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24 October 2014updated 22 Jul 2021 5:06am

Peace to the forest, a place of ways unknown

The forest was where a traveller could become lost for ever and lose his rational bearings, as in the Arthurian tale of the Forest of Beguilement, a place, as Spenser puts it, full of “wayes unknowne”.

By John Burnside

On this crisp October morning, as it travels the width of Germany, my train passes through Hesse, one of the country’s most heavily forested areas. Among the many striking contrasts between here, my current home, and the UK is just how much more woodland there is: roughly a third of Germany is forested, as opposed to just over a tenth of Britain. Like us, the Germans destroyed vast areas of woodland during the two world wars and, for the usual thickheaded commercial reasons, some imbalance between conifers and broadleaved trees remains.

The main reason for the difference, however, is the programme that Germany has established to restore its mixed woods and, with them, safe havens for birds, bats, deer, wild boar and all the other fauna that depend on trees for their well-being. Perfection is a long way off but the difference between a third and a tenth is highly significant and it is embarrassing to note that almost all the meaningful progress towards reafforesting Britain has been made by NGOs such as the Woodland Trust and Trees for Life.

As a child, I used to wonder what the difference between a wood and a forest might be. Was it just size? Partly. A forest – the word dates back to the Norman occupancy, when it meant an area set aside for England’s violent new masters to hunt boar and deer – is necessarily larger than a wood. It belonged to the king and was a fit place for his recreation.

Something else was going on, too, and we find evidence of that greater mystery in fairy stories, myths and legends. Our ancestors went to the woods to find fuel; they set snares there for birds and gathered nuts and fungi. The forest, on the other hand, was where a traveller could become lost for ever and lose his rational bearings, as in the Arthurian tale of the Forest of Beguilement, a place, as Spenser puts it, full of “wayes unknowne”.

The woods were a boon; all too often the forest offered danger and mystery. Yet it could be liberating. If you entered that wild place on its own terms, you might be accorded wisdom. You might also become part of a wider – and wilder – world, the community of those who have come through the wayes unknowne and discovered a surprising and complex kind of freedom.

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In one of his finest works, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1844), Karl Marx asks: “What difference is there between the history of our freedom and the history of the boar’s freedom if it can be found only in the forests? . . . It is common knowledge that the forest echoes back what you shout into it. So peace to the ancient Teutonic forests!”

This is true but it may be that the trick is to approach the forest in silence, to shout nothing that can be echoed but, instead, to stop and listen to what is happening there. The boar’s freedom is a necessary prerequisite to our own: without wild lands to hunt in (not so much literally as imaginatively), we find our lives diminished. Worldwide, we have lost something like 80 per cent of old forest growth; apart from the obvious questions this raises in relation to climate change, we must also wonder what it has done to our imaginations. Once upon a time, forests were repositories of magic for the human race. Now, in far too many places, the ancient forests, Teutonic or otherwise, are lost. No politician I can think of would argue for the reafforestation of four-fifths of Europe, but anyone taking a train ride through Hesse and catching a mere glimpse of what once was may be tempted to argue that an essential part of our humanity comes from living with trees. 

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

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