No one from the Oak Family could ever hope to be chosen to be a Tree of Life. Oaks are excessively rustic, unassuming, and unyieldingly woodsy. Their destination is determined by their stubborn and, at times, unattractive quirkiness, rather than by any desire for symmetry or spire-like grace. Ironically, the word “quirky” doesn’t appear to have its origin in their family name, Quercus.

From northeastern China to Colombia and beyond, you can find any one of 400–600 oak species in the northern hemisphere. The taxonomists’ never-ending bickering, which has been far from resolved by advances in molecular biology, and something fundamental about the Quercus family are both reflected in the imprecision of this count. There are many hybrids and extremely localized variants, and it is changeable and opportunistic. The United States is home to towering white oaks, while Southeast Asia is home to diminutive evergreen “ring-cups” (so called because of the broad fringes on the acorn cups).

A species of English oak native to the New Forest goes through a brief period of pale, transient leafing just before Christmas and again in the spring. Conventional wisdom about plants and culture is continually disproved by the family. Despite Britain’s claim to be the “heart of oak” and its unique connection to the tree, Mexico is actually the botanical home of 160 species of oaks, including 109 that are found nowhere else in the world.

Oak Family could ever hope to be chosen to be a Tree of Life

Even after forty years of studying this family, I still struggle to recognize the more bizarre members based on the behavior of just one species—the Mediterranean prickly oak, Q. coccifera. It can take on nearly every arboreal shape conceivable, making it a master tree mimic. I’ve witnessed it in two different forms: first, as a little, prickly shrub in the Provence garrigue, munched down to four inches but still sprouting acorns; and second, as a majestic sixty-foot-tall, ten-foot-diameter wood tree in Crete’s Lassithi Mountains. The ease with which one can move between these two poles raises the possibility of epigenetic flexibility, the ability to activate or deactivate certain forms depending on environmental factors. Sheep, fire, shade, and felling do not destroy Q. coccifera.

The new leaves becoming more protectively spiky as the grazing pressure increases, and it regenerates from the stump or rootstock. As it recovers from modest browsing, the regrowing oaklet takes on the profile of a classical column: slightly damaged but resolutely upright. If animals are unable to reach the center shoots, which develop upwards, the oak can “get away” thanks to the lateral shoots that surround the shrub’s base. At some point in the future, when the tree has fully grown and developed its lower branches, quick-footed browsers will be able to climb up and dart along the woody tightropes, eating leaves just as they would on the ground. What a remarkable sight it is to see trees growing vertically from the main horizontal branches, bearing fruit that looks like animals, with bundles of shoots that are stripped of leaves. They are known as “goat pollards” according to historical ecologist Oliver Rackham.

Nobody in the family has broken any records. When looking for the largest, oldest, strongest, or tallest Champion Trees, you won’t see many oaks. However, some species has always been present in northern areas inhabited by humans, and their ubiquitous woodiness has enabled them to become cultural ly significant. Firewood, axe handles, and shelter frames were all made from oak throughout the Neolithic period. The earliest surviving European sidewalks were laid over flat oak planks, which were creatively provoking artifacts in a culture dominated by naturally curved forms.

The north European oaks, Q. robur and Q. petraea, can be broken cleanly, even with stone axes. Surfaced with oak boards and supported by a scaffolding of ash, lime, elm, alder, and oak poles, likely grown in working coppices, the Sweet Track crosses the English Somerset marshes. Mortises are punched into the planks to facilitate their attachment to the framework. Recent developments in tree-ring dating have pinpointed the exact year of the wood cutting to be between 3806 and 3807 BC, because to the wood’s exceptional preservation.

The main characteristics of northern oaks were their availability and durability. In applications where durability and resistance to weathering are paramount, they could be transformed into nearly any type of structure. Both Christian churches and Viking fleets relied on their timbers. The Chêne chapelle is a 1,000-year-old tree in the northern French commune of Allouville-Bellefosse. Two completely operational chapels, constructed in 1669 and continued to be used for Mass twice yearly, are housed within its hollow trunk.

Lightning struck the tree, leaving it hollow and beginning an improbable journey to the position of sacred architecture. There was a supposed religious significance to the ensuing hollow, according to the local church, who insisted that the lightning bolt had come from on high. As a representation of the ancien régime and the Church’s oppression during the French Revolution, it became a target of arson attempts. However, a resident in the area seemed to sense the oak’s malleable nature and rechristened it The Temple of Reason. The new democratic mindset spared it since it became a symbol, if only for a moment.

Another religious wonder and the most extraordinary wooden roof ever constructed is the one atop Westminster Hall, which spans 75 feet without a central support and includes 600 tons of wood. This wooden construction is paradoxical since it is essentially a supertree—a formal arrangement of trunk and branching that would not function properly unless it mimicked the structure of its motherlode—that the carpenters created by dismembering numerous trees and then reassembling them.