Trees, Woods and Forests: A Social and Cultural History
by Charles Watkins

Reviewed by Killian Quigley


Published by Reaktion Books, 2014   |   312 pages

Toward the end of Trees, Woods and Forests, the geographer Charles Watkins travels to Liguria, a slender curve of coast in the northwest of Italy. This is the homeland of the Cinque Terre, of pesto alla genovese, and of castagnaccio, a simple, rather savory cake made from milled chestnuts. Castagna flour, for hundreds of years a staple ingredient in local cuisine, is somewhat less common these days. Since the 1960s, Liguria’s rural population has been in steady decline, and many of the region’s vineyards, farms, and woodlands have been abandoned by the humans and other animals that used to live there. What’s been left behind is a countryside going wild. Orchards and terraced fields, carefully managed until just a few decades ago, are being overrun by feral trees. That hardly seems a sordid prospect, but it might signal a creeping and pernicious amnesia. For as the leafage overspreads, slow and unremarkable, so disappear the signs of complex, centuries-old communities of arbres, herds, and humans.

Trees, Woods, and Forests is a memorial to those signs, as well as a beginner’s guide to reading them. Watkins ushers us briskly through several thousand years of human-tree relations in the West, to show that until very recently, those relationships – and the knowledge they nurtured – were integral to most lives. His ambition, historiographically speaking, is to convince us that our past is pervasively arboreous, and that we ignore its understory at our peril. If we’ve lost touch with trees, this is perhaps because over the past thousand years or so, woodland ownership and expertise have been gradually consolidated by a privileged coterie of wealthy individuals, governments, and managerial bureaucracies. As ordinary working persons – foragers, husbandmen, and smallholding farmers – have lost access to woods, or lost direct control over their care, traditional arboral practices have gradually disappeared. This process accelerated in the nineteenth century, as galloping developments in forest science began directing the regulation of wooded ground. We have inherited that ground, but most of us have little understanding of how it took shape, and perhaps even less of the woody lives with whom we share it. Watkins wants to revivify our tree-sense – our awareness of the labor and the language woods inspire – so that we might cultivate a healthful arborary future.

The history of woodish labor is both more complicated and more quotidian than we tend to recall. For thousands of years, Europeans browsed sheep and goats among stands of ash, and collected leaves and twigs for winter fodder. Willows were coppiced – cut back to stumps at regular intervals – for firewood, and for poles. Tenant farmers buttressed the hedge-borders of their fields with oak-wood got by pollarding, a practice similar to coppicing which involves periodically stripping a tree’s upper branches, making it a kind of renewable resource. That’s all getting a bit technical, but it’s also poetry, in potentia: to learn the language of the woods, and of woody work, is to broaden one’s arboreal consciousness, and so one’s capacity for knowing the world. Watkins isn’t the only writer recently to exhort us to learn nature’s phrasebook – see Robert Macfarlane’s fair and fêted Landmarks (Hamish Hamilton, 2015) – but Trees, Woods and Forests is noteworthy for its steadfast emphasis on labor. The signs of that labor, Watkins explains, are all around, but few of us recognize them.

We’ve lost the capacity to do so just as the management of trees has become the remit, almost exclusively, of governments, forest institutes, and other large landholders. Centralization and bureaucratization, those perennial bugbears, have long been at work in the woods. Nearly two hundred years ago, in The Parish, the Northamptonian poet John Clare condemned a “chief woodman” for callous excesses of regulatory zeal:


[The] starving terror of the village brood
Who gleand their scraps of fuel from the wood
When parish charity was vainly tryed
Twas their last refuge – which is now denyd
Small hurt was done by such intrusions there
Claiming the rotten as their harmless share
Which might be thought in reasons candid eye
As sent by providence for such supplye
But turks imperial of the woodland bough
Forbid their trespass in such trifles now

Trees, Woods and Forests doesn’t frame things so damningly, but tensions like these are always detectable around its margins. Stories about woodland – about where forests are established, who can enter them, and what’s to be done with the things (and lives) contained therein – are, Watkins insists, always stories about power, and about social privilege.

