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The mystery of the woods

Peter's book explores the relationship between woods and people (Image: WTML)
Peter's book explores the relationship between woods and people (Image: WTML)

All over Britain, the woods and trees are under threat.  Most recently, we’ve had to watch as Sheffield’s Council has stubbornly persisted in felling thousands of its iconic street trees and Wandsworth’s Council has taken a chainsaw to a much loved avenue of horse chestnuts in Tooting, London. 

One of the ways local people have tried to challenge the destruction is by putting a financial value on the lost trees. A single mature tree can provide a huge number of unaccounted services: mitigating flood damage, cleaning the air, soaking up our effluence, toxins and greenhouse gases. Not to mention bringing shade, shelter and joy to every season. A new-planted sapling won’t do the same for decades.

But more than that, there’s an indefinable mystery in the woods and trees that is, literally, beyond price. Rudyard Kipling, writing at his home near Burwash in Sussex, knew it well. In Puck of Pook’s Hill, two children meet an imp – Puck – who transports them back to witness the key moments of early English history. It is, frankly, rather dated: but what lingers is the smell and the taste of the Sussex hills and its wooded valleys, brought nonchalantly to life by Kipling – and, above all, the magic that flows through every hawthorn and ash tree and every flower in the languid summer meadows.

I remember the first time I visited, walking along a crooked path underneath a strip of hazel coppicing just beyond the gates of Kipling’s garden. It was June, near Midsummer, towards the end of the long day, and no doubt Puck was fidgeting in some recess of my mind, but I recall the way the light changed in the treetops, and that I was sure there was something that might be half-glimpsed through the shifting leaves, something hidden in a space between the sunlight and the shade.

I’ve had this feeling on paths in woods many times since, in every season, when a fleeting eddy of wind on the way ahead lifts and drops a few fallen autumn leaves, or a faint shaft of light briefly catches the drifting tufts of radiant meadowsweet. Something disappears. It’s always just out of reach, or out of focus, at the far end of the path; or it’s behind you, when you glance back, and there’s a ripple in the canopy in the very place you were standing just a minute before.

If you gaze long enough at David Hockney’s paintings of Woldgate Woods, a series of works that stretch from May to December, you can see it there, on the path and in the flicker of the leaves. And it was here, on this path in June, which had now become a darker place, waiting in silence on the edge of something unfamiliar. The undershrub at the fringes of the path, the brambles, nettles and foxgloves, had risen chest high from the thick earth; the grasses, pregnant with seed, were around my knees; and when I looked up it was as though the top branches and their leaves were drawing themselves at that very moment across the last few strips of the dying blue sky. I was swallowed up by the wood.

There is no denying that there was something I wanted to call ‘magic’ in the air. Simon Schama in his extraordinary book ‘Landscape and Memory’ says that ‘Landscapes are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination projected onto wood and water and rock.’ And no doubt I was just projecting Puck back into his familiar Sussex trees. But at the very least we should consider this: we are still a very long way from understanding or acknowledging the true value of our trees and woods.

Adapted from 'Oak and Thorn and Ash: The Ancient Woods and New Forests of Britain'.

© Copyright Peter Fiennes 2017

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