Chronicle of a 283-year-old tree, Oak and Company, by Richard Mabey, illustrated by Clare Roberts. New York: Greenwillow Books. 22 pp. $9.50. Ages 5- 10.
This is the nature book to read while sitting beneath a large, sprawling tree in the park - preferably an acorn-shedding oak. Yet, it's also a fine companion for snuggling by children on cold, blustery nights.
The star character is a 283-year-old oak tree, replete with nooks, hollows, and numerous creatures inside and out. The book begins in the 18th century with an account of the tree's matchstick-size stem unfurling two delicate leaves. The reader learns through the years how the young tree survives blight, bugs, predators, and damage done by the machete of a neighboring farm worker.
Descriptions of the oak during its developing years are specific and educational. Children will learn how to gauge the age of an oak by counting its cambium rings; readers are given a complete description of how a nest-hole was created for a resident owl. The oak is a haven for other creatures too - jays lodge in its towering branches, and more than 20 million microbes, earthworms, insects, and slugs thrive in its soil.
At a ripe old age of 160, the oak is struck by lightning. Thus begins its slow decay, as fungus spores reach its damp internal wood. Many years later, a miniature forest of thorn, holly, and currant bushes comes to flourish in the crevice of its trunk. The only shortcoming of this book is that the author sometimes fails to explain completely unfamiliar words and ideas. Children may be confused, for instance, when reading about ''oak apples'' that swell in the roots, without a clear explanation. Otherwise, it's a superb story for budding naturalists, and the exquisite array of colorful drawings makes it all the more enjoyable.