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a nation of tree-huggers

February 4, 2011

While Australia, Canada and the US have been battening down the hatches to endure major storms this week, Britain has been busy getting worked up about trees. The government at Westminster has announced plans effectively to privatise the Forestry Commission, which manages both ancient and commercial woodlands on behalf of the state. [There is a summary of the issues by the BBC’s Environment Correspondent here.] However, the strength of public opposition seems to have taken the politicians by surprise. According to a YouGov poll, 84% of Britons polled are opposed to the proposals. People feel fiercely protective of woodland. They are worried that sale or lease to private companies could result in restricted public access to woods, some of which – the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, for example – have been part of the landscape of England since before the Norman Conquest. There is also the fear that commercial imperatives could lead to the irreparable damage or destruction of some of these ancient woodlands and their rich wildlife habitats.

The government’s consultation period runs until April, but feelings are already running high. The Welsh assembly and the devolved Scottish parliament quickly moved to distance themselves from Westminster’s plans: forestry being a devolved issue, Scotland and Wales can make their own decisions on best practice. So these plans will not directly affect Scotland, yet I can’t read about them without comment here. Dancing Beastie has become, almost without my noticing, a bit of a tree-hugger’s blog. And apart from my natural neighbourly concern over the fate of England’s woodlands, what interests me in this story is the light it throws on the relationship between people and trees.

With regard to the Forestry Commission proposals, a recent article by Jon Kelly on the BBC’s website considers this affinity between people and trees, touching on how it has marked England’s history and literature (the much-reinvented Robin Hood and his merrie campaign against the Norman forest laws in Sherwood being an obvious example). He suggests that ‘there might be something deep in the national psyche that is roused by trees.’ There is certainly enough evidence to suggest that this is the case. I am not convinced that there is anything unique in the response of the English to woodland, however: rather I suspect it is some instinct common to the human race. The only claim that could perhaps be made on behalf of (all) the peoples of Britain is that, as inhabitants of a crowded island blessed with a tree-friendly climate, we are possibly – possibly – more than usually aware of our dependence on trees and of how precious they are to us. A number of memorable works in praise of trees have come out of the British Isles. Top of my list would probably be Thomas Pakenham’s ‘Meetings With Remarkable Trees’, a sumptuous book of photographs and anecdotes about some of the most historic and unusual trees of Britain and Ireland.

The very title of his book illustrates the awareness one has of a tree being, in some sense, a sentient being rather than a thing: nobody talks about ‘meeting’ a rock or a river, however much we might appreciate or admire them.

Another book which is high in my ‘tree’ list is Roger Deakin’s quiet classic, ‘Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees’. I confess that I have not read this yet, since my husband has been guarding it jealously ever since I gave it to him a couple of years ago. I may have to get my own copy!

Both these books, in their separate ways, consider the emotional response of humans to woodland. Third on my list of such works, however, is a song; perhaps the most touching elegy for a tree ever written. It is ‘Bonny Portmore’, (sung hauntingly here by Loreena McKennit – do have a listen), a traditional Irish ballad lamenting the cutting down of Irish oaks for ship-building. Appreciation of trees as things of beauty and reverence is not, then, limited by nation, nor by time. This lament was probably first sung several centuries before the dawning eco-awareness of the twentieth century. But its lyrics foreshadow the concerns of those people in England today, who fear for the future of their ancient woodlands.

O Bonny Portmore you shine where you stand/ And the more I think on you the more I think long/If I had you now as I had once before/ All the Lords in Old England would not purchase Portmore.

O Bonny Portmore I am sorry to see/ Such a woeful destruction of your ornament tree/ For it stood on your shore for many’s the long day/ Till the long boats from Antrim came to float it away.

All the birds in the forest, they bitterly weep/ Saying ‘where will we shelter or where will we sleep?’/ For the Oak and the Ash they are all cutten down/ And the walls of Bonny Portmore are all down to the ground.

O Bonny Portmore you shine where you stand/ And the more I think on you the more I think long/If I had you now as I had once before/ All the Lords in Old England would not purchase Portmore.

I am hopeful that the fears of those opposed to the sell-off of England’s forests will not be realised. More than half of the Forestry Commission’s woodland is, in any case, commercial softwood plantation; while in the light of the public’s opposition, Westminster has back-tracked and is now proposing that ‘heritage’ woodlands (such as the New Forest and the Forest of Dean) be sold only to charitable trusts. Moreover, it does not necessarily follow that private ownership would restrict public access. The ancient Savernake Forest in Wiltshire, for example, is owned by trustees of the Earl of Cardigan, but encourages responsible access by the public. The key word is ‘responsible’: both landowners and the general public have a moral obligation to behave responsibly with regard to land usage (as we at Castle Beastie are acutely aware). It would be more than sad if any change of management were to impinge on people’s enjoyment of these ancient and numinous places. Leaving aside all the environmental and commercial issues, and putting it at its most simple level: who does not feel better for a walk in the woods?


