Our climb back into the trees: David Nicholson-Lord looks at the emotions behind an urge to replant our woodland

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THE URBAN forest, circa 1994, is not much to look at. A strip of newly planted trees a few yards wide lurks in the shadow of a motorway flyover. Overhead the juggernauts queue up on the M6, rows of black boxes against a pale, acidic sky. You almost have to shout to make yourself heard.

Pleck Park in Walsall is no oasis of urban greenery. There is a grubby little playground, an expanse of yellowing sward, an air of better days gone by. The M6, on concrete legs, straddles one boundary, blighting the land below. But the Black Country Forestry Unit - motto 'A woodland at the end of the street' - is inordinately proud of it. Pleck Park, it believes, is the shape of things to come.

It used to be said that there were 'no votes in trees'. Times are changing. The latest milestone in the reforesting of Britain was announced this month by John Gummer, the Environment Secretary, in the shape of a quango to run the national forest - the 200 square miles between Birmingham, Derby and Leicester which the Government and the Countryside Commission want to turn into a latter- day New Forest. The new body starts work next April.

Mr Gummer called the national forest an 'ambitious and imaginative environmental project' with overwhelming public support, and for once his rhetoric was justified. In the late Eighties, when five sites were being examined, surveys found that 95 per cent of people were enthusiastic about the idea. A pledge to create the forest made it into the 1992 Conservative election manifesto. The commission called it, with justification, a 'concept whose time has come'.

The key word is 'concept'. The area was chosen four years ago, yet of the 194 square miles designated, only 274 hectares - a fraction of the target - has been planted. The aim of 50 per cent tree cover has been reduced to about a third. Farmers have proved obdurate and conservationists have grown increasingly restive, both at the snail's pace of planting and the fact that public grants for planting may be paid to private landowners without guaranteeing public access.

Yet if there is more concept than reality to the national forest, it is a powerful concept. In less than a decade it has given us a dozen community forests based on the fringes of big cities and supported by the Countryside and Forestry Commissions. It has also given us more overtly urban projects - the Black Country unit, likely soon to take on a national remit, and voluntary initiatives such as the Forests of London and Cardiff.

Officially, urban forestry arrived in Britain in 1986 with the setting up of a Department of the Environment working party. In fact, it has been practised increasingly since the late Sixties, both in urban reclamation schemes such as the Lower Swansea Valley and Stoke-on-Trent and in new towns such as Warrington, Milton Keynes and Redditch.

Coincidentally, and almost without anyone noticing, we have become a nation of tree-planters. Almost two- thirds of our existing woodland cover has been planted since the Fifties. Tree cover nationally has risen from 5 to 10 per cent this century - still low by European standards and with most of the increase, admittedly, in the shape of conifers. But broad-leaved trees - the original ingredient of the forest that clothed almost all Britain after the withdrawal of the ice-sheets 10,000 years ago - are catching on. Last year we planted a record number of them: on private land, for the first time in living memory, they outstripped conifer planting.

The wildwood, in other words, is closing in on the cities - and by design rather than default. But aren't settlements and wilderness mutually exclusive? Shouldn't a city be the opposite of a forest?

There are excellent reasons for planting trees in cities, and since the mid-Eighties we have discovered more of them. We have long known that they are good for timber production, job creation, import substitution. As the holiday business Center Parc has shown, they have enormous potential for recreation - not merely because folk like wandering in the woods, but because a forest, unlike a mountain, can absorb a lot of people and still provide a sense of peace and quiet. Trees lock away carbon - they thus lessen the effect of global warming. They also 'air-condition' cities - filtering pollutants, moderating climatic extremes, cooling and moistening the harsh desert canyons that are the closest natural equivalent of the urban landscape.

Ask an arboriculturalist why we should plant trees and these are the sort of things he will say. Press him a little further, and he will probably begin to shuffle and cough. He may tell you, for example, that foresters, as a breed, are unusually nice people - which he attributes to trees. At some point he may venture gingerly into the realm of the spirit. He may talk of trees in literature and tradition - not merely the ancient wildwood of fairy- tales, a thing both frightening and fascinating - remember The Wind in the Willows - but the sacred groves of the Celts, the tree-symbolism of Frazer's The Golden Bough. He may tell you that trees gave us the central motif of Christianity - the cross - as well as the interior structure of our most beautiful churches and cathedrals.

Trees, in short, are very emotional things. Why else do people hug them, plant them to mark a burial, climb them to save them from the bulldozer, remember them decades afterwards as childhood dens? When the troops from the Department of Transport finally chopped down a 250-year-old chestnut tree to make way for the M11 link road in north London, 400 people wrote - to the tree - in support and protest.

The fact that the ancient wildwood is creeping back towards our cities tells us that we have become a society of nature-worshippers. It says a lot about our growing disenchantment with the places we have built: we are rediscovering ourselves as mammals who have gained a new habitat - the indoor world of the office block - but want our old one back.

The forest is one of our most potent symbols of wilderness - our history, in one sense, is the 10,000-year story of its loss. Writing 20 years ago of the corrosion over the past century or two of our affection for civilised life, the environmental psychologist YF Tuan diagnosed one underlying theme, a reversal of all that had gone before. Wilderness, he said, was now sacred and settlements profane. In Pleck Park, Walsall, you begin to see how this might be true.

The author's book, 'The Greening of the Cities', is published by Routledge at pounds 12.99.

(Photograph omitted)