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Musing on Damory Oak

In the tumultuous year of 1812, around the time the French were freezing in the ruins of Moscow and American troops were burning Fort York (Toronto), a London printer issued a quiet little book entitled Arbores Mirabiles, a collection of “curious Anecdotes” about “the most remarkable Trees, Plants, and Shrubs, in all Parts of the World.” Among these, one of the shortest treats of “Damory Oak”. Here is the story in full:

“Not far from Blandford, in Dorsetshire, stood, very lately, a tree, known by the name of Damory’s Oak. About five or six centuries ago, it was probably in a state of maturity. At the ground, its circumference was sixty-eight feet, and seventeen feet above the ground, its diameter was four yards. As this vast trunk decayed, it became hollow, forming a cavity, which was fifteen feet wide, and seventeen feet high, capable of holding twenty men. During the civil wars, and till after the Restoration, this cave was regularly inhabited by an old man, who sold ale in it. In the violent storm in the year 1703, it suffered greatly, many of its noblest limbs being torn from it. But it was still so grand a ruin, above forty years after, that some of its branches were seventy-five feet high; and extended seventy-two. In the year 1755, when it was fit for nothing but fire-wood, it was sold for fourteen pounds.”

Such are the reported facts. Now to put some leaf upon bare limbs.

[This excerpt from ‘Musing on Damory Oak‘ starts at a point where the tree is 450 years old.]

… It was around harvest time one year, three summers before the Spanish Armada came to grief (to one old man’s recall), when a lightning-bolt came close to killing the ancient tree. By now the Damory Oak was an edifice as big as a cloud, a trysting place for lovers, a named landmark from which a man might take directions or get his bearing, and a station for special events when, in annual processionals, local Blandford worthies beat around the parish bounds. By Elizabeth’s reign the land was cultivated all around, cheek by jowl with the spreading, prosperous town. (For years it was part of the Ryves family’s D’Amorie estate, whose seat is remembered to this day in the name of Damory Court.) But still the giant tree stood in an open curtilage, all its own.

One day, around mid-afternoon, harvesters were hard at work when a line of storm cloud appeared over the hill that here obstructs the north-west horizon. They had all seen storms before, but this one stretched as far as the eye could see, as black as a crow, with lightning bolts slung in its belly that would have been the envy of Zeus. Still, the harvest lord kept his troops in the field just as long as he could, pulling reapers away from their work with the scythe to help binders stack grain that was dry. He whipped up every beast and cart, to take as much of the crop to shelter as they could. For a full twenty minutes before the darkness reached them, all hands could see the rain falling like a water-fall from the leading edge of the storm-front; and they could smell and feel the thunder as the mighty cloud advanced. Some among them thought back to the Spring, telling their fellows darkly, with a knowing wink, “When the ash doth bud avorn the oak…”

Damory Oak

The Damory Oak, drawn in its final decade by John Bastard, in 1747. Bastard and his brother redesigned and rebuilt Blandford after the town burned down in 1731.

Then came the rain, falling in a vertical wall from a raven sky. It would be almost an hour, by dead reckoning, before a shaft of lightning bright as Jacob’s Ladder struck the oak, by which time its corky bark was sodden from the top-most twig to the base of its towering trunk, making the tree a perfect lightning rod. Not one among the harvesters had taken shelter under it. They knew too well the adage: “Beware the oak, it draws the stroke.” Indeed, even birds know that: it’s a foolish young fowl builds a nest near the trunk of an oak.

The bolt, when it came, lit up the sky and left the tree, as some did say, “a-smoke”, for though the rain kept coming down, the heat of the stroke down the side of the trunk threw a steam cloud into the sky.

“Ah,” said one old reaper to his fellows, “A mortal stroke, that were. You mark what I do say.”

“Reckon as ’twill outsurvive you, Granfer,” replied a younger man.

“And you, my zonner, though thik bolt did split her heartwood through and through.”

And so it was. Some said this marked the moment when the great oak tree ceased growing and began to wane, just five short centuries, five years, and fifty from the time its acorn washed up on a Blandford bank. As ill-fate had it, the bolt fell on the tree’s north-west side, so that where it rotted back its wound was left exposed to winter winds, and the driving force of rain.

