Saturday, 21 March 2015

Reading and writing about the woods - Sara Maitland's Gossip from the Forest

Naturally enchanting

For someone who loves to be in the woods, I have a strange and unfortunate aversion to nature writing. So many times I have tried to delve into books whose titles hold romance for me – things like Into the Wild, The Holloways, Crow Country – yet over and again I come a cropper. I’ve reached the conclusion that this is down to the part of me that can’t stand the idea of missing out on something: I misinterpret these descriptions of interaction with wild places as a kind of boasting, an act of pointing towards something I have not shared, and it makes me cross.

Dorothy Hartley was my first revelation in this domain. She is so unassuming, and funny, and conscious of her interloper-status, when she writes about exploring the working world of nature, that I found myself drinking in her descriptions without a moment’s envy. I’ve written about Hartley in this blog before (here), and I still go back to books like The Land of England, and Made in England, to marvel at her ability to paint a pastoral picture without a hint of smugness or sentimentality. Her writing carries a sense of urgency about the task of recording dying skills, as opposed to any kind of romanticism, and her flights of fancy are jokes entirely at her own expense.

Ronald Blythe and Richard Mabey are also writers who seem to be able to leave ego behind and go to the heart of country life, rendering its people (Blythe’s  Akenfield) and trees (Mabey’s The Ash and the Beech) in all their true and tragic glory, but they, like Hartley, now belong to the past. 

The book that has entranced me and made me rejoice in woods over the last couple of weeks has been Sara Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest. It combines 12 essays written after walking through all kinds of British woodlands with retold fairy tales that those places have inspired. 

Maitland is very honest about her experiences of woodlands, and does not avoid describing where human management and use of these places has gone awry. So, while she appreciates both the wild and cultivated beauty to be found in Epping Forest, for example, she also notes the motorway roar and the unappealing, sometimes threatening, traces of occupation in squashed beer cans and littered clearings. She does not romanticise the woods; rather she shows the reader the many ways in which we, and people before us, have done this, replacing lost ancient wildwood with commercial or leisure facilities in the form of new trees. She also illustrates the ways in which these new-old woods can be good things, not least for our imaginations, and she teases out the connections between our wild-ish places and the stories we have liked to tell over the last few hundred years.

While Maitland roams woods around England and Scotland to make her point about the parallels between fairy tales and forest, this book did something very special for me. For many years, I lived close by Epping Forest. I spent a good deal of time there, hunting for fungi, trying to figure out hornbeams, collecting crab apples, and generally enjoying leaves. When I crossed the river to live in deep South-East London, I began to mourn Epping Forest. I had got to know it so well, but I could still get lost in it. I knew where to find sloes and blewits, apples and beefsteak fungus, but I also loved it because I knew that there would always be paths that would lead me to parts I had never found before. 

Epping is now a long way away, and I kind of dreaded reading the Epping chapter of Gossip from the Forest. The very next chapter is entitled ‘The Great North Wood’, and where I expected to be drawn into imagining some fir-ridden hill-side on the Scottish borders, I instead found an account of the patches of wood that are yards from my new doorstep.

Sydenham Hill Wood and Dulwich Wood may be only very small remainders of what was a vast, working forest (the Great North Wood), but I have never lived so close to woodland before. I hoped to find magic in them, and Maitland helped to confirm that I would. Many of the trees here have grown back over previous incursions into the old wood –railway lines, Victorian houses, gardens, a folly – and part of their magic lies in exactly that: they are reclaiming ground populated by their ancestors. The parakeets may not be native, but there are woodpeckers, thrushes, owls, all making sounds that would have filled the air here hundreds of years ago. The ivy, oak, hornbeam and beech may not be original, but they are in their rightful place and recreating something of the forest that used to rule.

Sara Maitland repeats throughout her book that forests used to be social places, full of people working, exploring, tinkering, living. No wonder, then, that many a fairy tale involves woodland and its inhabitants. A wood so near to 21st century dwellings can come close to that, even if the locals are not making houses or charcoal out of its bounty.

I am with Maitland on the connection between woods and stories. She illuminates many convincing connections between fairy tales and forest, but I spy another overlap. In the wood, as Maitland points out, you can never get a long view. Thrills and secrecy, terrors and surprises, come from exactly this fact; the trees are there to hide and enclose, to disguise and misdirect. It seems to me that this is often exactly what we are up to when we write short stories. We play with the reader, challenging them to see the wood for the trees. They may be in a small patch of woodland, but it is not until they spy daylight close to the edge that they can describe what they have seen.