Shaving the great forests until the world is bald

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YOU CAN grow sick of Christmas trees. All over upland Britain, the blue- green sitka spruces of the Forestry Commission stand in ranks. They seem unnatural, monotonous. In all their millions, they do not add up to how a real forest should feel.

In the forest, a human being is only a guest. And like all guests, he can outstay his welcome. The forest looks after itself but has little left over to nourish a visitor who will soon grow hungry, disoriented and frightened. Perhaps this sense of being unwanted - merely tolerated - inspires the great slaughter of the trees that is changing the planet in the late 20th century. It is a sort of revenge.

The London papers recently carried a controversy about forestry in Scotland. Up and down the columns trudged that ancient cliche about the Highlands as 'Britain's last natural wilderness', to be ruined by the planting of trees.

But those bare slopes and glens are in fact a man-made landscape. This 'natural wilderness' is as much an industrial wasteland as the site of an abandoned open-cast mine. Once shaggy with forest - Scots pine mixed with deciduous oak, birch and alder - the hills were only denuded in the last few centuries. They were stripped for fuel by early ironmasters, felled to build wooden fleets or burnt by soldiers destroying the cover of rebels and outlaws. Their regeneration was finally halted when sheep replaced human inhabitants during the Clearances.

Forestry has acquired a bad image in Britain. It evokes either those imported sitka millions or tax-dodgers. But there are better foresters, like the tiny group called 'Reforesting Scotland'. Alan Watson is trying to restore Scots pine forest to a huge region 1,500km (1,000 miles) square, between Glen Affric and the West Coast. Another little team - Bernard and Emma Planterose - is slowly restoring the coastal ecology in Sutherland and Wester Ross with a rich mixture of local trees, bushes and shrubs. Watson, a radical tree-man, does not want even 'sustainable' felling in his New Wood of Caledon. He dreams of 'reintroducing the extirpated wildlife, such as bears and wolves'.

But Alan, Bernard and Emma now belong to something bigger: the Taiga Rescue Network. Set up this year, the Network unites people from 18 countries in a campaign to save the boreal forests of the world: in Scandinavia, Canada, Alaska and above all the Siberian taiga. Until now, the worst damage done to the taiga was by meteorites. Now the North Koreans are clearing the permafrost forests in the Khabarovsk and Amur regions of far-east Siberia; Hyundai, the South Korean company, is after the conifer-broadleaf forests where the last Siberian tigers live, and the chainsaw is howling into the gigantic virgin woods of central Siberia around the Angara valley.

The human species started on open plains, one of many scavengers following the herds of Africa. Those who choose to live in the woods have always seemed fearsome: witches, giants, bandits. People went into the trees to commit strange or evil deeds. Hercules entered the Hylaean forest along the Dnieper to make love to a goddess with a woman's body and a double fish tail, who became the mother of the Scythians. The wicked Queen ordered Snow White to be taken into the forest to be murdered. Men feel a surge of sexuality when the trees enclose them. Because nobody can see? Not only that. The forest is the abode of the 'other', of all that we believe we should not be.

My own forest was the tropical rain- forest of Malaysia, where I did my National Service. Jungle then covered four-fifths of the whole peninsula. To travel four miles, a patrol had to spend a day chopping its way up and down steep ridges. Here dwelt an 'enemy', whom I actually saw for a total of about two-and-a-half minutes during a year of seeking. I loved the place. I liked its indifference, as I squatted down and listened to its soft, tangled roar of sound: creatures susurrating, tick- tocking, whining, ringing like telephone bells, burbling, booming, jingling, whistling.

Another human being could pass six feet away from me and I would not have seen or heard him. But I would have smelt him. In that moist dimness, the scent of human sweat or tobacco- smoke or faeces was as sharp as a light going on.

I seldom saw an animal bigger than a leech or an ant, but I felt in company. At dawn, when the mist began to flow down the valleys into the plain, unseen gibbons raised long, liquid whoops which echoed among the mountains. It seemed to me, being very young, that forbidden things were waiting for me up there, many days into the forest. Sometimes I thought it was a shameless woman, marvellous with her carbine and her black Chinese pyjamas. Sometimes I felt it might be some Old Man of the Mountains who would empty my head of its confused, hesitant loyalties and fill it with his own. Entering the forest, I knew that I was leaving the confines of the law. The jungle was dangerous, trackless, foodless but not meaningless, because it meant all that was not thinkable out in the sunlight. In there, the mirror might show me an unknown face.

In Pontic Greek folk stories, men and women suffering under an injustice may flee or be driven to the forest. There they fall in with wild men or wild animals. Some rescuing miracle ensues, and then they return to their village from the forest to celebrate a happy ending. The circle of the 'normal' is suddenly ruptured, and the victim must flee into the forest world of 'otherness' - into the experience of homelessness, disorientation ('lost in the forest'), the withdrawal of society's protection against harm and wrong. Only in the 'other' place can saints and saviours display their miraculous power without competition.

So it is clear why the world's forests are suddenly - in a few decades, after so many millions of years - being removed. Greed swings the axe, profit oils the chainsaw. But fear, which is never absent from the worst excesses of greed, is present, too. The forest is unreasonable. The forest is disrespectful. Its trees are taller than prime ministers or commanders-in-chief, and the people who live in it are also unreasonable and disrespectful. The forest is our 'other', the polar opposite of our new religion of orderly economic growth and total access. Do we hear story-tellers and shamans muttering that without an 'other' we do not exist either? Silence] Bring on the saws]

They have just reburied Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet. He once described the conquistador Ercilla, entangled in the forest, his armour rusting as the rain sifted through the leaves:

Todo vuelve al silencio coronado de plumas

En donde un rey remoto devora enredaderas.

(All returns to the silence crowned with feathers

Where a distant king devours creepers.)

Neruda understood how a forest makes human beings cringe under the sense of their own futility. It is a sense - a reverence - which we all used to live with, but which has now been declared inappropriate.

So let them shave Siberia and the Amazon, let them 'clear-cut' Kalimantan and Malaysia and Finland, let the sun blaze down where once there was the twilight of the Ituri or the Bialowieza forests. Then the world will be bald. And then, in a hundred years' time, more idiots will describe its baldness as 'a natural wilderness'.