Still, so massive was the life within this trunk that it endured for years, oblivious, as far as humans could see, to the wound running down the weather-side of the tree. As young people replaced old, as children became parents, the incident retired from mind. People forgot the year, even the decade of the stroke; those who remembered anything said simply that it happened when the mighty summer storm destroyed one half the standing harvest in the eastern funnel of the Blackmore Vale …

[Generations pass]

… It was while the Puritans were shutting theatres and proclaiming God as theirs that old Nathanael Cox moved into the oak, under duress, eventually coming to know its cave as one of his two homes. He had been thrown from his cottage by a landlord taking unscrupulous advantage of one of the more callous Acts of Enclosure. Old Nate took nothing, and wanted nothing, from the world other than to be left alone on a quarter acre of coleworts, beans, and peas, with his bee skeps for company. The day the bailiffs razed his cott, the old man stumbled, tear-blind, to the tree and lay curled up inside its wooden womb, unmoving for the shock.

When they found him two days later he looked lifeless, like a corpse that still drew breath—and certainly he wished to die—till Charity, in the form of caring folk, set up the bee skeps that he’d woven out of barley straw on an eastern-facing slope (at a prudent distance from Blandford town) and built him a new wattle and hurdle hovel, thatching it well, setting it back into the hill on a parcel of land which, like the oak, enjoyed the benefit of disputed ownership, and was thus protected by confusion under law.

Without a doubt, the old man was grateful to his former neighbours and the Damory Oak, though, addled as he was by shock, he had a curious way of expressing his appreciation. He’d say, to whomever listened: “You did oughta left I there to die.”

To which the reply came back: “Girt lummox! Should poor men gi’ their lords a boon an’ drop down dead? Spite the bugger, Nate! Thee’ll live long lives enough to haunt the bastard yet.”

And so he did. Nathanael Cox lived on and off in the trunk of the tree for many a year, come rain or shine, selling ale to fortify folk facing the one mile climb up Back Lane to the races on Blandford Race Down. And when it came on thunder, he returned the oak tree’s favour by standing in the weather, shouting curses at the gods until the storm had passed. Lightning never dared to strike the ancient oak while Nate Cox called it home. Modern science would have called this arrangement commensalism; old Nate, if he ever thought about it, surely would have called it love.

Thus he lived, poaching rabbits, talking to his bees in summer, badgers after dark. By day he’d dig out earthworms, storing them in a crock to feed his badgers. By the time the first blood of the Civil Wars was shed at Edgehill, Nate’s badger friends had dug a sett beneath a hedge hard by the oak.

In fall, old Nate gleaned grain, finding enough to sell small beer as well as mead to harvesters and haymakers as seasons turned about. Some nights the ancient codger sampled overmuch of his own ale and lay down in the trunk, snoring fit to warn the badgers off; but voles and field-mice always came and, working around his noisy carcass, ripped at grubs and woodlice in the rotting wooden walls.

Damory Oak

A map showing the extent of the Blandford fire of 1731 marks the position of the solitary Damory Oak (right of frame).

So it went, right through the Civil Wars. … Nathanael Cox survived it all, gnarled, scarred, lice-ridden, and craggy as the tree in which he often slept. Soon, though, while the Commonwealth tried to impose a sense of civic righteousness, Nate was joined in the oak by other creatures, for the same Enclosure Acts that had stripped him of his home now laid down the foundations of quick hedges to demark the newly severed fields. And what better boundary and point of reference than the Damory Oak?—which found itself at the axis of four hedgerows cutting off four newly severed fields.

Voles multiplied exponentially beneath the hedges; field-mice were everywhere. Weasels, stoats, hedgehogs, and badgers multiplied behind them, till never again did a night pass quietly beneath the tree without a whoosh of wings, a squeak, a quick commotion in the hedge, and an owl flapped up again to eat its victim in a high branch of the tree.

“Daft ha’p’orth!” opined a visitor to Nate one afternoon. “You got birdshit on your head.”

“’Tis they owls again,” the old man answered. “Owls don’t give a body a pinch of rest.”

But, though he might curse the owls above and voles below, Nathanael Cox spent many summers in the tree—and died there one October day. (Folk seemed to think it was not long after Cromwell died, and war-tired men stuck Charles II on the throne). Anyway, they found old Nate’s dead corpus when a boy was gathering acorns, for now that this oak and others were enclosed, the peasantry could no longer range their swine on oak- and beech-mast in the fall. This peasant’s lad discovered Nate’s legs projecting from the grotto.

Damory Oak

Modern Blandford, Dorset; the Damory Oak is long gone

When the sexton’s team came to fetch him, they found that animals had stripped the flesh from off the head and torso where the carcass lay inside the trunk. But no-one doubted whose the rotted corpse might be. After living like an outlaw nearly twenty years, they took Nathanael Cox back home at last, and laid him down to rest in holy ground. …

* * *

RF / from Wessex Tales / the story, Musing on Damory Oak