Saturday, 18 October 2014

Childing trees are our contemporaries

I was brought up in an intensely English landscape, surrounded by rich green, rolling, pleasant broadleaf woods, covering hills and vales, in the South East corner of this island.

My mother refused to live in any house without a long, country view. Thus, from our first house outside London in Surrey, we could study a well-shaped green hill which changed colour, subtly throughout the year, about three miles away. Our second house in Farnham was high on a ridge. It has a limited view to twelve miles into the distance, surrounded by a mix of broadleaf treees and dark, light-reducing dark conifers, which she hated, calling any non-broadleaf ambience "a green hell". I'm still attached to trees and view them as great wonders of nature, things of great beauty.  It is small wonder that we now live inside a broadleaf wood. I am a bit in awe of them.

However, the rolling heavily-wooded South East of England is not a normal English landscape: it is a forest which, some thousands of years ago, was home to oryx, bears and wolves.  One can travel from the Lake District to London without seeing the same density of wood coverage, or the same interesting rolling hills. Even in stunning Italy, I sometimes miss trees in a landscape. In hotter, rocky foreign locations, I can wonder how people live there, without the almost 'spiritual' uplift of trees.

In fact, south-east England's wooded landscape has inspired some great music and watercolour painters. Ralph Vaughan Williams always lived among these views. His music seems to me to describe green, benign, rolling pastoral peace. The existence of the hills is always interesting, too. The little range of picturesque hills where we now live was thrown up by the same forces that created the Alps, like the first wrinkles in a vast tablecloth.

Yesterday, I attended a conference on woods delivered by our Forestry Commission at an English vineyard in Surrey, after driving through the burnishing, autumnal Weald which is a great broadleaf forest. I learnt that we have 3 billion trees in the UK. Presuming that means 300 million, then for each of us, there are five trees. Not only is the South East of England the most wooded part of England, but trees that make it up are our contemporaries in age:  they are mostly 20-40 years old with some 60 years old.  

English woods were felled during World War Two for timber, so what we see is their recovery. This may be why searching for massive ancient oaks is a fruitless task. Added to this, the woods have been left to run riot, unmanaged for fuel and building material, as they were historically, so they are thick, dense and dark. This density is preventing new trees from germinating, reducing biodiversity.  Our interest is in increasing their management, partly for wood fuel, in which the South East is rich.  This means chopping down a lot more trees, which the public wrongly think is 'sacrilege' (one needs a license to do it).   Generation must succeed generation to ensure continuity: it is the same for human beings.

Now when I see a tree, I feel it is my contemporary. It is experiencing the same weather and the same seasons as I do. It is wrinkling at the same rate. Now, I can stand at the sink looking at our close trees - we live inside a wood -  and I can feel closer still.  

I noted a lovely archaic English word in Shakespeare this week about autumn: childing autumn. He meant "trees giving birth to children-trees". The poet may have been recalling the great wood of Arden which was north of Stratford, now destroyed, its broadleaf trees dropping their nuts in autumn - "childing" away, ensuring the continuity of a wooded landscape - until it was chopped down by humans, in an unsustainable way.  

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