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: