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An encounter with an ancient oak tree named Bartek, as experienced and retold by a biologist and poet.. ...
2018-12-05 10:00:00
The Copse

The Oak Chronicles

Illustration by Cyryl Lechowicz
The Oak Chronicles
The Oak Chronicles

“And suddenly, Bartek appeared; his great green crown blooming across the road. What a giant. So I pretended I could not see him yet. I was too shy to look at this tree”, writes Urszula Zajączkowska, a poet and biologist, describing her encounter with the arboreal colossus.

Read by Sean Palmer

I seem to have no trouble ploughing through the sticky entrails of scientific laws for hours on end. I can draw complex dependency graphs of strange occurrences from the lives of plants, measure and count all data, conclude it all in a plump, round sentence without a comma in sight. And yet, I know what I know. And now I will say it: despite all that time spent counting and writing, I cannot stay immobile for too long. I have always been restless, and it will never change. The only way I can work is when contemplation is laced with spontaneous explosions of bending and flexing the body (nobody in the world of academia knows this, so please don’t pass it on). That’s why on some late evenings I run through empty university corridors, screaming things that don’t sound very pretty; or I gallop up and down the stairs, praying I don’t twist my knees and that the security officers don’t notice me. During the day, I dance in my laboratory; I jump in an almost normal way. Sometimes, I do push-ups near the microtome I use for dissecting plant bodies. (Between these exercises, I sometimes put my serious face on and give lectures). And when I need to achieve an extraordinary level of focus – whenever I feel I am nearing the crucial points of the most difficult cases – I pull myself up on to the partition walls in the university bathroom.

From time to time, I feel this distinctively primate need to run away; to get out of breath just so I can return, straight and serious. This bodily effort gives me the strength to keep wading into the murky waters of my research, to study the life of plants and arrange their components in patterns in my head, to give them some human order of which I know so little.


But this lifestyle is not known to plants. I doubt they ever wanted or needed it at all. They die pinned to the very place in which they were born. They don’t cross vast swathes of land in search of quieter, milder spaces – only their seeds do so. They don’t look for warmer patches when they’re cold, they never move closer to a brook when they tire of the heat, and they don’t try to release their effervescence of energy by running around in wild circles, like I do. They grow wherever their life began, so they adapt their bodies to their changing environments – without protest; responding to any unpredictable whims of nature. Let it be! Let there be storms, early frosts, winters of the century, humans, heatwaves, tornadoes, moose teeth. It all happens, but they remain where they began. They don’t run. They don’t despair. No anxiety, no push-ups. But most importantly, they take note. Plants remember and save each and every thing that happens to them, in their bodies. Everything. They write their chronicles in the only language they know; drawing the history of their existence inside their bodies. This information will be printed in their anatomy forever, down to every last detail. Like diaries tattooed on living skin. Take the growth rings in wood. Their geometry, shape, even the arrangement of cells – the letters of their private language – each is a chapter in a life of a tree that took a year to write. And every ring is anatomically different in every tree, even if they grew at the same time. After all, each tree is different. It doesn’t matter whether it grew in a forest, in a clearing, or next to a block of flats – they have their individual anatomy, their own story, just like they all have a world of their own. They cannot escape it. They cannot release overheated emotions in a spurt of strange behaviour. All they have is forever here and now. But it’s all being written down, patiently, inside their bodies.

So what stories dwell inside truly ancient trees, whose roots reach so far back in time human imagination could never follow? What is the story of the trees that have outlived the spirits of our oldest ancestors, who once built their long-gone homes, who made love and died in their shadow? What tales could be told by those still-living trees, whose youth is written but in dim records and half-legends, yellowing in the oldest photographs from a century ago? And even back then, those trees were already magnificent and dense with age, as if they always belonged to a different world.

What knowledge has been carved into the body of a tree that has been alive for over 700 years; in an oak that sprouted from a tiny acorn during the tumultuous times of Władysław Łokietek, grew its clumsy young shoots while Władysław Jagiełło was in power, and achieved maturity sometime around the reign of Sigismund the Old? What knowledge has Bartek – for that is the oak I’m writing of – accumulated inside his massive trunk? An impossibly brachiate, extraordinary work of natural creation; a monument to its own resilience, Bartek suddenly became the subject of my studies. Him and I – a fluttery, thick-haired, restless creature – could not be more different. And I knew that at the very heart of research, there lies focus and tenderness of gaze. I found it at first sight. It became awe materialized, embodied in moss and thick bark.


The last time I visited him was when I was about 10. I saw him merely as a great, thick tree, but then again, every tree seems big in child’s eyes. Nothing more. In fact, I think that’s quite normal. After all that time, I came again – now – and I realized I was the only one who had changed.

A kind forester brought me here. I followed him, filled with anxiety, like going for a meeting with someone awfully important. And suddenly, Bartek appeared, his great green crown blooming across the road. What a giant. So I pretended I could not see him yet. I was too shy to look at this tree. I just listened carefully to the forester, who explained how to open the gate (because the tree is fenced in, naturally, to protect it from humans). The forester brought the ladders, so I watched him unfold them. Yes, yes, I nodded, all clear, I know the drill, I confirmed, hiding my face in the collar of my jacket. The astonishment was too much. I was stunned, rooted into place with my laptop and a toolbox. And then, just the two of us. The oak and I. I stood there, suddenly and painfully aware of my own temporality, alone with his sombre trunk, in the shadow of his thick branches spreading over the whole meadow where it grows. With him. Immediately, I began to condense each second of this encounter into streams of otherworldly excitement. But luckily, there is also science and its clear diagnoses. I came here to draw information out of Bartek; to establish the change curve of the water flow speed inside his body, to pick out pieces of his trunk, to chop them up into ribbons in my lab. This way, I would learn more about his life and how long it may last – hopefully, at least a few more centuries.

