From Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin (1943-2006):
"To enter a wood is to pass into a different world in which we ourselves are transformed. It is no accident that in the comedies of Shakespeare, people go into the greenwood to grow, learn and change. It is where you travel to find yourself, often, paradoxically, by getting lost. Merlin sends the future King Arthur as a boy into the greenwood to fend for himself in The Sword and the Stone. There, he falls asleep and dreams himself, like a chameleon, into the lives of the animals and trees. In As You Like It, the banished Duke Senior goes to live in the Forest of Arden like Robin Hood, and in A Midsummer Night's Dream the magical metamorphosis of the lovers takes place in a wood 'outside Athens' that is quite obviously an English wood, full of the faeries and Robin Goodfellows of our folklore.
"Pinned on my study wall is a still from Truffaut's L'Enfant Sauvage. It shows Victor, the feral boy, clambering through the tangle of branches of the dense deciduous woods of the Aveyron. The film remains one of my touchstones for thinking about our relations with the natural world: a reminder that we are not so far away as we would like to think from our cousins the gibbons, who swing like angels through the forest canopy, at such headlong speed that they almost fly like the tropical birds they envy and emulate in the music of their marriage-songs at dawn in the tree-tops....
"Most of the world still cooks on wood fires, and the vast majority of the world's wood is used as firewood. In so far as 'Western' people have forgotten how to lay a wood fire, or its fossil equivalent in coal, they have lost touch with nature. Aldous Huxley wrote of D.H. Lawrence that 'He could cook, he could sew, he could darn a stocking and milk a cow, he was an efficient woodcutter and a good hand at embroidery, fires always burned when he had laid them and a floor after he had scrubbed it was thoroughly clean.' As it burns, wood releases the energies of the earth, water and sunshine that grew it. Each species expresses its character in its distinctive habits of combustion. Willow burns as it grows, very fast, spitting like a firecracker. Oak glows reliably, hard and long. A wood fire in the hearth is a little household sun.
"When Auden wrote, 'A culture is no better than its woods,' he knew that, having carelessly lost more of their woods than any other country in Europe, the British take a correspondingly greater interest in what trees and woods they still have left. Woods, like water, have been suppressed by motorways and the modern world, and have come to look like the subconscious of the landscape. They have become the guardians of our dreams of greenwood liberty, of our wildwood, feral, childhood selves, of Richmal Crompton's Just William and his outlaws. They hold the merriness of Merry England, of yew longbows, of Robin Hood and his outlaw band. But they are also repositories of the ancient stories, of Icelandic myths of Ygdrasil the Tree of Life, Robert Graves's 'The Battle of the Trees' and the myths of Sir James Frazer's Golden Bough. The enemies of the woods are always enemies of culture and humanity."
Sara Maitland notes that the ancient forests that used to stretch across Britain and northern Europe, "with their constant seasonal changes, their restricted views, their astonish biological diversity, their secret gifts and perils and the knowledge that you have to go through them to get anywhere else, created the themes and ethics of the fairy tales we know best. There are secrets, hidden identities, cunning disguises; there are rhythms of change like the changes of the seasons; there are characters, both human and animal, whose assistance can be earned or spurned; and there is -- over and over again -- the journey or quest, which leads first to knowledge and then to happiness."
But until we understand what the land is, writes Wendell Berry, "we are at odds with everything we touch. And to come to that understanding it is necessary, even now, to leave the regions of our conquest -- the cleared fields, the towns and cities, the highways -- and re-enter the woods. For only there can a man encounter the silence and the darkness of his own absence. Only in this silence and darkness can he recover the sense of the world's longevity, of its ability to thrive without him, of his inferiority to it and his dependence on it. Perhaps then, having heard that silence and seen that darkness, he will grow humble before the place and begin to take it in -- to learn from it what it is."
"Step across the boundary and the trespass of story will begin," says Jay Griffths enticingly. "The forest takes a deep breath and through its whispering leaves an incipient adventure unfurls. The quest. In the lull -- not the drowsy lull of a lullaby but the sotto voce of a woodland clearing, scented with story as it is with with wild garlic -- this is the moment of beginning, the pause on the threshold before the journey. So many tales begin here, hard by a great forest...."
What, do you suppose, is yours?
The passages above are from Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin (Penguin, 2007), Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests & Fairytales by Sara Maitland (Granta, 2013), The Art of the Commonplace: Agrarian Essays by Wendell Berry (Counterpoint, 2002), and Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape by Jay Griffiths (Hamish Hamilton, 2013). The poem in the picture captions is from A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 by Wendell Berry (Counterpoint, 1999). All rights reserved by the authors.