An Elegy for our Lost Woods

An Elegy for our Lost Woods

The wonder and mystery of woods has always fascinated us. They are the stuff of fairy stories, legends and much of our English literature. Those that are left, like the New Forest (above), are ‘the guardians of our dreams of greenwood liberty of our wildwood, feral, childhood selves’. (Roger Deakins)

The Lost Wood

Three fields away and across a stream from where I grew up, on the edge of the Berkshire countryside, there stood what we children called ‘the Big wood’.  Were we allowed in here ? I think not. But we came nevertheless, drawn by the fascination of a place of mystery and adventure. Climbing trees, listening to the birds and looking for wildlife (there were foxes in the wood) and enjoying that delightful feeling of freedom, away from cars, people, buildings and parents! We loved this place, a playground of discovery. Those were the days when children could be free to go out and explore the countryside.

Gate into a field

This gate leads to adventure

We have such a brief opportunity to pass on to our children our love for this Earth, and to tell our stories. These are the moments when the world is made whole. In my children’s memories, the adventures we’ve had together in nature will always exist.”  

From ‘Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.’ by Richard Louv

Back then, the wood was surrounded by fields. Looking at a Google Earth image of it today, it is still there, but only just. It seems a sorry sight, shrunk in size and suffocated by the housing estates that surround it. I wonder how it is coping. I hope my fears are unfounded and that at least some of the locals still love and treasure that wood as we did. I do hope we weren’t Richard Louv’s ‘last children in the wood‘. 

woodland trees

The Wonder and Mystery of Woods 

This September I was in another wood, sitting outside our rented holiday cottage set in a private estate on the edge of the New Forest. I was alone listening to the wind in the trees as it set them dancing through the wood like crashing waves passing along the beach. Each tree’s song was different, combining together in ‘the music of the woods‘. 

But Nature’s works far lovelier.  I admire,
……..sweet Nature every sense.
The air salubrious of her lofty hills,
The cheering fragrance of her dewy vales,
And music of her woods—no works of man
May rival these; these all bespeak a power
Peculiar, and exclusively her own.
Beneath the open sky she spreads the feast;
’Tis free to all—’tis ev’ry day renewed
‘. 

From ‘The Garden’ in ‘Sofa’ by William Cowper

Sadly, only 8% of our ancient English woodlands survive. Once treasured by local people, each with its own name, too many of our woods are now gone – lost holders of history. As we crunch over the dry leaves in our few remaining woods the springy soil below our feet has been built up layer by layer over the years. Woods are good for us. They are markers of time. Their great age reminds us of our own short life – a challenge to live tall, leaving a noble legacy that counts, like that great 500 year-old oak just over the fence.

500 year-old oak tree set in a wood

The Wood-Wide-Web

I can sense the richness of our English woods here.  I sit taking in the atmosphere as the trees seem to talk with me and I enjoy their company. They remind me that I’m not alone but immersed within a rich community of plants and creatures. Beneath this canopy of swaying branches and the woodland floor is the newly discovered mystery of the wood-wide-web, a whole underground mycorrhizal network of roots and fungi. This wood is a living community of plants, creatures, fungi, roots and microscopic organisms. I’m just a visitor.

A forest knows things. They wire themselves up underground. There are brains down there, ones our own brains aren’t shaped to see. Root plasticity, solving problems and making decisions. Fungal synapses. What else do you want to call it? Link enough trees together, and a forest grows aware.” 

From ‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers
In a wood

In the evening silence settles over the woods offering solitude, solace and peace. A blackbird’s alarm cry. A scolding squirrel. Then a delicious hush. We are told there are sometimes nightingales here. This wood is a place that restores and refreshes me. The heart listens easily here. As the light fades and the birds settle to their roosts, like Grasmere in Wordsworth’s day,’ in the last glimpse of twilight’ peace fills this place, ‘it calls home the heart to quietness‘. That’s why we keep returning to this quiet woodland cottage.

6 thoughts on “An Elegy for our Lost Woods

  1. Lovely post, Dad. I read “The Overstory” recent; a very different way of seeing the human – forest relationship and the short, narrow perspectives that we often have as humans.
    I think that we are all looking forward to getting back to our own “big woods” after lockdown!

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    1. You’re well read Matt. Richard Powers’ book is highly recommended. Woods with their community of inter-dependant plants, fungi and animals have a lot to teach us humans about how to live together. Thank you for your photo of the New Forest which I’ve used as the featured image. Well done for introducing your boys to the wild places. Richard Louv would be pleased!

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  2. What a lovely reflection. I can just smell and sense the woods. Longing to get up into our local Angmering Park. The mychorizal system is just fascinating and I’d love to read Richard Powers’ book. Thank you Matt for the recommend. I recently read Holloway by one of my favourite authors Robert McFarlane and I walked a local holloway the other day up to Halnaker Windmill.

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    1. Thank you Sue. I’ve never been to Halnaker, but looking it up I see it would be an enchanting walk in spring through the holloway there. I’ve read Robert Macfarlane’s ”Holloway’. I’m also reading his latest book ‘Underland’ with its fascinating chapter titled ‘The Understory’ on the wood-wide-web. Enjoy Angmering Park when you can.

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  3. I came to woods late – there are no woods near the town I grew up in, but I always loved trees and we too regularly go to the forest now to experience the atmosphere. This is a wonderful piece on the beauty and power of woods Richard.

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    1. Thank you, Andrea. I like Roger Deakin’s quote about re-discovering our ‘feral childhood selves’ in woods. I love being surrounded by trees, plants and other ‘traces of Eden’. In a sense we are back where we belong there. Enjoy your forest when you can. We always appreciate reading about your local walks in your dene/park.

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