, oak trees have contributed to human history in the form of material for artefacts such as the Bronze Age oak-coffins in Denmark, the Iron Age Nydam Boat, the Tudor warship the Mary Rose, countless beams in medieval cathedrals and Elizabethan housing, and picture frames.

Today, dendrochronology can provide some answers to how oak was used throughout the ages. Thus, Aoife Daly who wrote her PhD thesis on oak ship timber in northern Europe is now beginning to combine dendochronological analyses with archive material in order to determine the geographical area from which the timber originated, as well as to pinpoint the age of the tree, and when it was felled.

Oaks feature in history, myths, legends and fairy tales. Tales abound of the sacred oak of Zeus in Dodona; Thor’s oak in Gaesmaer; of how Robin Hood and his Merry men cavorted among the oaks of Sherwood Forest; or of Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree that starts off as an oak tree with acorns.

The future King Charles II is said to have hidden himself in an oak tree after the Battle of Worcester in 1651 in Boscobel Wood and after the Restoration, the 29th May was celebrated as Royal Oak or Oak Apple Day for about two hundred years. Obtaining enough supplies of oak for the sailing ships of the British navy meant that oak figured in the foreign policy of the British Empire. And the walls of the House of Commons are panelled in oak.

Here in Denmark, too, the oak tree was once revered until  a few centuries ago when the beech tree became the focus of poetical imagination. For instance, Hans Christian Andersen once wrote a tale about the last dream of an old oak tree.

Oaks were felled in their hundreds of thousands to build ships for the powerful Danish navy over the centuries. Apparently it took about 2000 oak trees to build a single ship of the line leading to the decimation of huge amounts of oak trees in the 18th century.

Today, a highly symbolic oak is found in the Folketinget, the Danish Parliament, in the form of its rostrum. A huge tree trunk, which once had been the fundament of Lendemarke windmill, was presented in 1916 by its new owner, the Liberal politician Frede Bojsen to the Folketinget, and craftswoman Anny Berntsen Bure, one of Denmark’s first female cabinetmakers was given the honour of making the rostrum, which she did beautifully without the use of a single screw or seam.*

An act of enormous symbolism, as just a year earlier, in 1915, women had finally gained the right to vote in Denmark.

* Kvinden med kævlen