Trees, Woodlands and Forests

“Our forests grew deeper and denser – fertilised by Arthurian romances and Wild Wood in The Wind in the Willow, and tales of Robin Hood – until we knew that once it had indeed been ‘all forest’. And forest became the pure place of primal innocence, where children could escape from their adults, get away from the order and discipline of straight roads and good governance, and revert to their animal origins.”

– Gossip from the Forest, Sara Maitland

Here, we are going to touch on a the history of different trees in the UK. How we connect with trees and forests, culturally and spiritually. How, even today, they find their way into our stories and identities. We’ll reflect on some trees that I’ve really loved visiting. And finally there will some suggestions of other things to fill you eyes, ears and hearts with, if you want to learn more about trees!

Were going to dive in around 10,000 years ago. In Britain, the ice is retreating, leaving behind empty landscapes, mountains and valleys. Slowly the plants start to take over, growing tall and filling in. Over thousands of years complex ecosystems, forests, have grown up and people once again live in these lands. They sheltered, hunted and foraged amongst these trees.

Timber has always been widely available as a source of fuel for most of this country and is a natural by-product of clearing land to farm and graze animals. Before the introduction of ‘forest law’ by William the Conquer, the woods were owned by no one man and meat would be hunted from the forests: deer, rabbits, wild pigs and poultry. The French call us ‘roast beef’, because of the English man’s love of roasted meats! Even today, Sunday roast is a time honoured tradition in Britain. As a child we had a roast every Sunday lunchtime after a long walk in the countryside – and I mean every Sunday! Although, we now cook our roast meats in gas or electric ovens, instead of over a wood fire. In that, perhaps, we have lost something; lost a connection to our forests. Collecting wood, chopping it, curing it, the smell of the smoke and the taste in our food.

However, it is an urban myth that the whole of Britain was once covered with trees. Much was forested, but there was also areas of heath, grassland and wetland. Some natural, some cleared by man or animals. None the less, woods and forests play a big part in our national identity. From the pine forests in the north, to the mighty oaks, to ancient yew trees standing in graveyards, to gnarled orchards in the West Country. Trees and forests also play a massive part in our literary and folk history. Think: Fangorn forest from Lord of the Rings, Little Red Riding Hood, Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest, Winnie-the-Poo in Ashdown Forest, Midsummers Nights Dream, Narnia, the Forbidden Forest in Harry Potter and a bunch of the Germanic fairy tales that we have adopted, like Hansel and Gretel or Snow White… I could go on forever! This is probably true for most Northern European countries. Forest and trees captivate our imagination, from the movement of their branches, to the tangle of their roots, to the relationship they have with the earth; thus creating characters, myths and legends.

Hawthorn blossom in spring

I feel like we’ve got to start with Oaks. The quintessential British tree, it’s mighty form is a symbol of strength, tradition and endurance. They can live for over 1000 years and often stand at the centre of villages as a symbol of age and continuity. Supposedly, druids taught under oak trees, King Arthur was buried in one, King Charles II hid in one, and Robin Hood slept in one – on Wikipedia there is a list of 107 historically important oaks! This tree has always been associated with powerful figures and brave fighters. According to local folklore, Major Oak in Sherwood Forest is believed to be the place where Robin Hood and his merry men had their camp. This unimaginatively named tree is thought to be 800 to 1000 years old. Oak has aways been a symbol of strength and masculinity, associated with gods and mythological characters like Zeus and Thor.

In contradiction to the oak’s ‘macho man’ status is Hawthorn. This is one of my favourite trees in the British landscape. (Yes, maybe it’s sometime more of a shrub than a tree, but stick with me, because Hawthorn is great!) It too has a rich plantlore tradition around it. The flowering of the hawthorn in our hedgerows is one of the most joyful signs that spring is on it way. They symbolise fertility, spring, and the faerie folk. The Flowers and buds can be eaten raw in salads and the wood is very hard and is useful for tools. The flesh of the fruits is edible with hard, inedible, pips called haws. Containing large amounts of pectin, the flesh of hawthorn berries is helpful for making jams set, or can be made into a fruit leather (although never successfully by me!). According to Juliette de Bairacli, hawthorn has long been used by country people in a poultice made from pulped leaves or fruits. This is said to have strong drawing powers (i.e. it could be helpful in drawing out splinters or thorns).

