The Weeds and the Wilderness

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left,
Oh let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

Gerald Manley Hopkins from Inversnaid (1881)

Trees have an been an integral part of our existence since the beginning of human history. To our ancestors they held a special sacred status due to their vital role in everyday life and the emotions they stirred. They are rooted in our language, culture, literature, art and industry. In 1217 the Charter of the Forest was signed by Henry III to protect the rights of free men in England to access and use the Royal Forests which had been set aside as the King’s hunting grounds. Eight hundred years later, in 2017, the Charter for Trees, Woods and People was launched a policy that sets out how people and trees should be able to benefit each other.

Neither the building of the Royal Navy and merchant fleets, nor the smelting of iron in the early years of the Industrial Revolution, had much affect on the area of woodland in Britain. In the last fifty years, however, we have embarked on a new woodland clearance, comparable in extent to that of our Celtic ancestors. Since the 1930s almost half of ancient broadleaved woodland in England and Wales has been planted with conifers or cleared for agriculture. Housing schemes, quarries, golf courses and holiday lodges all continue to chip away at the little ancient woodland that remains. Whilst Government-backed infrastructure projects, such as HS2, are also taking their toll. Only 2% of Britain is now covered in ancient woodland; less coverage than most other European countries.

Many Britons no longer have any daily connection with its woods. Mostly we go about our lives sealed from the wild. At the same time, these landscapes touch upon themes such as conservation, ownership, history, magic and myth, climate change, childhood fears and our current obsession with what is ‘native’ or ‘alien’. They also say something about Britishness (or Englishness) and belonging.