Ode to the leafy coun­try­men

This out­stand­ing new col­lec­tion gives Mark Grif­fiths hope for the fu­ture of our trees and wood­lands

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

FAIL­URE on the part of politi­cians to judge the mood of the peo­ple did not be­gin last year. in 2010, the Gov­ern­ment pro­posed sell­ing off Eng­land’s pub­licly owned wood­lands. There came an out­cry of such vol­ume that the plan was aban­doned. Min­is­ters, it seems, had not reck­oned on one of the best as­pects of the na­tional char­ac­ter—our long-stand­ing love of trees, which has never been more wide­spread, heart­felt or knowl­edge­able than at present.

in re­cent years, it has gained sub­stance from his­tory and ecol­ogy, ur­gency from en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns and ram­pant ur­ban­i­sa­tion and ex­pres­sion in new plant­ings, char­i­ta­ble or­gan­i­sa­tions, fine art and lit­er­a­ture. The peo­ple, if not al­ways the Gov­ern­ment, now un­der­stand that trees, our leafy coun­try­men, need our sup­port and we theirs.

One of this spirit’s most strik­ing man­i­fes­ta­tions yet is Ar­bo­real, a col­lec­tion of new wood­land writ­ing. Of course, trees have long in­spired writ­ers in English, but this vol­ume presents the crop of our cur­rent in­ter­est in them—an in­ter­est so pow­er­ful and pro­duc­tive that Na­ture writ­ing is emerg­ing from the fringes to take the lit­er­ary cen­tre ground.

This devel­op­ment owes much to the in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary work of Oliver Rack­ham, the great Cam­bridge his­tor­i­cal ecol­o­gist who died in 2015. Ar­bo­real is ded­i­cated to his mem­ory and he is vividly re­called in a mov­ing in­tro­duc­tion by its edi­tor Adrian Cooper, the founder of Lit­tle Toller Books, which pub­lished Rack­ham’s mono­graph The Ash Tree.

Wood­land has elicited an as­ton­ish­ing va­ri­ety of re­sponses from Ar­bo­real’s 41 lit­er­ary con- trib­u­tors—po­ems, mem­oirs, short sto­ries, polemics and es­says in nat­u­ral and topo­graph­i­cal his­tory. in fo­cus, they range from stud­ies of sin­gle trees and ob­jects to sur­veys of en­tire forests and life sys­tems.

im­ages in­ter­sperse these texts, among them pho­to­graphs of the sculp­ture that Andy Goldswor­thy made from ma­te­ri­als found in the woods at Dorset’s hooke Park in 1986, David Nash’s char­coal draw­ings com­mis­sioned by Com­mon Ground in the wake of the Great storm of 1987 and the pick of Kath­leen Bas­ford’s col­lec­tion of spec­i­mens of the Green Man, the an­cient spirit of the for­est long ago pet­ri­fied in ar­chi­tec­ture, but who now, surely, lives in our con­scious­ness again.

The lit­er­ary line-up is twices­tarry, com­pris­ing some very big names and some who are, for the mo­ment, less well known but no less bril­liant. if, as you must, you buy this book, you will doubt­less find favourites, but i’ll men­tion a few of my own, on the un­der­stand- ing that any sin­gling out from such an assem­bly is hor­ri­bly in­vid­i­ous.

i have rel­ished Two Storms, Wil­liam Boyd’s char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally hu­mane and wist­fully hu­mor­ous ac­count of grow­ing trees in France; What is a Tree?, Ger­maine Greer’s splen­didly nuts-and-bolts dis­course on ar­bo­real sci­ence; and Still Lives, a med­i­ta­tion on a beech­wood bowl by the mas­terly Richard Mabey. Why Woods Mat­ter, Fiona Reynolds’s deeply in­formed and daz­zlingly in­ci­sive cri­tique of the re­cent man­age­ment of the na­tion’s forests, left me shout­ing Quis cus­todiet?

An es­say on the re­la­tion­ship of wood­land bird­song to lan­guage and mu­sic, Bird­song by Jay Grif­fiths, echoes in my mem­ory as the most mu­si­cal new prose that i’ve read in years. No less haunt­ing is Ali smith’s mag­i­cal story The Green Stuff, a fairy tale for our treerever­ing times, in which a child en­coun­ters his chloro­phyll-coursed coun­ter­part, the Green Man as an in­fant.

i’ll end on an­other of this col­lec­tion’s trea­sures, Philip hoare’s evoca­tive and provoca­tive es­say Ar­boro­topia. he quotes a pre­dic­tion made by T. h. White in the 1930s: ‘One day the New For­est will be the name of a Tube sta­tion.’ With voices as elo­quent as Ar­bo­real’s to speak for our trees, that day should grow ever more dis­tant.

‘Trees, our leafy coun­try­men, need our sup­port and we theirs

Andy Goldswor­thy’s sculp­ture at Hooke Park, Dorset

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