Sequoia, in Northern California

We recently went on holiday to Northern California, and there we saw the mighty sequoia and the tall red wood trees. We saw the three largest trees (by mass) in the world – they were big trees! This trip was really what got me thinking about trees. These beautiful giants we were walking among had been growing for thousands of years; think how many forest fires licked their bark over the years, how many generations squirrels and birds made homes in their branches, how many people stared up in awe. The vast social/ political changes, that have happened in North America in over 3000 years! Europeans didn’t reach the continent until some of these trees where already thousands of years old! Already giants in the landscape.

Yew Tree, Dartmoor, Devon

The only thing we have in comparison here in the UK is yew trees. They can live for over 5000 years and played a central role in Celtic and Druidic cultures. Now, they are often associated with graveyards. However, in the case of old yew trees, this can reflect older origins of the site as a place of worship. On a recent trip to Wales I explored the charming chapel and circle of yew trees at Chapel-y-ffin. I will often visits churchyards to see ancient trees, I love their gnarled trunks and colourful bark. You can look up ancient yew trees in your area or places you are visiting, as it’s always awe inspiring to see these beautiful trees. In the garden of my childhood, we had a great yew tree, from it hung a robe swing that occupied many hours of my younger years. The tree in our garden is male and therefore produces large amount of pollen in the spring, which would be released in dramatic clouds when you jumped on the swing. Ancient trees allow us to have a tangible, living connection with the past, like an elder or guardian, passing down legends and myths.

Chapel-y-ffin, Wales

These are things to muse over, when you’re next out on a Sunday walk in the countryside. Note what trees are around you, touch their rough trunks and smell the earthy moss. Look up to the sky, to the branches and the leaves. Even if you don’t feel like you can, or don’t want to, spiritually connect to the trees, we can think about those in our past that have. Those that relied on the woods for their food, shelter, fuel and spirituality. How the stories we tell, even today, came out of these woods and were molded by our relationship with them.

Library corner

My top recommendation and inspiration for a lot of my interest in the cultural history of woods and forest is:

Gossip from the Forest by Sara Maitland

Recommended to me by a friend, I bloody love the way this book is written! Each chapter is set in a different month, in different forests around the UK. The first half of each chapter is a description of the authors walk in this forest, interjected with musings on the history of this forest or forests in Britain more widely. While the second half is a retelling of a fairytale set in the forest.

Top podcast listen:

Ologies – Dendrology with J. Casey Clapp

Alie Ward talks to dendrologist, J. Casey Clapp, about all thing trees. If you want to get into the science and conservation of trees, in a little bite sized nugget, of well edited audio, this is for you! How do trees communicate? How do trees work? What about urban trees? How many sexy tree related tattoos can one dendrologist have? What is ‘crown shyness’? …All the big questions!

Fiction read:

The Man Who Spoke Snakeish by Andrus Kivirahk

Like no other book I’ve read. This is the story of a boy from a hunter gather family who lives in a forest and speaks the ancient language of snakes. It’s about what we have lost in the modern world. Incredibly gratuitously violent at times, beautifully moving at others, and damn weird. I haven’t stopped thinking about this book since I read it about a year about.

Top folklore read:

Botanical Folk Tales from Britain and Ireland by Lisa Schneidau

If you want to dip you toe into some folk tales, this is a delightful and easy read. With a selection on really lovely nature inspired folk tales.

Young adult read:

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

I don’t read a lot of young adult fiction, because I have an aversion to the awkward tepid love scenes that plague this genre. This book is, unfortunately, no exception to these. However, despite that, it’s a great story about a dangerous enchanted woods, and ticks all the fairy tale boxes. It’s an epic adventure and a good escapism book.

Non fiction read:

The Stranger in the Wood by Michael Finkel

Really fascinating book about a fella that spent 27 years living in the woods in Maine. It’s a little bit of an uncomfortable read at times, but has some really interesting writing on hermits and the call to the wild.

For suggestions on ancient and magic forests and trees to visit, see the Wild Guilds from Wild Publishing

If you’re interested in herbalism, a great place to start is with with Juliette de Bairacli. She also talks about the beliefs behind some of the herbs. Juliette is an all around rad lady, who I will talk more on in the future.

If you’re interested in foraging and wild food, we will be talking about that more here, but you can also pick up a bunch of different books about it.