Exemplary in this regard are hunting grounds, which the English were busy setting aside as early as the eleventh century, when William the Conqueror established New Forest, in southern Hampshire. In 1302, members of Edward I’s entourage hunted “barren does” at royal parkland in west Herefordshire (on the border with Wales), so as to “publish and solemnize” the king’s authority before whoever happened to be looking on. For medieval Britons of power and means, treescapes were theaters for putting martial might on spectacular display. Landowners and royals, and the woodsmen in their employ, established hunting rights – not to mention tree-felling rights – and guarded them jealously. Needless to say, not everyone respected their seigniory, but while most poachers were driven by poverty and hunger, others were spurred on by different sorts of compulsion. In thirteenth-century Warwickshire, there lived a serially kleptomaniacal parson named Ralph Bagot, who appears to have been addicted to offending against the king’s vert and venison. If woods can express authority, they can also generate resistance.

For some, peasant incursions into private and royal woods posed aesthetic, as well as economic, problems. Uvedale Price, author of the influential An Essay on the Picturesque (1794), thought landlords ought to protect trees from interference by their tenants, the latter “too apt to consider them merely as furnishing…fuel, and hedge-wood.” Picturesque principles, very much in vogue in Price’s day, encouraged landowners and gardeners to organize objects – buildings, waterways, and most particularly trees – according to pictorial standards. So a country estate, viewed from various perspectives, should offer the informed onlooker various pleasing pictures. It was in this spirit that the politician, aesthete, and novelist Horace Walpole celebrated contemporary advances in landscape design for making the experience of traveling the English countryside akin to a “journey…through a succession of pictures.” At the Earl of Halifax’s estate, in Stansted, Walpole rapturously compared the prospects he enjoyed with the paintings of Claude Lorrain. It isn’t difficult to imagine how woody labor, if incongruent to these ideals, might be made vanish – pictorially and literally – from the picturesque scene.

As if to turn this dynamic on its head, Watkins looks to art for arborescence. His preferred subjects are painters whose work reflects an eye for arboreal nuance – those who treat trees like unique subjects, and not like so much foliaceous background. Watkins’s great hero in this respect is Jacob van Ruisdael, the Dutch master whose astonishing handling of detail reflects not just a preponderant fascination with trees, but an unprecedented attention to particular species thereof. At times, this kind of sylvan art criticism has a chilling effect on the works themselves: the background of Giovanni Bellini’s Assassination of St. Peter the Martyr (1507) may well be copsewooded, but that doesn’t tell us very much about how to understand the image. But elsewhere, Watkins’s approach is more than exonerated: spindly new crown growth in John Dunstall’s extraordinary Pollard Oak near West Hampnett Place, Chichester (c. 1660) looks, to twenty-first-century eyes, like the neural connections inside one’s head. This is your brain as tree.

Dunstall’s oak reminds us that when we take the time to look at trees, we are often stunned by their shapes, their textures, their stature, and so on. The wonder they inspire has helped lead humans to regard them as sacred, as well as useful. Seven centuries before a republic sprang up at Rome, Latins came to Nemi, in the Alban Hills, to worship around an immense tree consecrated to the goddess Diana. Beneath its boughs stalked a frighteningly sanguinary warrior-priest known as Rex Nemorensis, or King of the Wood. The Old Testament’s Book of Genesis places the Tree of Knowledge – and its fruit, at once forbidden and irresistible – at the core of Christianity’s concept of sin, and so of what it means to be mortal. Somewhat more appealing, if perhaps less widely known, is the Yggdrasill, or Tree of Fate, from the Norse Prose Edda: the boughs of this preeminent ash, like the lives of men and the gods, slowly wither and die. Like Methusaleh, the more than 4,800-year-old bristlecone pine in gnarled residence at California’s Inyo National Forest, the Yggdrasill ash is at once an awesome testament to lives loftier than our own, and the humbling sign that nothing exists exempt from transience and diminution.

However we happen to interpret them, trees are probably the most potent and prolific symbols in the world. In Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality (1755), they were among the very few things man would need to live contentedly, and freely, in the state of nature: the noble savage is seen “satisfying his hunger under an oak tree, quenching his thirst at the first stream, finding his bed at the foot of the same tree that supplied his meal; and thus all his needs are satisfied.” In 1788, five years after the Treaty of Paris, the antiquarian and former military officer Hayman Rooke patriotically identified Sherwood Forest’s great, ancient – and crumbling – oaks with the steadfastness of the British gentry, navy, and nation. For the arboreally inclined painter and engraver Jacob Strutt, trees were our close comrades in mortality, “silent witnesses of the successive generations of man, to whose destiny they bear so touching a resemblance, alike in their budding, their prime and their decay.” Woodland can exemplify, all at once, individualism and nationalism, philosophical contemplation and hawkish geopolitics.

