Arboreal: A Collection of New Woodland Writing

Edited by:
  • Adrian Cooper
Little Toller: 2016. 9781908213419 | ISBN: 978-1-9082-1341-9

For too many years, I have been one of the rats running frequently along the motorway from Oxford through the Chiltern Hills into London. On the capital's outskirts, my bus sweeps past a scrap of land wedged between the road and a London Underground line, where an increasingly decrepit sign proclaims the future home of gleaming corporate headquarters. In reality, the site has, over time, turned from rubbish-strewn concrete to a dense young wood dominated by birch trees, some more than 8 metres tall. The last time I went by, on a bright, blustery autumn day, their tens of thousands of leaves caught the sunlight in a vision of glory.

Oliver Rackham analysed interactions between people and woodlands. Credit: East Anglian Daily Times

This patch of self-willed wood might have raised a smile from botanist and historical ecologist Oliver Rackham. Over several decades until his death in 2015, Rackham probably did more than any other scientist to advance our understanding of the consequences of human interactions with woodlands and other landscapes in Britain. That contribution inspires and informs Arboreal, a beautiful, insightful anthology edited by nature writer Adrian Cooper. The more than 40 pieces by ecologists, educators, photographers, sculptors and writers, are highly diverse. Their common starting point is that the perceptions, memories and imagination of individuals matter, and that without wonder and reflection, research and action are blind and blundering.

Rackham's insights remain compelling. With more than a dozen books, notably Ancient Woodland (Edward Arnold, 1980) and The History of the Countryside (J. M. Dent & Sons, 1986), he attracted and educated a large public. He showed that ancient woodland — any wood in continuous existence since at least 1600 — was frequently as much a human artefact as 'natural.' He helped to set in train significant changes to planning and conservation, fighting the Forestry Commission over the planting of uniform stands of conifers, and showing that large unmanaged populations of deer pose serious threats to woods. In his last years, he stressed the dangers of unregulated global trade in trees, a factor in the spread of pests and diseases. His final book, The Ash Tree (Little Toller, 2014), explored the place of the much-loved genus Fraxinus in culture, and explained Chalara ash dieback, caused by the fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, which threatens to wipe out a large proportion of this hitherto abundant species. (In 2012, dieback was reported to have affected some 90% of ash trees in Denmark, but Rackham withheld judgement about the probable scale of UK devastation.) Above all, Rackham helped to create a vision of woodlands as complex, dynamic and potentially resilient places that for thousands of years have seldom been free from human intervention, and where the stories we tell and choices we make have significant consequences.

Cooper calls this long relationship one of both estrangement and affection. Britain is among the most deforested countries in Europe: almost half the ancient woodland in the British Isles was either felled or poisoned between 1933 and 1983. Yet the country famously treasures its large ancient trees. “The majority of us do not own woodlands nor earn our living by them,” Cooper writes in the introduction, “yet it seems that the trees and the woods still inhabit us.”

So George Peterken, a woodland ecologist of Rackham's generation, unfolds the surprises and paradoxes of what may be Britain's most 'natural' ancient wood, at Lady Park in the Wye Valley. Gabriel Hemery, forest scientist and author of The New Sylva (Bloomsbury, 2014; G. Hemery Nature 507, 166–167; 2014),'looks back' from 2050 on the reforestation of Dartmoor in the face of climate change.

Poet Kathleen Jamie brings the form and sensibility of classical Chinese poetry to the woodlands around Inshriach Bothy in Scotland's Cairngorms National Park. Jay Griffiths (author of Wild; Hamish Hamilton, 2007) unfolds the beauty in woodland birdsong, in prose of great energy and power. Sculptor David Nash explains how he created the extraordinary Ash Dome at Cae'n-y-Coed in Snowdonia, Wales. And in images such as one of leaf-fall through an opening in the New Forest canopy, photographer Ellie Davies creates a sense of immanence redolent of Andrei Tarkovsky's 1975 film The Mirror.

Elsewhere, Tobias Jones — co-founder of the Windsor Hill Wood project for young people with mental-health issues — makes a powerful case for the therapeutic use of woodland. He explores the Japanese practice of shinrin yoku, or forest bathing, and its reputed beneficial effects on insomnia and anxiety. Deb Wilenski, a specialist in early-childhood education, shows how Spinney Wood in Cambridgeshire can fire the imaginations of the very young to produce maps and poems (B. Kiser et al. Nature 523, 286–289; 2015). And music journalist Will Ashon recounts the social history of Epping Forest — Britain's unofficial first national park and “a Cockney Paradise”.

In I Contain Multitudes, an account of the microbiome (Ecco, 2016; A. Woolfson Nature 536, 146–147; 2016), journalist Ed Yong describes dysbiosis. This process of irreversible decline triggered by perturbation from factors including antibiotics or pollution can afflict the human gut and other complex ecosystems, such as tropical coral reefs. Arboreal, which itself resembles a thicket of ancient woodland — unruly and pulsing with life, full of surprises and beauty in both detail and the long view — offers consolation and counsel for those who hope to save Britain's woods from such a fate. Trees are not, to paraphrase the poet and artist William Blake, green things standing in the way. They are living communities that are part of us, as we are still, in myriad subtle ways, part of them.