Stephen Rutt finds both a hopeful and elegaic picture of British woodland in the latest release from Little Toller. Photo of book jacket from www.littletoller.co.uk; photo of Wivenhoe Woods © Stephen Rutt.
Last week walking by the River Colne, I came across a spread of fly agaric mushrooms. They had — for it was a couple of days past their best — pushed through the ivy-covered ground, in the shade of a string of birch trees, under a fence of warped and wrecked barbed wire. The wire ran directly through the heart of the birch trunk. There were many ways to look at the scene: literally, metaphorically, botanically, mycologically and economically, amongst others. A new book, released by Little Toller, concerns itself with all of these essences.
Arboreal, edited by Adrian Cooper, is an anthology that describes itself as “a collection of new woodland writing”. Across 300 pages, forty contemporary writers as diverse as Germaine Greer, Evie Wyld and Zaffar Kunial, and four visual artists come together to explore the roots and branches of what woods and trees mean today. It is a book that comes at a vital time. Since Oliver Rackham — Britain’s most high profile and intellectually rigorous spokesman for trees — died last year, ash dieback has continued to advance over the country; the spectre of emerald ash-borer and other scourges of our native trees hang over forestry policy, like gothic monstrosities. It is in his memory that this book is dedicated.
According to a 2011 report from the Woodland Trust, woodland is a “resource that covers only 13 per cent of our land area”, compared to 37% for EU countries. The word resource is a thorny one: it can mean sustainable coppicing for firewood or, as also happened in 2011, the government’s attempted sell off of the national forestry stock. Fiona Reynolds writes of her role in the aftermath of the U-turn, sitting on the committee to determine future forestry policy, while also detailing past battles within various conservation organisations and poorly planned plantations. This is most notably in the politically pyrrhic victory won by the Nature Conservancy Council in 1988 to stop the generous tax breaks that lead to the blanket bogs of Caithness and Sutherland being planted with pine trees. The NCC stopped it and the government dissolved them in revenge. This could sound dry but the material is emotive, the writing concise and clear, deriving its energy from the recounted childhood experiences of returning from the woods “filthy, wet, tired and happy”.
This is more than a book about the 13%, although it is too diverse to merely be about one thing in particular. It is a defence and an elegy, a speculation of the future, and praise for past and present. The best writing in Arboreal resists an easy explanation of what makes a tree a tree. Jen Hadfield explores Shetland’s wooded ancient history, the few relict trees that remain and a gardener’s attempt at planting exotic trees, about which “nothing could be more typical of Shetland than… this global web of horticultural correspondences”. Her piece begins in Canada and ends with wind turbines. It doesn’t settle in the meantime. Jay Griffiths’ piece about birdsong in Welsh woods is as exuberant and expressive as its subject matter, her sentences like a chain-reaction of cadence. Away from non-fiction, Arboreal includes haunting fiction, speculative interviews from the future about the impact of rewilding and a small scattering of poems — Simon Armitage’s short and deceptively simple elegy for the ash tree is a particular highlight for its ability to get straight to the emotional heart of the tree in peril.
A frequently made criticism of nature writing is that it is somehow removed from nature, or doesn’t engage with those whose daily lives involves working with nature. One of Arboreal’s strengths is that it brings to a literary audience the words of those working directly with woodlands, writers familiar with the rub of tree bark and the feel of dirt under their fingernails. There is an understanding of the woodland as ecology and economics: when to chop a tree down and when to leave it, a living, working relationship with the landscape that goes deeper. Or in Robin Walter’s words, “I am drawn to the spruce… If we felled them all now it would be simple and cost effective, but we would lose our protective canopy and leave our precious woodland flora at the mercy of invasive bramble, bracken and grass”. The hard-edged pragmatism of such prose might not be to everyone’s taste, but it is as worthy of being heard as any other.
Arboreal is not all perfect. The drawback with the anthology format is that for every piece you love there will be a piece that leaves you cold. That is inevitable and down to personal taste and I won’t name here the ones that disappointed me. The visual art is a highlight but more would have been good — I was startled to see a picture of a green man from Iraq, and would have appreciated being able to read about it. For an anthology dedicated to Rackham, it would have also been nice to see some of his words, interspersed with the words about or inspired by him. His list of actions from the conclusion to The Ash Tree would have been a perfect fit — amid all the doom, sometimes we forget to tell people what to do, even if, as many of the writers state, Rackham was often in favour of doing nothing.
Britain’s woodlands are, for all their cultural significance, in a poor state. They are contested, misunderstood, and after Rackham, lacking an obvious figurehead. Arboreal suggests new ways, new paths to appreciation. It deserves to succeed.
Stephen Rutt recently completed the MA Wild Writing at the University of Essex. East Anglian by upbringing, Stephen has spent six months in Orkney, been tick-bitten in a Hungarian marsh and floated in a boat in the mid-Atlantic in search of birds. As well as an obsession with winged things, Stephen has a BA in English from Stirling, and has had writing published in Earthlines, The Harrier and Zoomorphic (forthcoming). He blogs at stephenrutt.blogspot.com and tweets @steverutt.