To enter a wood is to pass into a different world in which we ourselves are transformed. It is no accident that in the comedies of Shakespeare, people go into the greenwood to grow, learn and change. It is where you travel to find yourself, often, paradoxically, by getting lost. Merlin sends the future King Arthur as a boy into the greenwood to fend for himself in The Sword and the Stone. There, he falls asleep and dreams himself, like a chameleon, into the lives of the animals and trees.
"In As You Like It, the banished Duke Senior goes to live in the Forest of Arden like Robin Hood, and in A Midsummer Night's Dream the magical metamorphosis of the lovers takes place in a wood 'outside Athens' that is quite obviously an English wood, full of the faeries and Robin Goodfellows of our folklore.
"Pinned on my study wall is a still from Truffaut's L'Enfant Sauvage. It shows Victor, the feral boy, clambering through the tangle of branches of the dense deciduous woods of the Aveyron. The film remains one of my touchstones for thinking about our relations with the natural world: a reminder that we are not so far away as we would like to think from our cousins the gibbons, who swing like angels through the forest canopy, at such headlong speed that they almost fly like the tropical birds they envy and emulate in the music of their marriage-songs at dawn in the tree-tops....
"The Chinese count wood as the fifth element, and Jung considers trees an archetype. Nothing can compete with these larger-than-life organisms for signalling the changes in the natural world. They are our barometers of the weather and of the changing seasons. We tell the time of year by them. Trees have the capacity to rise to the heavens and connect us to the sky, to endure, to renew, to bear fruit, and to burn and warm us through the winter. I know of nothing quite as elemental as the log fire glowing in my hearth, nothing that excites the imagination and the passions quite as much as its flames. To Keats, the gentle cracklings of the fire were whisperings of the household gods 'that keep / A gentle reminder o'er fraternal souls.'
"Most of the world still cooks on wood fires, and the vast majority of the world's wood is used as firewood. In so far as 'Western' people have forgotten how to lay a wood fire, or its fossil equivalent in coal, they have lost touch with nature. Aldous Huxley wrote of D.H. Lawrence that 'He could cook, he could sew, he could darn a stocking and milk a cow, he was an efficient woodcutter and a good hand at embroidery, fires always burned when he had laid them and a floor after he had scrubbed it was thoroughly clean.' As it burns, wood releases the energies of the earth, water and sunshine that grew it. Each species expresses its character in its distinctive habits of combustion. Willow burns as it grows, very fast, spitting like a firecracker. Oak glows reliably, hard and long. A wood fire in the hearth is a little household sun.
"When Auden wrote, 'A culture is no better than its woods,' he knew that, having carelessly lost more of their woods than any other country in Europe, the British take a correspondingly greater interest in what trees and woods they still have left. Woods, like water, have been suppressed by motorways and the modern world, and have come to look like the subconscious of the landscape. They have become the guardians of our dreams of greenwood liberty, of our wildwood, feral, childhood selves, of Richmal Crompton's Just William and his outlaws. They hold the merriness of Merry England, of yew longbows, of Robin Hood and his outlaw band. But they are also repositories of the ancient stories, of Icelandic myths of Ygdrasil the Tree of Life, Robert Graves's 'The Battle of the Trees' and the myths of Sir James Frazer's Golden Bough. The enemies of the woods are always enemies of culture and humanity.