On the bus into work this morning I read the following in Robert Macfarlane’s ‘The Wild Places.’
“Woods and forests have been essential to the imagination of these islands, and of countries throughout the world, for centuries. It is for this reason that when woods are felled, when they are suppressed by tarmac and concrete and asphalt, it is not only unique species and habitats that disappear, but also unique memories, unique forms of thought. Woods, like other wild places, can kindle new ways of being or cognition in people, can urge their minds differently.”
Woods have always been places of intense interest to me, particularly as a boy when I would love to imagine England as being covered in ancient woodland. My interest in history wasnt so much an interest in the characters and machinations of past times, but a means of accessing the landscape of those times – a way into the woods.
I would create maps of imagined places, all of which would be home to vast swathes of untouched and unspoiled forests. And while those maps were ‘of places’, they were much more a means into a place, a path into and through my imagination.
In the same book ‘The Wild Places,’ Macfarlane briefly discusses the poet, composer and songwriter Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) who like the poet Edward Thomas, loved to explore the countryside of his native county – Gloucestershire. In 1915, Gurney enlisted to fight in the Great War, and in the battlefields of the Ypres Salient, discovered what Macfarlane describes as an ‘anti-landscape,’ a place in which the only evidence of forests ‘were upright bare dead trunks, stripped of leaves, branches and bark by shrapnel and gunfire.’ As Macfarlane writes: ‘On the military maps of the area that Gurney used, some of the old names of the landscape remained. But many of the new names spoke of the avoidance of death, or of its arrival. Shrapnel Corner, Crump Farm, Hellfire Corner, Halfway House, Dead Dog Farm, Battle Wood, Sanctuary Wood. The woods were no longer there, however; these were ghost names only. The trees had been felled for revetting, or blasted from the earth by shells.’
As someone with an interest in maps and in trench maps, the above passage interested me, particularly as I’ve often thought about how the landscape of the First World war, replete with all its new names and new features, had been superimposed, or rather gouged out of the landsape, only to smoothed over with the passage of time. Its was a sudden landscape. A few scars, smoothed over with grass – or hidden by trees – are all that’s left, but the wounds are still weeping in its names – not so much those of soldiers inscribed on the thousands of headstones, but rather the names of places – Arras, The Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele.
|Trench Map (1915)
In many places the woods have returned, and while the landscape today bears little resemblance to that of the war – in which ‘the rich and complicated pasts of the trees that Gurney cherished’ had been so utterly effaced, it is nonetheless within those woods that one’s imagination picks up the voices of the past – of the fallen; voices which spoke in the midst of battle, of places and people cherished back home.
After returning from the war, Ivor Gurney, like so many others suffered a breakdown (he’d suffered his first in 1913) and a passage in Macfarlane’s book, which describes the visits to Gurney – within the Dartford asylum – by Helen Thomas, the widow of Edward Thomas is particularly moving. Helen took with her one of her husband’s Ordnance survey maps of Gloucestershire:
‘She recalled afterwards that Gurney, on being shown the map, took it at once from her, and spread it out on his bed, in his hot little white-tiled room in the asylum, with the sunlight falling in patterns upon the floor. Then the two of them kneeled together by the bed and traced out, with their fingers, walks that they and Edward had taken in the past.’
The map they laid on the bed was one that showed the familiar trails and paths of the countryside. But it was also one which, like that I made in my childhood, gave Gurney access to his imagination – to his own past. Together, the patient and his visitor read it with their fingers, following the trails as one follows words on a page. A narrative of sorts was revealed, memories stitched together by the threads of roads, paths and trails.