Is the oak a better tree than the ash? If trees are blown down in a gale, should they be replanted, or left to regenerate? Is a tree stump an inherently ugly object? Postmodern literary theory is not often applied to the English countryside, but on questions such as these, Richard Mabey has just done it. The latest book from the doyen of our nature writers employs a key critical concept of recent decades to explore how we really see the natural word – with fascinating results.
Beechcombings is subtitled "the narratives of trees", but beware. "Narratives" here does not mean anecdotes or the sort of arcane and absorbing information you might expect from the author of Flora Britannica. You will find plenty of that, and captivating it is, but if you want to understand fully what Mabey is saying you will have to work harder. He is using "narrative" in the postmodern sense: a version of events widely taken as real but only a human construct, whose ultimate relation to reality may be questionable. It is an increasingly influential concept, because narratives have great power, not least in politics: a prime concern of the early Blair project was "the construction of the narrative".
In a terrific combination of both natural and intellectual history, informed by penetrating insight, Mabey illustrates how we have done the same for trees, constructing images and mental models over the centuries "to make them accessible, useful, comprehensible and obedient". Such constructs include "the ideal forms created by artists, the explanatory dogma of forest scientists [and] the fashionable plans of landscape designers."
The point is that none may really be true. Why does it matter? Because Mabey sees it as tyranny. He has been a radical ever since his student days. While his Sixties comrades went on to become teachers, social workers and leftist politicians, Mabey became a brilliant botanist. But he remained a radical at heart and has a loathing of any sort of empire over, or exploitation of, anyone; and by extension, a hatred of excessive domination by humans over the natural world.
So he shows us the blind alleys our tree narratives have led us into, focusing for concision on the beech, the tree of his childhood in the great beechwoods of the Chilterns, and not shirking from detailing his own mistakes when he owned a Chiltern woodland. Then he brings us to his astonishingly bold conclusion: the Great Storm of October 1987. Even though this was technically the greatest natural disaster to hit Northern Europe for 300 years, the winds blowing down 15 million trees in England alone, one of Mabey's two remarkable contentions about it is that it was not really a disaster at all. It was a natural event, which trees have been used to for millions of years, and it provided as much opportunity for regrowth as damage.
His second contention is that the widespread response to the storm was inappropriate: clearing the fallen trees and planting new saplings was often ineffective, and the most successful regeneration occurred when woods were allowed to recover by themselves, with the fallen timber lying in situ. That was very much the exception rather than the rule. But "the idea... that all woods must be managed is as arrogant and outrageous as suggesting that all wild animals should be in zoos." The trees can do it. They know best. We're just stuck with these mental models of ours and, most of the time, they're wrong.
Michael McCarthy is environment editor of 'The Independent'Reuse content