Book review: Out of the Woods


9781780722351Cohu, Will. Out of the Woods: the Armchair Guide to Trees. Short Books, 2007.

Out of the Woods is an unusual book. On the face of it, it’s a guide to trees, giving you the information you need to identify different species as you go for a walk, or even drive past them on the motorway.

But, as Will Cohu deliberately works to avoid technical descriptive terms that are confusing to the non-expert, and the book has very few pictures throughout (apart from a section in the middle), it is perhaps not the best book to use if you want a quick reference to actually identify a tree in front of you.

What Out of the Woods is, however, is a walk with a very knowledgeable and often quite funny travelling companion. It is literally structured this way, with Cohu addressing “you” the reader directly and taking “you” on a journey where you park your car and go for a walk in the woods with him. This is an unusual literary device, and one which took some getting used to, but after a while it does start to feel like a conversation.

Cohu’s descriptions of trees are colourful, and down-to-earth, while maintaining some evocative sense of the tree’s personality. Ash, for example, is described as having branches that are “hooked and tipped with black buds as if it were giving you the come-hither with a crooked finger ending in a filthy, unwashed nail”, while the Douglas Fir is “like the face of Pete Postlethwaite“.

As entertaining as these descriptions are, and they are fun, I’m not sure that they would actually help me identify an Ash or Douglas Fir or a Sycamore (which apparently has “unruly pubic hair”) in the wild. Perhaps I don’t have Cohu’s visual imagination.

Yet, the book is filled with interesting nuggets of information about not just the botany of trees, but their historic and social role in Britain, such as when they were introduced, what their wood was used for, folklore associated with them etc., all of which was fascinating to learn.

Each section ends with a little revision quiz to test what you’ve learned, which was a useful tool, although it did bring me out of the imaginary walk scenario.

Out of the Woods is a short enough book to work through in an afternoon or two and does make good reading on a rainy day when you can’t actually get outside to look at trees much.

If you seriously want to learn to identify trees, I would recommend you also get a tree guide like the Collins Tree Guide, which comes full of images and useful quick reference notes about the trees’ appearance. But if you want to go on a ramble with an interesting companion who  clearly has real affection for trees and woods, then Out of the Woods is worth a look.