Thursday, 27 January 2011

Cameron – spare those trees

We have nothing in England to equal la France profonde. Nothing – geographically – as remote and deep. But were we to look for an emotional equivalent (I was going to say “spiritual,” but I don’t want to frighten the unicorns) then eyes, feelings and folk memories might light on our woodlands.
If I start to warble about the forests of Arden and Dean, the yew of Agincourt and the oak of Trafalgar, you’ll probably have me down as some kind of sub-BNP nutter. And yet, how to explain the extraordinary chord that’s been struck by the campaign against the Government’s intention to privatise our woodlands?
Within moments of reading the Woodland Trust and Save our Forests appeals I was signed up and circulating the links. And within the day, I’d had dozens of responses, some friends sending proof that they in turn had forwarded the websites to dozens of their own friends.
Is it just that here, on this issue, the Tories have spotlit their essential Tory-ness, heirs as they are to predecessors two hundred years before whose Enclosure Acts fenced off and privatised thousands of acres of land that had been enjoyed and farmed as common property for generations? That smug, mostly, in the contentment of their own gated, landed, propertied possessions, they’ve betrayed their contempt for the rambler, their indifference to the stressed and straitened urbanite, their tin-ear for the lyricism of shared and unowned beauty (true possession, William Blake says somewhere, consists of the imaginative power to enjoy, and not the material power to buy, a truth which Tory philosophy will never comprehend).
It is a recurrent phenomenon of capitalism that, when in crisis, it will seek to legitimate the seizure of others’ property. Or, as Benjamin Kunkel writes in the latest edition of the London Review of Books: “the privatisation of public or commonly owned assets, including land... offers instances of the accumulation by dispossession that has accompanied capitalism since its inception.”
Woodland and forest, however, aren’t simply material assets. They are also salutary for the physical, mental and cultural well-being of the nation, which is why the intention to inflict this particular wound is felt so keenly.
What the woods represent beyond the trees is hard to define except obliquely – but I’ll try, through brief extracts from three poets, four centuries apart, who seem to me to come close to capturing the mysterious romance between the English and their woodland.
First, Edmund Spenser (1552-1599):

Much can they praise the trees so straight and high,
The sailing Pine; the Cedar proud and tall;
The vine-prop Elm; the Poplar never dry;
The builder Oak sole king of forests all
The Aspen good for staves; the Cypress funeral;
The Laurel, meed
[reward] of mighty conquerors
And poets sage; the Fir that weepeth still;

The Willow, worn of forlorn Paramours;
The Yew, obedient to the bender’s will;
The Birch for shafts; the Sallow for the mill
The Myrrh sweet-bleeding in the bitter wound;
The warlike Beech; the Ash for nothing ill;
The fruitful Olive; and the Platane
[Plane tree] round;
The carver Holm; the Maple seldom inward sound.

What makes this so quintessentially English, I think (I can’t speak for Scots or Welsh or Irish) is that it asserts the practical beside the poetic, getting towards the heart of the relationship. Particular timber is craft-stuff, good for making particular things, while particular trees are also soul-stuff, whispering to us of other things that matter in parallel with the practical – love, conquest, virtue, song, sorrow, sustenance, death.
Secondly, a poet almost forgotten – the Dorset parson William Barnes (1800-1886):

So, who would heed the treeless down,
A-beat by all the storms, O,
Or who would heed the busy town,
Where folk do go in swarms, O;
If he were in my house below
The elms, where the fire did glow
In Liddy’s face, though winds did blow
Against the Winter’s Willow?”

In Barnes’ world, trees aren’t just part of the landscape – they’re actually and metaphysically integral to hearth and homestead, part of structure and shelter and essence (if you’re wondering why the sixth line doesn’t quite seem to scan, say it again and give “elm” the same two-syllable stress that an Irishman gives the word “film” – “elem,” as they say, or once said, in Dorset).
Lastly, Sir John Betjeman (1906-84):

Soft the light suburban evening caught our ashlar-speckled spire,
Eighteen-sixty early English, as the mighty elms retire
Either side of Brookfield Mansions flashing fine French-window fire.

The spire of St Anne’s is still there, and so are Brookfield Mansions, not far from where I live. But of course, all the elms are gone (which is why I wrote, of “elm” and “elem,” just now, “as they say, or once said, in Dorset”).
I was moving from adolescence into adulthood in 1965, when the great plague of Dutch Elm disease hit Britain. Seventeen million elms died in fifteen years. British landscapes were transformed. The tall, billowing, sumptuous elms which had been a commonplace of my childhood were gone, every one. “Earth felt the wound, and nature from her seat/Sighing through all her works gave signs of woe.” Even now, the recollection is benumbing – three decades pass, and I still feel the loss.
Privatise the nation's forests and woodlands? Fence and fell even a few of those eloquent, enigmatic, sylvan sanctuaries of nature, language, history and culture, and render them instead into coniferous deserts?
“Earth trembled from her entrails, as again/In pangs, and nature gave a second groan.”

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