So I came here for a fleeting moment to read his past, to analyse present flows of water inside him, and to learn what his future might hold. But first, I just wanted to look.


I climbed the ladder seven metres up the trunk. I walked up slowly, my nose right next to his centuries-old bark. What did it protect him from? Was it an armour against stones, arrows or axes? I climbed higher and higher. Up there, the smell of decaying wood is strong and sharp. You won’t find it in the records, tales or photographs. You have no idea it’s there. You won’t notice it unless you get close. What kind of wood is dying inside him right now? Which era marks the carbon particles that emerge from his gut?

The grooves in his bark are so deep that my hand falls inside. I put it in, time after time. I touch its sunny warmth, I stroke the moss, breathe into spider webs, hanging thin like net curtains. So close, just inches from the eye, the texture of his form seems impossible to someone used to potted plants and trees that can easily fit inside a lab. Here, one can fall deep down the drawings that cover every inch of this tree. I soon realize that three days won’t be enough to read or hear anything at all. I want years, perhaps a lifetime. But to such requests, science has a ready answer: no. I keep my awe plain and simple.


Then, of course, the usual happens: I become restless. Awfully restless, even more than I’m used to. I look around for inspiration. He is standing here, completely unmoved. I can’t stand the stillness. Blessed be the ladders! I spend all day walking up and down, and I look at him. I climb up simply for the sake of going up and then down, just to look. No drilling, no picking just yet. I’m moving. He isn’t.

After hundreds of years, the crowns of such trees become something different from anything we know. Our perception and understanding of the height of trees could not prepare me for such a sight. Usually, when looking at a tree, we see a trunk and thick pillows of leaves, sticking out of gradually narrowing branches. Nobody ever thinks of the roots. Until they reach a certain age, oaks – as well as willows, poplars or elms – can have an almost linear quality to their appearance, their geometry splashing symmetrically in the fountain of time, consisting of the main stream that splits into smaller torrents, claiming empty spaces in-between. This applies to the crown as much as it does to the roots. They spread and splinter as they grow.

There are, naturally, many types and patterns of tree growth, but they are all subject to the rules of hierarchy. In each pattern, there are branches of various grades. The younger always grows higher than the older, which allows us to estimate the age of the tree from its very conception. This rule does not apply to animals and humans, nor – as it transpires – to very old trees. It’s difficult to find any age pattern, because such Methuselahean trees abandon the feudal rule of a single peak. They no longer have a single tree stem, ending with a bud releasing a hormone (called auxin) that prevents the lower ones from planning a coup. The lower ones always respect the highest one, who controls them with auxin. This authoritarian rule might come to an end one day (history knows of such cases) through the decapitation of the monarch. This leads to a revolution in the geometry of a tree. After the tip has been cut short, side branches race to take control over the entire crown. They bend upwards, and the first to get there becomes the new overlord, bringing back peace and order among the rest. In the case of such trees as Bartek, the hierarchy of branches is lost. Or maybe rather it is lost to me. The lines are blurred. Time flows differently here, so Bartek has reached a different time. A happy time, I suppose. There is no single crown here; he has many of them, independent and distant from one another. No longer a single tree, Bartek seems more like a stand of trees, all stemming from one trunk. Human arithmetic is of no use here. The lifespan of this being is so widespread it can hardly be followed, like a low murmur of some old record.

So I stood there, helpless.


One of his branches, one metre in diameter, was cut off by humans some time during the industrial revolution. By now, it’s almost fully healed. The old wound is covered with thick folds of scar tissue so huge it looks like a massive tumour. In the middle, only a small hole remains. I put my impossibly temporary hand inside, fusing it with time and air that soon will be locked inside forever. I’m so infinitely moved (and so embarrassed with my propensity to get emotional so easily). I look at my drills, needles and drift pins. They remind me why I am here. I drill nine tiny holes and insert probes and thermometers. The probes will pulsate, warming up the water inside him, and the thermometers will tell me if it cooled down while moving through his body (informing me of very languid flow). If the water arrives warm, it will be definite proof that the fluids travel fast and are still lively. Next, I will take micro-samples of wood from the trunk, banging my hammer on metal pipes precisely in those places that carried the water I examined earlier. I will bring those samples to my laboratory, then I will boil them to softness, cut them into pieces and see. And I’ll probably start crying again, pointlessly wasting my time.

Finally, I check the test results. I look at the graphs of water speed inside the trunk. I’m stunned. Gotcha, my friend! Appearances can be deceptive, can’t they now, old man? Water is flowing through your veins faster than spring brooks. They welcome each sunrise, and slow down when dark clouds gather over your head, standing still in the small hours of the night, like all of us. You sleep with us at night, and then, in the morning, you wake up with a start, just like we do when the caffeine hits our veins. For you, it’s just water, but it’s enough to send the speed curve almost vertically upwards. So now I know: you wake up fresh and well-rested. You’re still young, my dear, so vigorous! What a delightful surprise. You’re alive, and just like everyone else, you shall live until you die.

I stare at my charts and graphs, looking dutifully into the screen, poring over every detail. My legs are sore from running up and down those ladders. I have muscle fever. My joints are cracking. Soon, I’ll sit down for a bit longer. I shall rest. I shall write.


Translated by Aga Zano

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Urszula Zajączkowska

Urszula Zajączkowska

is a poet, artist and botanist. As a scientist, she researches the anatomy, biomechanics and aerodynamics of plants. As a visual artist, she creates short films. She has published two volumes of poetry: “Atomy” and “Minimum”. Some call her a conscious poet of nature.