See also: An evening walk; In the enchanted wood



14 Comments leave one →
  1. February 4, 2011 10:42 pm

    I knew I could turn to dear Dancing Beastie for a sane and balanced (and beautifully written) post on this vexed and emotionally charged topic. Thank you for such a lucid explanation of what is at stake here. You are absolutely right about the Thomas Pakenham book, it is excellent. I haven’t read Roger Deakin, so will make a point of ordering from my library – which was facing closure in the wake of the cuts but we locals protested, long and loud, and it has been saved, for the time being at least.

    And now I am going to catch up with all your other recent posts. I have been away from my favourite blogs for far too long, a combination of winter chills, chores and other tedious stuff.

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      February 4, 2011 11:11 pm

      How lovely to hear from you again – and thank you for your generous comments. I do hope that you are emerging now from what has been a hard winter, for you probably more than most.

  2. February 5, 2011 12:43 am

    Haunting indeed.
    Although I’m from a land of low skies and I always look for the horizon, there is no doubt that trees (alone or in larger numbers) cast some kind of spell ;). They are living beings after all!
    Curious to hear how the political debate will end…

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      February 5, 2011 2:57 pm

      Growing up with hills and trees always somewhere in the background, I used to find flat landscapes boring. It is only through travel that I have learned to appreciate the huge shifting skyscapes and clean, painterly lines of an open landscape. But I will always choose to come back to trees in the end!

  3. February 5, 2011 8:56 pm

    After reading this eloquent post (in my inbox), I came across another blogger who mentioned this very issue and directed his readers to the Woodland Trust where there is a petition that anyone from anywhere can sign. So I did. Then got wonderfully lost in reading through their website.

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      February 5, 2011 11:28 pm

      Thanks for this link. I’m going to go and get lost there too now (as it were…).

  4. February 6, 2011 12:20 pm

    Do wrest Roger Deakin from your husband. His hardback editions are a thing of beauty in themselves – a Kindle or the like doesn’t do them justice. So sad that he died early. Every time I read his books I am reminded to LIVE.

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      February 8, 2011 2:56 pm

      Your last comment is the best recommendation I can think of. Will go and demand our copy forthwith!

  5. February 6, 2011 6:56 pm

    When will government learn that although privatising, de-accessioning or whatever you want to call it gives them more capital to spend (mostly) unwisely, it ends up costing the little people more either in hard currency or in loss to the environment.
    Our forests here in Nova Scotia have been plundered by clearcutting over the years and have been re-planted to huge acreages of softwood which is then sprayed to kill off hardwood trying to re-establish itself. At first the waste or slash as we call it was left to go back into the land while providing a semblance of wildlife habitat. Now the same softwood harvesting, since the pulpwood industry has collapsed – their source to purchase the logs – companies are advocating for “biomass” burning as a green practice in power plants – this means all vestiges of the tree – branches, roots etc etc are removed from the land leaving a desert of thin thin sour soil over bedrock. This in the face of a study of a large tract of land which has been sustainably and selectively harvested since it was first given as a land grant in the late 1700’s and has proven to have been three times as productive both in volume of lumber yielded and profits realized. This same land is still being sustainably harvested using horses to do the work that mechanized harvesters do elsewhere and thus leaving very little longlasting trace.
    We MUST get some sence at some point! I hope!!

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      February 8, 2011 3:00 pm

      It can be so frustrating fighting the clout of commercial interests and ‘big government’. Clearfelling and desertification is so obviously wrong to most of us…I do hope that common sense sets in eventually.

  6. February 14, 2011 1:23 pm

    Thank you for the sensible critique. Me and my neighbor were just preparing to do some research on this. We got a grab a book from our area library but I think I learned more from this post. I am very glad to see such wonderful info being shared freely out there.

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      February 14, 2011 4:35 pm

      Thank you, Jennie.

  7. Margie permalink
    February 23, 2011 4:35 pm

    I am a Canadian who lived south of London for 2 years. I bought the book “Meetings with Remarkable Trees”, and still ‘leaf’ through it now and then to enjoy the memories of trees I met while there. Behind our England house was a farmers field, bordered by rows of hedges. A walking path ran diagonally through the field, as it had for probably hundreds of years. The path led to the forest. Every year, shortly after seeding, people would re-establish the path by walking on it. Once the crop had started to grow, the farmer would keep the path mowed, following the slight curves and corrections that happen in the process of walking.
    My experiences in your country underlined how important it is for people to be able to walk the land of their ancestors, and visit the trees that thrive through the generations.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      February 23, 2011 10:17 pm

      That’s a good story to hear, Margie. Thanks for visiting.

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