‘Gossip from the Forest’ by Sara Maitland

Granta, 2013, 368 pp

ISBN: 978-1847084309

Reviewed by Joan Angus
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In this beautifully written book, Sara Maitland sets out on a series of walks through ancient forest and woodland in Britain seeking the symbiosis between forests and fairy stories. She expresses a deep concern that the future of these two sources of healthy life experience is endangered. The fairy stories we are all familiar with were born in the European forests and are the mycorrhiza to the forest. Each feeds the other. Both are part of our ancient history and their future is threatened by our modern way of life.

She divides her book into chapters; a forest for every month, and tells her own version of a familiar fairy story at the end of each chapter. Her descriptions of these wild and sometimes frightening places are a delight to read. We walk with her, experiencing the different atmospheres associated with different tree species, their age and the effect humanity has had on them throughout history. We look up into the leaves and hear the birdsong. We kick up the autumn leaves with her, and hear the rustling they make. We see the bluebells and smell their ‘sweet scent’. She describes how forests covered the land long before humans came and started to manage and exploit them for their own benefit, and how those forests are now at risk.

In the Northern Hemisphere humans used the forests as a resource, for pannage, timber and iron, and they killed the forest animals for food. The stories they told were of the people who lived there; the woodcutters, miners, farmers and itinerant workers. The land was owned by masters, sometimes Royalty, and those in authority were depicted as the antagonists. The heroes were the commoners who came from backgrounds of poverty and persecution and were sent on tortuous expeditions to perform impossible tasks. They won respect because they were the ones who overcame evil through courage, honesty and diligence. Fairy stories and forests are training grounds for resilience.

Before the invention of electric light, the stories were told orally on dark evenings as entertainment. The teller would change the story depending on what was happening at the time, or emphasising aspects he wanted to convey. The stories were passed on by word of mouth for generations. In the 18th century the brothers Grimm put them in writing for the first time, and adapted them according to the moral standards of the day.

Forests, too, have been eroded over the years. Human greed has changed them into a resource which is unsustainable. Fairy stories have become sterile versions of their former selves through rewriting and dramatization. Sara says, “In consequence of both child raising and educational approaches, I seriously fear that we are failing to nourish the beautiful and precious quality of resilience in our children.”

However, she does find pockets of hope. The Forestry Commission is aiming for more sustainability in the management of their woodland and forest. Local Authorities are restoring what is left of the woodland around the towns as recreational areas for the local communities. All through the book Sara has drawn on the writings of woodland historian Oliver Rackham, who recently commented on a “true shift of consciousness.” She adds, perhaps that will prove true of fairy stories too.

We must change the way we teach children about ecology. We are telling them that we are the baddies who are endangering fragile Nature, which is depicted as being in distant countries. We need to tell them how we are rooted in forests which we can all play in. …woodland likes human beings and it rewards people who go into it and get to know it. This is what the fairy stories tell us and it happens to be true.

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