Cover of Woolf’s Orlando
In the final pages of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: a Biography the eponymous hero/ine revisits the old oak tree that s/he has known for more than three centuries, intending to bury amongst its roots a copy of the poem that it inspired. The writing, rewriting, survival, publication and reception of the poem – entitled The Oak Tree – is one of the central themes of this unusual novel. At the end of the book, as Orlando awaits the return of her sea-captain husband, she visits the tree again:
As she flung herself down a little square book bound in red cloth fell from the breast of her leather jacket—her poem The Oak Tree. ‘I should have brought a trowel’, she reflected. The earth was so shallow over the roots it seemed doubtful if she could do as she meant and bury the book here. Besides, the dogs would dig it up. No luck ever attends these symbolic celebrations, she thought. Perhaps it would be as well then to do without them. She had a little speech on the tip of her tongue which she meant to speak over the book as she buried it” … “’I bury this as a tribute’, she was going to have said. ‘a return to the land of what the land has given me,’ but Lord! Once one began mouthing words aloud, how silly they sounded!
So she let her book lie unburied and dishevelled on the ground, and watched the vast view, varied like an ocean floor this evening with the sun lightening it and the shadows darkening it. (Woolf 2006: 287-9)
The idea of a book as a tribute or offering is a surprisingly rare one in the history of book burying, and Orlando’s half-hearted intention to offer up her prize-winning book to the land fails in the face of self-consciousness and raw practicalities. It is easy to imagine the book, inserted into the roots of the tree, as a seed being planted in the earth.
Virginia Woolf, c.1902
An alternative reading of Orlando might delve deeper into the relationship between the protagonist and the oak tree, and in particular the descriptions of the protagonist lying amongst its roots, that both open and close the novel. In the opening section of the book the boy Orlando walks through his property to the oak tree:
He sighed profoundly, and flung himself – there was a passion in his movements which deserves the word – on the earth at the foot of the oak tree. He loved, beneath all this summer transiency, to feel the earth’s spine beneath him; for such he took the hard root of the oak tree to be; or, for image followed image, it was the back of a great horse that he was riding, or the deck of a tumbling ship – it was anything indeed, so long as it was hard (Woolf 2006)
At the close of the book it is the woman Orlando who returns to the same spot:
Flinging herself on the ground, she felt the bones of the tree running out like ribs from a spine this way and that beneath her (Woolf 2006: 287)
These two descriptions of Orlando’s physical contact with a tree imbued with imagined corporeal properties suggest an alternative reading of the failed book burying as an attempt to impregnate the tree: the woman Orlando, lacking a trowel, cannot penetrate the earth that covers and surrounds the hard roots.
Woolf, V. 2006. Orlando: a Biography. London: Penguin.