Monday, 31 January 2011

If You Go Down to the Woods - Charlie Butler


I’m not especially generous to charity, but I have a few conscience-lubricating direct debits that go off every month to selected causes. Sometimes, mind, I look at my little list and wonder about my priorities. Next to the cancer charity, and the fund to bring clean water to African villages, the longest-standing of these payments – my monthly contribution to the Woodland Trust – may seem rather trivial. After all, keeping a few broadleaf trees alive isn't quite as morally urgent as stopping a child from contracting cholera, is it?
Indeed not – but neither is morality as a zero-sum game, despite the tendentious arguments of policitians (“Wouldn't you rather we closed your local library than stopped homecare for the elderly? Do you hate old people that much?”). That is a false choice, because understanding and valuing what connects us to nature and to our own history is part of what makes us capable of caring about the other things too. Britain is, historically, an island of forests, and although frighteningly little remains of its ancient woodland, a visceral memory and sense of its importance persists amongst even the most urban of town dwellers. The wild wood, as Alan Garner once put it, is "always at the back of our consciousness. It’s in our dreams and nightmares and fairy tales and folk tales."
It's sometimes said that you can judge a country by the way it treats its prisoners. In children's books, woods and trees can act as a similar touchstone. In C. S. Lewis's The Last Battle, for example, we know things have got really bad when the trees are felled on the order of the False Aslan; while Saruman's willingness to cut down trees to feed his furnaces in The Lord of the Rings is a sure sign of his depravity. By contrast, a love of trees betokens health and moral soundness, whether they grow in Milne's Hundred-Acre Wood, a locus amoenus subject to seasons and weather but never to calendars, clocks or the other impedimenta of downtrodden adulthood; or in the hardier worlds created by Arthur Ransome and BB, whose children find both shelter and challenge under the shade of the greenwood, as Robin Hood did before them. Underlying all these, nestling in the leaf litter, lie our memories of the fairy-tale woods with their witches, wolves and wandering children. Their long roots wind in and out of our dreams, as ineluctably as those of Yggdrassil.
When my father died, I paid the Woodland Trust to protect an acre of woodland in perpetuity. Dad’s patch of earth is in a small wood near Winchester, not far (to bring in a gratuitous children’s literature reference) from the grave of Charlotte Yonge. One autumn day, a few months after his death, our family dedicated his acre by scattering his ashes there, in the furze of a small clearing. The ashes blew about a little (‘Don’t sneeze your grandfather!’ I warned my daughter), but I think the wood accepted our dusty libation. I plan to end up there myself, one day – unless of course it’s been turned into a car park by then. To prevent that happening, either to that acre or to many thousands of others, I urge you to consider signing one or both of these petitions, protesting against the current plans to sell off publicly-owned forest:

17 comments:

catdownunder said...

Actually I think saving a small patch of woodland is every bit as important. If I was a dictator one of the things I would dictate is the planting of millions of trees. They can provide endless environmental benefits as well as food and shelter. All absolutely essential to the survival of the planet and us. Oh and we cats like to climb them and sleep in them! :-)

Lynn said...

Hear! Hear!

hilary said...

Thank you, have now signed both. (Had done 38 degrees but didn't know about the other).

adele said...

Thanks Charlie for your post and those links. Have signed both.

Book Maven said...

Terrific, Charlie! Like others I had signed 38 degrees but not the other. Will do herewith.

Katherine Langrish said...

Ditto!

Neezes said...

Good post, will share them on FB also.

Beth Kemp said...

It's horrifying, what this government thinks is unimportant. Have signed in both places, and am really glad to see more and more people standing up for the forest issue.

I blogged a similar forest-story-unconscious link the other day. It's just so crucial a part of our psychological heritage as well as the physical.
http://bit.ly/emfPK8

Charlie Butler said...

I forgot the Gruffalo! Good post, Beth.

Stroppy Author said...

Signed! Thank you, Charlie.

Willa said...

Thank you for posting this - it made me think about nature and the importance of protecting our home here on earth. Will see if I can find some local wood charities.

michelle lovric said...

Beautifully written and argued!thank you!
M

Leila said...

I have signed one but can't remember which, so I'll go and have another look. Your post reminds me of a book I read recently: The Tree, by JOhn Fowles. It's actually a long essay on creativity and the importance of not looking at nature with merely scientific eyes. I think you'd enjoy it if you've not yet read it.
http://johnfowlesthetree.com/

Charlie Butler said...

I don't know that book, Leila, but I shall seek it out. I'm a fan of Fowles, and not least his work on nature conservation and on islands. (He had quite a lot to do with the buying of Steepholm as a reserve, which is my handle elsewhere on the internet.)

jane.stemp said...

Charlie, have you read Roger Deakin's Wildwood? I think you'd like it.

Charlie Butler said...

No, I haven't, Jane, though I've read Jan Needle's! Amazon makes it sound interesting, though.

jane.stemp said...

I'd lend you my copy but I gave it away it was so good!
(is that a contradiction in terms?)