Bernhard FeistelXylothek – a touching, reading adventure

As we can read in this forum or elsewhere, gardening from a distance is far from easy, if not mad; awkward to plan and yet full of surprises. Last week I travelled to Germany for not entirely gardening related reasons but thought I might as well take some rare English bare-rooted fruit trees with me to incorporate into our orchard project there, which we have called our English corner or English fruit circle already. Over Christmas there were spring-like temperatures and I was hoping for a similar winter gap in February.

Our stone pyramid with the willow stump in the background

Our stone pyramid with the willow stump in the background

Yet, as the pictures reveal, I was happy that I could, with some effort, just heel in the twenty foreigners the morning after our arrival before the weather got even worse. For my plans that is.

During the process I remembered an interesting experience of my parents who were also surprised (and interrupted) by a sudden winter event half a century ago when they could also just heel in fruit trees they had transferred from their former garden. That winter proofed to become a severe one with the surprising result that many established trees died or suffered badly but all of the heeled-in trees survived and are still in full swing.

Yet, we took at least the opportunity to mark the positions where we intend to plant when the ground becomes clear and manageable again, as it started to do when we had to leave again. This was a pleasant task in this virgin snow because the core structures (that remained visible!) were clear and remarkable. Afterwards we visited friends, who live just opposite and it is about their work I am writing today instead of complaining about European winters. Beware; it’s not entirely gardening related, and somewhat bookish.

Our garden gate

Our garden gate

It thawed when we left

It thawed when we left!

Does it sometimes puzzle you, too, why we spoilt 21st century creatures, who officially (or presumably?) work the shortest hours ever and enjoy plenty of holidays or spare time, still tend to complain about having no real time for ourselves: for example to read proper books. Everything, we are being told, has to be short (or short-lived?), effective, abbreviated and purposeful.

On the other hand, some people, including myself, still tend to build up libraries even though they know that many volumes would remain untouched for years to come. So is it just the company of book spines we need? A kind of insulating erudite embellishment of the study or living room? In the following case I’d like to introduce a not exactly modern paperless solution, which might also appeal to gardeners or people working in forests, who have not necessarily the inclination to read too much, but perhaps collectors’ genes.

Yew

Yew

Have you ever heard of libraries consisting of wooden books or so-called xylotheks? The word is of Greek origin and means wood plus storage space.

The tradition of wooden libraries in Germany goes back to the 18th century, which was in general a time when people liked to collect, classify, and tried to put order to things. (It was the time of Linnaeus, too.)

The most famous xylothek in Germany is probably in Kassel, but there are many more: http://www.specula.at/adv/monat_9712.htm

Cherry

Cherry

The approach of our friends Aglaja and Harald, who are artists in wood, is not exactly scientific. For them, it is more the fascination about the beauty of wooden textures, and to pick this up by transforming the core wooden message into a book (shape) became a logical step further. At first they developed a library collection for themselves with all the wood varieties they had so far handled, but after well meaning friends brought them precious examples from their gardens or travels, the project gathered in seize: Since it is so fascinating to have a typical example of a piece which is at the same time unique.

Ivy

Ivy

After both have established, created and polished the seize of each single specimen Aglaja, with her wonderful handwriting, just adds the ”book title” in German and Latin, which is all that needs to be said. I often find the Latin names of plants singularly mysterious and evocative. Tilia cordata (lime) could easily be a queen from a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale and Quercus robur (English oak) was certainly a relative of number nip or Robin Hood.

Mini xylothek library

Mini xylothek library

A profound oak volume - no preface needed

A profound oak volume – no preface needed

Our friends also started producing mini “mock” libraries as framed pictures. By seeing these, a library of “collected essays” from our own orchard branches already gathered shape or an anthology with our local trees as main authors. I am already looking forward, too, to a future shelf containing our rare English “apple authors” should the pruning (editing) time arrive for them. For the time being, though, our very mature pears, apples and cherries provide us with plenty of publishing opportunities. And what a luck that is, since undoubtedly the most interesting pieces are those with crooked branches, knobs, knots, holes, insects’ grooves or dead wood, which are exactly the parts of wood which have no use for the typical cabinet maker, and limited one for the stove. Transferred into the world of xylotheks they look like illuminated mediaeval manuscripts. On the other hand, an immaculate “oak edition de luxe” always conveys an aura of solidity.

Mini xylothek library

Mini xylothek library

Smaller wood samples can also be transferred into pocket size books, though not in paperback:

wooden books

Wooden Books

To me these unique books are so wonderful that I could “read” in them for hours. It gives a sensual pleasure and excitement I would not exchange for any crime novel.  In the German language there is the verb “begreifen” which has a sort of double meaning: either to touch something or to understand. By approaching one of these books one can do exactly that in combination. To recognize wood by its very texture and grain is perhaps similar to distinguishing distant trees by its shape. The first reminds me of the wonderful story of Gertrude Jekyll, who, when loosing her eyesight in old age, would still know what leaves were falling from what trees by the very sound of it.

A tidy desk

A tidy desk

Through the inspiration of our friends we have already started keeping specimens of our garden inhabitants, particularly those we had to prune or to fell or who just died for unknown reasons like our huge willow tree with that telling name Salix fragilis, we chopped down over the Christmas break. There is a library in the making for a good winter “read” when outside work would be rather difficult.

Oak - Quercus robur

Oak – Quercus robur

So if you, too, have to chop down a tree, perhaps don’t burn it or chip away everything. Keep a memorial piece to transform into a book to read, touch and stroke and to remind you of a beloved or complicated or nasty shrub, or tree. If in doubt how to proceed, our friends Aglaja and Harald might be able to produce a book from your own precious wood. Yet the attached shops of the parks created by count Pückler in Bad Muskau (http://www.muskauer-park.de/) and Branitz  (http://www.pueckler-museum.de) in Germany hold some of their samples, if it doesn’t need to be a personal specimen and you happen to be in the area.

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Bernhard Feistel

About Bernhard Feistel

Gardener and academic in rural England and sometimes also in his native Saxony, Germany; special interest in herb, maze and wildflower meadow designing and gardening. Norfolk, UK

2 thoughts on “Xylothek – a touching, reading adventure

  1. Thanks for your interesting post. I enjoyed it. It does seem to me that gardening and reading are often linked – with those that enjoy one more often than not enjoying the other.

  2. Wouldn’t this be a beautiful way to remember old trees that had to come down? Not just from your own garden but also those magnificent specimens in botanic gardens, wearied by age and weakened to the point of public danger that are cut down. I’d love a wooden book. Aglaja and Harald will need to start doing some travelling!

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