Monthly Archives: October 2012

Back to the trees

MYTHIC WOODS by Jonathan Roberts, published in 2004

Bookcase 8, shelf 2, book 17

I do love trees. I spent a large part of my teenage years up in an old tree, reading. Now I’ve got quite a few in the garden (er, 20 at the last count, though they’re not all huge), and more than a few books about them on the shelves. Some are field guides, some focus on a particular tree, some are tours of specific trees – but this is the only one which focuses on woods. Well, on a perhaps surprising interpretation of ‘woods’.

OK, I admit it, I’m a sucker for books on trees. Some of the books I’ve bought on impulse and the strength of  a few positive words on Amazon have made their way to the charity shop fairly quickly, and for a moment this one nearly joined them. I’m not quite sure why, but it found its way back onto the shelves, where it remained unexamined until I rolled the dice and got it. Now I have read it and looked at it properly, I’m very glad that I changed my mind. This dice-rolling thing is having all sorts of unexpected benefits…

One reason why I nearly got rid of Mythic Woods was because of the fact that it is illustrated with what are, essentially, library shots. I’d hoped for a unified vision, and rather snottily decided that this wasn’t it. I was wrong. Yes, the photographs do come from a variety of photographers, but the photo editing is excellent, and there isn’t really a sour note.

I do think, though, that the title is misleading as well as being a little ‘away with the fairies’ with the ‘mythic’ tag. If it was full of legendary woods, woods like Sherwood, perhaps, redolent with stories and tales, then I wouldn’t have much of  a problem with it as an echo of the book within. But this book isn’t like that at all; it’s much more down to earth than the title implies. It’s also about forests than woods, and that’s forests in the old sense of the term – where a forest can be a bleak area of upland with a few trees dotting the hills, as in the Atlas Mountains,

or an ancient petrified / fossilized forest in Arizona, or a wilderness of kelp off the California coast. Oh, I know I’m quibbling, but I am an editor and that’s my job. Time to ignore my inner nit-picker and just enjoy the book, because it is eminently enjoyable. Here’s the kelp:

More conventionally, the book moves across the whole world in a way that some books of this type just do not. It includes, for instance, Canada’s Great Bear Forest (boy, would I like to see that some day) and the Kauri forests of New Zealand (ditto). I suspect that this is one of the reasons for the mix of photographic sources: it would have been extremely expensive as well as time-consuming – hang on, the Inner Editor is out again. Go away.

But of course it’s not just about the photographs. The text is good, even if the font size is suspiciously large (a sure sign of trying to spin text out – go away, Inner Ed, I said). There’s a strong environmental message. This wasn’t, however, what Jonathan Roberts originally intended. He is quite open about it: saying that the green agenda wasn’t what he wanted to focus on at the start. However, as work progressed, that attitude became impossible to sustain. The sound of the chainsaw rang through many of the woods he visited, and there were clear signs of destruction caused by logging (napalm has even been used to clear the ground after the removal of trees, so that’s not surprising). As he says:

‘Trees can barely keep up with axes. With chainsaws they do no stand a chance. A thousand years a-growing destroyed by fifteen minutes with a chainsaw.’

There’s also a focus on those who have fought or are fighting for the forests, people like Lyautey with his aim of re-foresting the Atlas Mountains in Morocco just after the First World War. His civil servants had protested that old-growth forest, such as that which had once covered the Atlas, would take thousands of years to establish. Re-establish. Apparently he responded with ‘That, gentelmen, is why we will start immediately’. Quite. Go out and plant trees – though I, perhaps, should stop. At least in my own garden.

But I really, really warmed to this book when I found a quote from an old, completely inspirational archaeology book, one that turned me on to the whole idea of European archaeology in the late 70s, and provoked my deep and abiding obsession with the Mesolithic.

It’s probably too small or faint to see, certainly on a mobile device, so here goes:

“‘If one could have flown,’ wrote J G Clark in 1952, ‘over northern Europe during Mesolithic times [c 5000 BCE] it is doubtful whether more than an occasional wisp of smoke from some camp fire, or maybe a small cluster of huts or shelters by a river bank or old lake bed would have advertised the presence of man: in all essentials the forest would have stretched unbroken, save only by mountain, swamp and water, the the margins of the sea…'”

Hmm. Maybe ‘mythic’ isn’t that bad a word. The forest here, by the way, is the wonderful Black Wood of Rannoch. Now that one I do know.