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IoS book review: Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairytales, By Sarah Maitland

How fairy tales grew in the woods

Given the recent furore over the deadly fungus that threatens to destroy our beloved ash trees and the Government's decision to subsidise those companies burning wood instead of coal in power stations, Sara Maitland's homage to Britain's woodland is particularly topical.

The symbiosis between forests and fairy tales is what first piqued Maitland's interest. European fairy tales, she argues, evolved from "the mysterious secrets and silences, gifts and perils of the forest", and they teach us how to love and appreciate our ancient woodlands and their rich biodiversity. She believes that this deep connection is threatened through our neglect of both.

Over the course of a year, Maitland journeyed through 12 different woods. She began in March, early spring, a time of rejuvenation and ended in February, a month she refers to as "the bottom of the year, the dead time". At the end of each chapter she recalls and re-imagines her favourite tales from the Brothers Grimm's 19th-century collection, observing how their nuances also subtly change over time.

Maitland celebrates the flowering of bluebells and sweet woodruff in spring, the vivid greens of summer and the eerie shades of winter foliage when "the mossy, ferny ground appeared brighter than the overhead cover of needles, so the light seemed to rise up from under our feet rather than pour down from the sky". She encounters various characters, seemingly as timeless as those found in Grimm tales, from foresters and hunters to the Free Miners of the Forest of Dean and a fungi expert. She also examines "the unease" she feels in the wilder woods, relating it to the "uncanny" nature of tales involving wolves, robbers and malevolent witches.

Children, she laments, are increasingly disconnected from their woodland landscape. They are discouraged from playing outdoors or roaming the countryside unaccompanied. Similarly, the tradition of storytelling is being eroded by modern technology.

Although eloquent on the origin and influence of fairy tales, it is Maitland's meditations on nature and the human responses to our changing landscape that are most memorable. As well as describing how the smell and colour of woodland varies, season by season, Maitland recalls the texture of "beech mast, wet grass, fallen leaf mould, bare wood" between the toes when she walks barefoot through Epping Forest with fellow nature writer Robert Macfarlane. (This is either brave or foolhardy, considering she had encountered an adder the previous month.)

Whatever the season, Maitland finds beauty: even when "winter has scoured the land; it looks naked and clean". As an antidote to those long, gloomy nights ahead, Gossip from the Forest is the perfect Christmas present. Despite the cold, I'll be reaching for my walking boots to explore those woods I've not visited before.

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