Wednesday, June 27, 2007

In the greenwood

When, twenty-five years ago, we bought our plot on a hillside in the West of Ireland the land was "rough grazing." Not much to protect our cottage from the wind. In 1990, we planted 200 very young trees -- willows, hazelnuts, rowans, alders, larches, sycamores, and birches. Some lived. Some died. All struggled against the stunting wind. It was as if we had rediscovered the art of bonsai.

Today we have a nicely buffered garden, and one copse of willows and alders that is starting to looks like a suitable grove for druidic rites.

Ireland was once heavily wooded, but population pressures in recent centuries, especially, have denuded the landscape. Today, Ireland is one of the least wooded countries in Europe. Only around the estates of former landlords are there extensive stands of stately trees. Ash must be imported from Scandinavia for making hurleys!

The relative absence of trees makes for grand vistas and excellent hillwalking, but something has gone missing from the soul of the landscape, something that only a grove of brooding trees can provide. As Sir James Fraser told us in The Golden Bough, northern Europeans came from the forests, imbibed their myths and deities from trees. Trees figure strongly in early Irish law, and many characters in the earliest Irish alphabet -- ogham -- took their names from trees. Every species of tree is a repository of a wealth of lore.

Tolkien knew what he was up to when he made men and trees allies in the battle against the dark forces. Saruman's orcs start felling trees for furnaces, and end up felling trees for fun. "The enemies of woods are always the enemies of culture and humanity," says British writer Roger Deakin in a just published book, Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees. Trees are "the subconscious of the landscape," he writes.

We are billions of years away from our common ancestor with trees. Plants and animals share the planet, trading physical resources. They photosynthesize, we respire. One can't live without the other. But there is a psychological aspect to our relationship, too, and nowhere more so than with trees. Perhaps no plant can be said to have more "personality," more "character," than an ancient hardwood. It takes only a modicum of invention to turn an imposing gnarled oak into an Ent.

This year, for the first time, we are able to walk into the sun-dappled shadows of our own wee forest -- just about big enough for a teddy-bears' picnic. And just for a moment, I feel something primal there, free, feral and green, a harkening back to a time when the unsubdued wildwood was the womb and cradle of human imagination.