Book: Ghost Trees by Bob Gilbert

From Living Woods Issue 50

Londoner ANGUS HANTON reviews Ghost Trees, which
he thinks will be as ‘popular as the poplars in Poplar’.

Nature and People in a
London Parish
Bob Gilbert
Saraband Books
ISBN 978-1912235278


Bob Gilbert was parachuted into Poplar in the East End of London because his wife Jane was appointed there as a vicar. But Bob wanted to know all about the place and has a hawk-eye for spotting things and an elephantine memory for detail. Instead of discovering his new territory by beating the Parish boundaries he decided to walk along all the streets in the parish pacing down every one, including the noisy, dirty A-roads. What he observes is remarkable. Although London has a lot of concrete and tarmac, life keeps squeezing its way out and biodiversity is there in abundance. Expanding beyond his very local sightings, he considers the wider world of biodiversity and explains the five great extinctions the planet has experienced, and marvels at why the trees we still have are the survivors.

Poplar trees present many ironies – one of which is that they are resistant to fire, yet for a long time their main use was making matches. Mr Bryant and Mr May, two Quakers, started selling their matches in 1843 and they planned to create a model factory making safety matches that would avoid the workers getting poisoned by the phosphorus (‘phossy jaw’). But mostly the market wouldn’t pay the extra for the safety – as Gilbert observes, the market does not have a conscience. Poplar trees have also played an important role in warfare: their wood was used for arrows because they are unlikely to snap, and they are light to carry. The Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s flagship which sank in 1545 and was raised from the seabed in 1982, had 2,300 iron-tipped arrows and most of them were made from poplar wood.

Gilbert, like most people who live a good part of their lives outdoors, is acutely aware of the seasons and devotes much of the book to ‘A Year Observed’, from Sylvia Plath’s ‘ring doves chanting’ in January, to the ‘canopy thinning like a balding man’ in October, and by December he sees that the hawthorn resembles a Christmas tree with its berries like baubles. Other themes are the London plane tree, mulberries, and exploring the Black Ditch – the East End’s own river. The title, Ghost Trees, could be a reference to the distinctive silhouettes of trees in winter, or the way nature seems to appear just when least expected and sends shivers down your back, or to the fact that trees will outlive humankind.

This is the book for those that enjoy a mashed-potato mix of learned natural history, historical anecdotes and dry humour. Bob Gilbert concludes nicely with a version of ‘everything, in time, will pass’ by quoting from Badger in Toad of Toad Hall, who described how the ants feel about life: ‘We may move out for a time, but we wait. We are patient. And then we return. So, it will ever be.’

It’s a cliché to describe a great book published in time for December as the ideal stocking-filler, but the recipient of Ghost Trees may well feel a desire to tramp their own streets, like Gilbert, and observe trees for themselves. So the book will truly end up being, in a different way, a ‘stocking filler’.


Writer BOB GILBERT moved from north London to Poplar in 2009. A keen observer of the natural world, he has written a column for the Ham and High newspaper on urban wildlife for two decades. In his new book, Ghost Trees, he turns his attention to the urban landscape of East London, telling the story of this inner city area through its trees, past and present, and drawing on history, natural history, legends, poetry and painting.

In this extract, Bob chronicles a year in the life of the plane tree in his garden: its constancies and inconstancies; its furlings and unfurlings; its aspects in every weather; its moods at different times of day. A storm hits and Bob is curious about the sheer number of leaves on the tree…

The high winds rise and fall, the stronger gusts shaking the thinning leaves of the plane into a frenzy. They are quaking as if spirit-possessed and speak in loud, hissing tongues. Leaves are stripped from outer branches and hurtle vertically across the garden. The same scouring wind leaves the seed balls in place, though they bob up and down in agitation like oats on a stormy sea. The hawthorn beneath the plane, which still shows little sign of seasonal colour, shakes dementedly, whiplashed to one side as the gusts pass through it.

Plant pots and compost bins are overturned and my fine Cape gooseberry is snapped in several places. Twigs and branches are scattered across the garden and the cabbages lean collectively to one side like a performing dance troupe frozen in mid-manoeuvre. When the storm subsides, the tree settles back into itself as if exhausted. It has also passed a milestone in the year, for it has clearly lost more leaves than those it has remaining. Rather than a full tree that is thinning, it has become a bare tree with a few last leaves attached.

As I rake and sweep this shedding, and load leaves by armfuls into bins and garden sacks, I can’t help but wonder at their sheer quantity. It is perhaps only in this ritual of clearing that I really begin to understand the tree’s profligacy of production. I search in books and online for an estimate of how many leaves a tree may bear but it is hard to find a source that would be foolhardy enough to put a figure to something so variable. A large spruce, I learn, can bear three million, but these are the narrower ‘needles’, held in bunches, and they are shed continuously across the year rather than in a single season.

The oak is the most commonly studied of the deciduous trees and its leaves, on a large, healthy specimen, are variously estimated at somewhere between 200,000 and 250,000. Working on the unscientific assumption that my plane tree must carry something similar, I bring some of the fallen leaves indoors and weigh them. Using twenty leaves of various sizes I come to an average of two grams each for the dry, dead leaves. Taking the higher of the two estimates of leaf number gives me a weight of 500 kilos, or around eighty stone, for the leaves fallen from my plane. Add to this the three planes that stand on the other side of the churchyard wall and some two tons of leaves are being dumped annually in and around my garden.

Though no part of the garden is immune from this onslaught, there is one spot where the leaves assemble in great quantity. Blowing down the blind alley at the back of the house they collect at its far end, as if the sheer weight of numbers might give them some sanctuary against sweeping.

Their propensity to flee down this eastward extension of the garden seems affirmation of a basic geographic fact: that our prevalent winds are westerly. The ‘national’ winds are those that have crossed the great expanse of the western oceans, that have reached us across open salt sea, high waves and swelling tides, and that carry on towards the narrow North Sea and across to the continental land mass. It is not only a physical force but a sociological one as well for it has played a part in shaping London, and this part of it in particular.

When the city became tired of its ‘noxious’ industries – the smelly, the smoky, the messy or the downright dangerous – it passed an ordinance expelling them from within its boundaries. And so they came here; the slaughterhouses, oil boilers, gut spinners, varnish makers, chemical plants, calico printers, glue makers, distilleries and manufacturers of gunpowder. They concentrated on the east side of town where the westerly winds would carry the smell and the smoke away, rather than blow them back over the city that had expelled them. It was wind direction that first brought this toxic concoction, and with it the concentration of poverty and deprivation, to what was to become the East End. In the social mapping of the city it became a rough rule that wealth declined from west to east, and the wind had helped make it so. The storm-torn leaves, as they congregate at the untidy eastern end of our alley, are re-enacting social history.