To Be an Oak

Original title: Être un chêne

Author: Tillon, Laurent

Publication Date:

February 2021



Original language and publisher

French | Actes Sud

Territories Handled

Netherlands, North America, Scandinavia

Territories Sold

Italy (Contrasto)
Germany (Gai Saber)
English (World) (offer received)


Animals & Nature, Essay

To Be an Oak

Original title: Être un chêne

Author: Tillon, Laurent


What would trees tell us if we listened to them? Following his first book Et si on écoutait la nature?, Laurent Tillon continues his exploration of the forest. To him, the forest speaks and he listens. In this work his attention has been drawn to the story of one particular English oak growing in Rambouillet forest to the south of Paris that he has named “Quercus” after the Latin name for the species. Allying the naturalist sensibilities he developed in his teenage years to recent scientific discoveries, the author has, for the first time, been able to write a biography for this majestic tree in the prime of its life.

At 230 years old, it stands head and shoulders above the other trees in the forest. If allowed the freedom to grow, it could develop even further and flourish over centuries to come. The older it gets the more the biodiversity living in its branches, trunk and roots complexifies. Gradually it has become the patriarch of the forest. We share the suspense of its existence and its highly eventful lifestory. We also get to meet a colorful, humorous and endearing bestiary of flora and fauna whose lives interact with the oak from the invaluable invisible fungi scattered over its envelope to the stags, wolves, longhorn beetles and field mice, among others, that frequent it. Although apparently perfectly immobile, Quercus weaves steadfast ties with all the inhabitants of the forest, relationships of predation naturally but also cooperation in which alliances are formed at every level from the ground up to the canopy.

Quercus grew its first leaves at the time of the French Revolution in heath land unimaginable today. It gives us clues to the tumultuous story of mankind through our complex and ambiguous relationship to trees. From its status as royal forest, reserved for the entertainment of the court to our more ecologically aware age, Laurent Tillon tells an empathetic tale of the emergence and evolution of a sensitive living entity.

By a fortune of timing, Etre un chêne is being published at the same time as Je est un nous by Jean-Philippe Pierron, with which it has many similarities. The book is yet another concrete illustration of the close relationship between human and non-human lives, and a perfect example of the ecobiography of a plant.

Marketing Information

  • 32,000 copies sold