by Ruth Padel
Symbolically, our forests are charged with this heady mйlange of fantasy, politics, sex, and history. But what about the trees themselves? Our countryside does not stand still. It never did, even before the Ice Age. Today nearly all forest, heath, mountain, wetlands, and coastline are man–maintained.Americans have got a continent to play with; on an island, land–management is vital. And one of our oldest traditions is the destruction of the forest. This began in Mesolithic times, got a shot in the arm in Neolithic days when stone axes made it easy to fell trees, and Romans, Saxon, and Danes carried the tradition on.But the Normans held things back a while. Hunting in the great French forests was the key to cool, in royal Norman lifestyle. The Norman kings preserved the forest by imposing forest law, claiming most forest for the king. They only had the remnants of the ancient forest, but amazingly large remnants by our standards. In the thirteenth century,a quarter of England was royal forest. Epping Forest is the hangover from the king’s "Forest of Essex": which was nearly all of Essex.
But forest law was hard to enforce. It forbade felling trees, but commoners grazed animals and stole wood continually, and kings themselves solved cash–flow problems by selling forest off for farmland. Deforestation went on through the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and the forest lost its wildness. There were few boar and wolves(you were rewarded for killing them, though wolves made it into the 1800s, when the last was killed in Scotland). Between 1500 and 1700, woodland was hugely reduced and the Elizabethans were intensely aware of it. Poet–philosophers saw the forest as a place of aristocratic solitude. "O sweet woods, the delight of solitarinesse," breathed Sir Philip Sidney (born 1554).They also mourned a time when (sighed Michael Drayton) "this whole country’s face was forestry." Old people remembered when "small boys and squirrels could travel many miles without touching the ground." "In many parts of the country now," said one traveler, "a man can ride ten or twenty miles and see very few trees." Charles I tried to enlarge the royal forest,but at this stage in the struggle between king and people the Act of 1641 sternly cut back the area under forest law to what it was in 1625. By the mid–nineteenth century there were only two million acres of woodland in England and Wales; by the beginning of the twentieth, the percentage of woodland in the UK was four percent, the lowest in Europe. The map was black with places called "Forest" that were forest no more.
Some people saw this as a triumph of civilization. The forest was the enemy: home to beasts, not men. Even Gladstone held tree–felling exhibitions, a last flicker of the idea that felling a tree was a stroke for progress. (When Gladstone visited Germany in 1895, Bismark gave him an infant oak tree to plant when he got home). But by the late seventeenth century,forests were timber rather than the haunt of beasts, and landscaping ideals counterbalanced any throwback fantasies of the "wild wood." The aristocracy became obsessed with planting woodland in its parks. Woods were no longer the peasants’ sexy secret resource but a "heroic" symbol of upper class life. There were huge forestry projects under George III and IV, planting for ornament,as well as timber. As forests shrank, and lost their dangerous animals, they became less frightening. Woods, not forest: romantic, quasi–religious. Gothic architecture reproduced in stone the branching of trees. Woods were primitive churches complete with fan vaulting. And English poets, from Dryden’s lament for the lost forests of Polyolbion to Hopkins’s elegy for Binsey Poplars, mourned the felling of trees:
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun
Are felled, felled, all felled.
Of a fresh and following folded rank, not spared, not one…
And now? A few years ago, a Millennium Forest was mooted that would re–plant woodland, especially in Middle England. People talked of a million hectares. The planting has started, but no one is talking now of more than a quarter of a million. "That dream," I was told sadly by the Secretary of The British Deer Society, "has gone very quiet." But the wilderness we have still got is where our native animals evolved.Some species survived the Ice Age, others reintroduced themselves while we were still joined to Europe; new ones were brought in by eager human beings. They adapted to the heath, farmland, and towns that took the place of forest over two millennia; some prefer these places to the original forest. All these are the animals with which we have shared our changing landscape through the centuries. For a while longer, at least, they are part of our imaginative, as well as our "natural," history.
"The Running of the Deer"
"Sadder than the Owl–Songs"
"Raven the Wise"
"Hare Hunted, Hare Magic, Hare Tamed"
"Sacred Poison, Vipers and Adders"
"Ponies of the Wild"