The Wilderness: Robert Macfarlane

The British author marvels at the wonder of the humble tree, and picks apart Socrates’s view of the countryside

Forest image / Credit Corbis
Photography credit: Corbis

“A culture”, wrote W H Auden in 1953, “is no better than its woods”. Sixty years on, as ash dieback and forest sell-offs menace the trees of Europe, his warning feels premonitory. What Auden knew is that thought, like memory, inhabits external things as much as the inner regions of the human mind. When the physical correspondents of thought disappear, so thought, or its possibility, is also lost. When woods and trees are destroyed – incidentally, deliberately – imagination and memory go with them.

Single trees are extraordinary; trees in number more extraordinary still. To walk in a wood is to find fault with Socrates’s declaration that ‘trees and open country cannot teach me anything, whereas men in town do’. Time is kept and curated in different ways by trees, and so it is experienced in different ways when one is among them. The discretion of trees, and their patience, are both affecting. It is beyond the capacity of the human intellect to comprehend that the American hardwood forest waited seventy million years for people to come and live in it, though the effort of comprehension is itself worthwhile. It is valuable and disturbing to know that grand oak trees can take three hundred years to grow, three hundred years to live, and three hundred years to die. Such knowledge, seriously considered, changes the grain of the mind.

Woods and forests have been essential to human culture for millennia. It is for this reason that when woods are felled or diseased, it is not only unique species and habitats that disappear, but also unique memories and unique types of thought. Woods, like other wild places, can kindle new ways of being or thinking in people, can urge their imagination differently.

Robert is a British travel writer