Friday, September 28, 2012

The forest for the trees

Aeon Magazine has an article currently online by Hugh Thomson called "The Sherwood Syndrome" that got me thinking a lot about forests. Thomson points out that contrary to popular belief, England has not had a significant degree of forest since the Bronze Age. He quotes from Oliver Rackham's book The History of the Countryside: "Even in supposedly backward counties such as Essex, villa abutted on villa for mile after mile, and most of the gaps were filled by small towns and the lands of British farmsteads." This is, of course, contrary to the idea that the "true" England -- represented by figures like Robin Hood or the Green Man -- resides in the forest. It's a fascinating article, and it immediately got me thinking about some possible implications Thomson doesn't explore: for instance, was the idea of their own country as having been virgin forest until relatively recently a factor in why the English believed, contrary to all evidence, that North America was fundamentally empty? (Compare English to French settlement patterns, for example, or the fact that even today the sophistication of states like the Iroquois Confederacy -- which significantly influenced the development of the U.S. Constitution -- is absent from the popular imagination.) Is it part of why we here in Canada, one of the most urban countries in the world, still think of ourselves as being engaged in a struggle with a vast wilderness? That's not even to mention its effect on fantasy literature, both in the UK and North America, which is something I'm going to have to take awhile to think about.

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