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26 June 2019updated 25 Jul 2021 2:50pm

Why woods are as important to history as any king, battle or law

By John Burnside

I grew up with the old-school approach to history, doggedly memorising long lists of kings and queens, fateful battles and the more significant acts of parliament, while ignoring everything else – which meant that, for me and my classmates, it had more to do with mythology than with analysis or critical thinking.

Back then, history’s task was the sometimes subliminal formation of identity and the reinforcement of an assumed pecking order; a sense that, for humanity as a whole, what mattered was hierarchy, dominance and “tradition”. Without a doubt, these things did matter, not because they were important in themselves, but because they had an impact on real life: on the day-to-day experiences of “ordinary people”, on the diversity of culture, on the potential for freedom of thought and movement and, most importantly, on the health of the forests and rivers.

 According to WH Auden, “a culture is no better than its woods” – and this truth is most obvious when a culture fails in its respect for the land, when the woods are degraded or felled and the creatures that live there are poisoned and slaughtered.

There were no woods in my history books, however. There were popes and monarchs, generals and diplomats, but the effects of their self-interest on the land and its less grandiose denizens was seldom noticed.

It was only when, in an entirely unplanned conjunction of sources, I began to read Marx on the one hand and the great natural historians on the other that I caught a glimpse of another kind of history – not as a narrative of self-justifying power, but as a disciplined enquiry into what that narrative meant for the land and our companion species.

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Where I grew up, vast swathes of the countryside were owned by private individuals under a system of privilege that seemed to me unjust and unnatural. But it was only when I read Capital that I found the words to express my rejection of that status quo. Marx wrote that one day, “the private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men”.

In short, exclusive ownership of the land was, in its own way, as objectionable as slavery and would one day be abolished just as slavery had been. Marx continues: “Even an entire society, a nation or all simultaneously existing societies taken together are not owners of the earth, they are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations.”

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This last point is the important one, of course. How to hand over, to the next generation, a habitable place, not the deer park of some self-styled Sun King, not what is left of a city after some Robert Moses type has got through with it, not Keystone XL and Deepwater Horizon.

It seems fairly obvious to me that our studies in history could play a huge part in this. A culture is no better than its woods – and it is only as good as the stories it tells about the trees in its care. When the Scottish nationalists were constructing a heroic narrative for the independence referendum in 2014, they went with Robert the Bruce, which seemed to me a grave mistake. Had they chosen instead to celebrate the life and work of, say, the great Scottish plant-collector and explorer George Forrest (1873-1932), they would have been more likely to win my vote. 

Next week: Stefan Buczacki on gardening

This article appears in the 26 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Restraining order