It's complicated - when is a forest not a forest?
Sometimes you get an idea in your head and you're pretty sure it's a good one. I'm currently putting together some poems for a collection on the natural world and climate change with my good friend and fellow poet John Pownall, which partly involves resurrecting older poems but has also prompted me to write new ones. This does seem to me a fairly secure idea as ideas go. Whether or not anyone else reads the poems or buys the thing doesn't really matter (honest, guv) as the process of writing, of collaborating, and of sequencing the poems so they shine light on each other is a worthy end in itself. But occasionally in the process, the really good idea emerges. This is the spark that sets you writing. It may be a line from John's work, or a line in someone else's book. More often than not it's an image and/or a moment in time, however dramatic or dull. In this case, the latter applies.
I had been walking through some local woods on a private estate but one with an established right of way, and came across two woodcutters attacking some huge, leaning trunks of trees. To me, as their saws hummed and smoked, I equated their actions with the feudal control the private owner of the land exercised over it, dotting the right-of-way with 'Keep Out' signs. And then I remembered something I'd heard about the South Downs once having been smothered by closed-canopy forest - the sort of dense, dark woods writers and conservationists construct as evidence of a sort of Eden before humankind's interference. The two things - the image of the woodcutters on the walk, and the recollection of this 'fact' of the Seven Sisters cloaked with trees urged themselves into a poem, likening our impact on the landscape to the tidying up and snipping of a severe editor on an unruly manuscript. Not terribly original, perhaps, but fitting for our nascent collection.
How 'Wilding' opened my eyes
But then I read Isabella Tree's 'Wilding' about the re-wilding of Knepp Farm in Sussex. In it, she explains in convincing detail, citing evidence from a number of practitioners, that this ideal of pre-settlement England is largely false and has been sustained by a number of ecological impulses which have taken root (forgive the pun) in the environmental movement. Put simply, planting trees is good.
In fact, her - and others' argument - is that 'scrub' - a sort of unconfined in-between landscape, neither forest nor meadow, was a dominant and fruitful environment in which species thrived, allowing browsing animals and diverse plant-life and insects to survive, control and self-manage the landscape well before our hands picked up axes and tossed seeds into furrows.
Why does this matter to me beyond the interest I have in the environmental implications for managing the landscape now? Well, as a writer you are only as good as your last bit of reading, your last titbit picked up in conversation or plundered from a book. Most poets and novelists are generalists - yes, we may specialise if a particular genre is our bag, or if veracity demands it, but imagination beware! I had pictured for my poem the dense covering of forest replacing the flattened managed pastures of the downs, conflating it with goodness, with an Arcadian ideal long since gone. But that vision may have been as man-made as the one that followed it. Closed-canopy forests can be as damaging to diversity as enormous ploughed fields or hill-sides turned to pasture for sheep or cattle.
Can you see the woods for the trees?
But then poetry enters the equation. Does 'scrub' resonate like 'forest'? It has an Anglo-Saxon earthiness to it that the Latinate 'forest' avoids for something more lyrical. Could I - would I - have even considered the poem without the sexy connotations of 'forest'? All those myths and legends, that brooding ancient world, that Cure song. Maybe life didn't begin in the Great Rift Valley but a wood in East Sussex?
But Isabella Tree also talks about the derivation of 'forest' too - that the idea of it denoting a wooded landscape is in fact a relatively recent one. When it was introduced into English, it denoted wild land set aside for hunting - with no specific link to having trees on the land. What, in fact, might that land have been? Scrub perhaps? Oh dear.
So, as a writer it's back to the drawing board, or to a rethinking of what I was trying to say. Where I transformed our woodcutters into serfs of a private landlord enclosing an estate, perhaps now I should make them heroes of the modern age, coppicing the forest (if that's what it was) to create a mixed landscape in which wildlife can thrive.
The poem - like the slippery idea of 'scrub' or 'forest' - defies completion and definition for the moment. It is an ever-changing landscape which this editor has failed to control.