The fretwork of bare trees

In the first of a new occasional series on nature and landscape, Richard Mabey prepares for winter i

Here in Norfolk, the now almost imperceptible shift between autumn and winter is marked by a new seasonal ritual: the taking down of the autumn "leaf-fall" timetables at local railway stations. Gone are the traditional seasonal whines about "the wrong sort of leaves". The train companies have become proactive and botanically sassy. The posters announcing the slowed-down autumnal timetabling go up in September, regardless of conditions, and are rather collectable. They're topped with a fetching photo of a five-lobed sycamore leaf, like some hunter's trophy. They seem to accept that this expansive Johnny-come-lately from central Europe (it probably arrived in Britain in the Middle Ages) is here to stay.

The 17th-century diarist John Evelyn had a more radical solution to the problems of the sycamore's mucilaginous foliage: "they contaminate and marr our Walks; and are therefore by my consent, to be banished from all curious Gardens and Avenues". He thought their summer shade was vastly overrated because of this. But stripped of their vast cargo of leaves they can be as sinuously handsome as beeches. If, in summer, rural affairs are symbolically played out in the frank and sunlit space of field and garden, in winter they're perceived through the fretwork of bare trees. Stark woodiness speaks to our winter condition, pared down as it is to elementals. The wildwood becomes raw timber, muscular, threateningly ambivalent. The sylvan boughs of spring crash through car roofs, and become biomass for the wood-burner.

Our mixed cultural feelings about trees were graphically expressed at the start of the year during the great forest sell-off saga. The government misjudged public affection for woodlands in its initial proposals to privatise the Forestry Commission's estate, and provoked an extraordinary alliance between rural conservatives and deep-green activists. I hope their views prevail in the ongoing consultation. But it was quite rich to see this sudden rallying round the commission by the same people who had for decades vilified it for despoiling the immemorial greenwood and shrouding the open hills with a toxic pall of conifers.

But then the protests weren't really about trees, or even woods. They were about the idea of the forest as common cultural property - and, more practically, about access. At our local south Norfolk forest, Thetford, it was horse riders, mountain bikers and huskie-team racers who led the charge. Thetford was one of the first and certainly the biggest plantations to be created when the commission was established in 1919 in response to the embarrassment of wartime timber shortages. The immense tracts of pine were planted on the heathy sheep-walks of East Anglia's great sand bowl, the Breckland. Now things have come full circle and the most exciting work the commission is doing involves not planting trees but recreating heathland on the sites of conifer clear-fells. The choicest Breckland wildlife - nightjars, woodlarks, Ice Age pond creatures, ephemeral spring flowers that more properly belong to the parched steppes of eastern Europe - all haunt these open forest clearings, patches of non-wood.
I'm a fan of the local commission, whose headquarters are, fittingly, in the resurrected village of Santon Downham, which was buried under a sandstorm in 1688. But I'm not sure what its new-found supporters would make of some of the schemes that, before the government began to pull the rug, were brewing in the commission's think tanks. For instance, the reintroduction of bison to the tranquil pastures round the Little Ouse and the creation of small local power stations to burn forest thinnings.

What the commission can't supply is real woods. I spent most of my life among the Chiltern beechwoods before I moved to Norfolk, and miss them badly. Today, less than 2 per cent of the county's land is under ancient broadleaved woodland. In the Middle Ages the forest would have come almost to the edge of our house in the Waveney Valley. Just a few hundred yards away, Wood Lane winds north-east like a snaky forest track. It's lined by wispy hedges and 50-year-old turkey oaks, but there isn't a wood in sight. Further on is the Heywood, a four-mile-long stretch of arable farmland with one of the densest concentrations of medieval moats in the county, but with only a name to recall the vast broadleaved woodland cleared in the 13th century.

Our most accessible, authentic ancient wood is a ten-acre patch five miles in the opposite direction - except that it is, like every other indigenous copse hereabouts, barred to the public for the sake of the pheasant. In an act of grace-and-favour that smacks of the worst days of Victorian paternalism, the wood is opened to local people for just one day a year. But they have to be shepherded in to admire the spring flowers on the cart that ferries the shooting parties. I go in by myself anyway, dodging the keepers, and marvel at the incongruity of sheets of bluebell and early purple orchid sprouting around the nettle-ridden release pens and rotting piles of shot birds.

This, and the few other remaining fragments of indigenous woodland, are coppices, mostly of hornbeam, once cut for fuel. You can see their history etched in the shapes of the trees. The broad "stools" , harvested maybe 50 times in their lives, sprout sheaves of sinewy grey poles. An ancient (and fanciful) neighbour insists the tree is called hornbeam because branches were worn instead of deer antlers on May Day processions. But it's likely that "horn" means "hard" ("hardbeam" is a Norfolk vernacular name). The wood is tough enough to make cog wheels from and its density gives it a high calorific value. Hornbeam was the North Sea gas of medieval south Norfolk.

Except where they are in nature reserves, the hornbeam woods are no longer cut and the spring flowers recede in the dark. Nor is there any cutting of the trees that are invading almost every small common and green here. No one is clear whose responsibility it might be, or whether there would be as much local grumbling about cutting as there already is about the trees themselves. There isn't even, despite the soaring costs of energy, any visible tree theft - despite everything from sheep to rose bushes being regularly filched from local gardens and farms. Only 40 years ago local people informally "managed" the commons themselves, generating fuelwood and keeping the grassland open at the same time.

But the felled tree, however renewable, is a culturally charged object, and the public response to the barricaded copse and the impenetrable common is to plant up something new, somewhere else. Community woods have been created de novo in at least five parishes in the valley, more "small society" than big. Arable field edges blaze with the late autumn colours of wild cherry and maple woodlets, planted under countryside stewardship schemes. Both are welcome but are expensive ways to create a wood. In our garden we've let the trees do it for themselves and after only six years have half an acre of self-sown oaks, hornbeams and cherries.

It is, for some people, a discomfiting plot. Our collective amnesia about trees having reproductive systems of their own and not needing humans to artificially impregnate the ground with them isn't accidental. It's a rehearsal of that old and increasingly dubious belief that we have the sacred duty of stewardship and that any unruly independence on the part of nature is a slap in the face to our caring authority.

This alienation from the reality of tree growth (and regrowth) means that the tree hugger and the house warmer aren't yet reconciled. Harvesting wood is better done on someone else's patch. Loads of logs arrive on the back of trucks from who knows what source. But I've noticed an intriguing spread of the American and mainland European custom of making ornamental stacks from the logs. Is this from an unconscious desire to resolve these ambivalent arboreal feelings? The art critic Yvette Wiener, writing about Austrian woodstacks, asks: "What is the image which informs each stacker, what internal pattern is he attempting to reproduce in his careful elaboration? . . . Who is the mad man who meticulously reassembles in the stacking the log he has split beforehand, giving it back its original shape?

Richard Mabey's latest book is "The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn" (Profile Books, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The death spiral