In sketching these contradictory ramifications, Watkins’s larger point is that as we shed our intimacy with threes, we deprive ourselves of their sundry meanings. The past couple of centuries have, in his view, seen the alienation quicken, as the West’s woodlands became more broadly, and more rapidly, amalgamated than ever.  Forests’ range, makeup, and use have increasingly come within the purview of entities like Britain’s Forestry Commission (est. 1919), informed by science and responsive to political and economic change. One of Watkins’s most revealing arguments concerns the role of empire in the evolution of these organizations. New forestry techniques were experimented with in contexts like British India, and the first arboretum – a rationally organized tree-garden – was established at Glasnevin, in Ireland, in the 1790s. These undertakings had hybrid natures: Dietrich Brandis and William Schlich, two influential inspector-generals of British forestry in India, were German. Their hyperrational doctrine of Schlagwaldwirstschaft, which calls for trees to be sectioned and felled in rotation, was developed on the continent, enhanced in the East, and (re-)imported to Britain, America, and elsewhere.

It goes without saying that these sorts of phenomena have real and lasting consequences, not only for forest-policy wonks but for everyone who lives with trees, and – lest we forget – for trees themselves. Books like this one have the potential to deliver a salutary shock, to confront us with the narrowness of our understanding, and the brevity of our memories, even as they pertain to things and lives that surround (and tower over) us. Few of us have any inkling, for instance, of the imperial legacy of the trees that populate our parks and line our streets. Unfortunately, it would take a different kind of book to tell us what we ought to think about all this – Trees, Woods and Forests isn’t interested in making political or ethical arguments, at least not explicitly. Indeed, Watkins occasionally appears to be working so assiduously to avoid polemic as to dull the distinctive contours of his own voice. In place of that voice are extensive – and only obliquely attributed – quotations, sometimes issuing from multiple sources and assembled within a single sentence. In structure and in tone, Trees, Woods and Forests more closely resembles a collection of disparate essays than a sustained narrative. At times, one wishes its author would forthrightly state his own verdict.

It’s obvious, nonetheless, that Watkins is deeply frustrated by the chasm separating twenty-first century westerners from treeful knowledge, language, and spirituality. He is especially incisive regarding certain strains in contemporary conservation discourse, such as “rewilding,” which might mistake the unchecked afforestation of Ligurian farmland for some kind of boon. People and trees have coexisted successfully when they have relied on, and made demands of, each other – there’s no guarantee that letting woods go to seed would produce a happier state of affairs. This is worth pondering, because the role of trees never stops changing: in Europe, demand for printed paper has been steadily falling, which helps explain why many forests are reverting to pre-nineteenth-century states, thanks to the removal of conifers and the reintroduction of grazing.

At the same time, some companies (particularly those with interests in lumber) forecast a turn away from fossil-fuel based materials, like plastics, and toward wood, or the components thereof – cellulose nanocrystals for packaging, the polymer lignin for glue. And devastating tree diseases, such as ash dieback, which has obliterated 90% of Denmark’s ash trees and is expected to do the same in the UK – that’ll amount to 20% of the latter’s entire arboreal population – are provoking complicated and uncomfortable questions about the role of genetically modified trees in preserving populations, or engineering hardier ones. Today, as one thousand years ago, trees are in society – with one another, with us, and with the rest of the globe – and their lives are historical lives. We’d do well to reacquaint ourselves with them.

Killian Quigley has recently finished a PhD in the Department of English at Vanderbilt University. More of his work is available at the Sydney Environment Institute website, as well as from forthcoming issues of Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation and Eighteenth-Century Life. For the 2014-15 academic year, he taught English literature and language at the Sorbonne Nouvelle, in Paris. He currently lives in Kinsale, on Ireland’s south coast, with a one-eyed cat, and a disease-free elm.

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