Why Britain’s woodlands are so precious

Britain’s woodlands are more than places of weekend refuge. Jeanette Winterson untangles the enduring appeal of the forest

A woodcutter had three sons. One could chop down an oak tree in a day. One could plank the timber in a week. The third was so small that he just gathered acorns. “And what is the use of that?” demanded his father. “You never know when you might need a forest,” said the boy.

It takes an oak tree 40 or 50 years to let fall its first acorns. The acorns fall before the leaves and the later falling leaves protect the germinating acorns through the winter. An oak can live a thousand years or more – there is one in Sherwood Forest said to have hidden Robin Hood. An oak is more than its timber; an oak is time. Our ancient woodlands connect us to the past. They are living history. Sherwood, Wychwood, Epping, Wyre, Whittlewood, the New Forest … The names are as romantic as the shipping forecast.

Rip Van Winkle falling asleep under a tree and waking up a hundred years later is emblematic of how time stretches in the wood. These are places to dream.

In the woods you are no longer surfing time; you are deep inside time. This is a vital antidote to our crazy upgrade culture, spinning dizzily round the new thing and the next thing. Walk in the woods, and the longevity of the trees and the purposeful rhythm of the forest offer something different. The calm of the woods is not passive. Here is continuity, energy, beauty, stillness – and enviable efficiency. Woods waste nothing. The forest is a natural economy that supports its life and ours. Woods are not a luxury. If we want to restabilise our climate and our planet, the rewilding we will need begins with native woodland.

Since 1930, half of Britain’s native woodlands have been felled …

Yet many of us are becoming both more aware and more protective of our woods. The government’s ugly proposal to sell off much of our remaining forest to commercial interests aroused unusual passion. It wasn’t only our walks and weekends that were at stake – it was our imagination. There is a wooded place in our heads.

No fairy story can happen without a wood. The ancient forests of northern Europe were where folk tales began: there’s the hunter, there’s the witch, the talking bird, the giant’s lair, the gingerbread house, the tree where the firebird lives, the poor woodcutter, the wolf, the hostage princess. The Chapel of the Grail is in the centre of the wood.

When we were children we lived in Hundred Acre Wood with Pooh and Tigger, or the Wild Wood of The Wind in the Willows. Tolkein’s Mirkwood full of giant spiders seeded itself into Harry Potter’s Forbidden Forest. The trope of the wood as magical, strange, sacred, scary, alive, unknown, crosses cultural time from Dante to Avatar.

Those invented forests are sometimes lost and lonely, scattered with ruins – the kind of fugitive forest favoured by German Romanticism and the English enthusiasm for the gothic. Mostly though, the forest, whether invented or actual, stands in relation to the town or the city or the village and, as such, has a particular imaginative resonance. The edge of the forest is a liminal place – a hesitation between civilisation and humanity, and the unknown and untamed woodland world. We are drawn to, and drawn into the forest. But what will we find there?

The forest is not just the scene for so many stories; it is central to what happens next. The wood is a living world with rules of its own and a way of intervening into the drama of those travelling through it.

Shakespeare’s woods are without exception sites of transformation. As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Prospero’s wooded isle in the Tempest. No Shakespearean character exits a wood as the person they were when they entered it. The forest is a metaphor for exile, for sanctuary, for change, for miracles. For our ancestors it was an everyday metaphor – the reality of the nearby forest was the reality of the stories and myth-making that grew up around it.

I think it is fair to say that preindustrial life did not experience a separation between the actual and the imagined in the way that we do now.

When Dante said, so famously, at the beginning of the Divine Comedy, “Midway through this life of ours/I found myself alone in a dark wood”, every one of his readers would have had the practical experience of being lost in a wood – even though it was and remains a brilliant and beautiful metaphor for the confusion of middle age, before the soul recognises what part of the journey remains.

Our love of the forest is, I think, a profound love that is not nostalgia but a living memory of preindustrial life. The Industrial Revolution and our mass migration into the cities began little more than 200 years ago – not much time at all in the life of a great oak.

Go into the forest and lean on an ancient tree and the past is at your back. The forest holds the memory of other lives and other ways of life. Its therapeutic value is not only the quality of light (thinner and cleaner), or the colour of light in its translucent green and brown, or the air serrated with smells of bark and fresh leaves, or the pleasure of shadows and sudden movements through the shadows, or the canopy of branches swished by wind. The wood is one vast memory system that binds with our own.

In the wood I belong to more than myself and my brief moment in time. Here I belong to the dense forests that baffled the Romans as they anchored on the Thames, to the woods that hid Boudicca, to the Greenwood of Robin Hood, the hunting parties of Elizabeth I, tracking boar and wolves, the wild ridings of Bowland and Pendle, riddled with witches, the sacred groves of the druids.

Here I am what we all are: a traveller in the forest hoping to find my way home before nightfall.


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