Saturday, 19 April 2014

The Great Wood: book review

The Great Wood
Jim Crumley

The Great Wood by Jim Crumley
Birlinn, 2011, ISBN 978-1-84158-973-2

Reading this book has been a bit like walking into a wood in the middle of a conversation. I felt as if I was picking up part way through old arguments and discussions and enjoying the patterns of words and images while never quite catching up. Or “catching up” isn’t quite right, more that that earlier conversation had established parameters that were now taken for granted while I was still not quite convinced

This is a lovely book. Crumley’s writing carries a rich sense of place. There is a strong feel of the woods he describes as he visits relics of ancient woodland and ambitious replanting schemes across the Highlands of Scotland. The writing is so tied to place that eventually I read most of this with a map-book beside me to get those orientations that he holds so intensely in his words.

The last of the oakwoods
There  is a tendency towards melodrama that does grow wearing. He seems determined to see the “last” of things and new planting schemes are never going to replace what has been lost. We visit a lot of “lasts” and “last of the oak woods” is a feel running through everything.That may be true but while he will use the long centuries of tree growth in the Highlands to sadden his writing, for me the tides of coming and going woodland provides more hope than he seems to offer. He does, however, refreshingly embrace new species arguing that 500 years of residence should really allow larch and Sitka spruce to count as almost local now. He argues that the issues around species like these isn’t so much the trees themselves as how we work with them. Spruce do not naturally grow in intensive monocultures: we should be blamed for those not the trees!

Then there is the Fortingall Yew and a very evocative opening chapter with descriptions of this ancient tree ( several thousand years for certain and quite possibly several more) “incarcerated” behind a Victorian railing (to keep trophy hunters form snipping bits off) and a cheerfully bitter snipe at the arrogance of a National Grid sponsored plaque attached to those same railings. But to parallel the yew with a snow leopard miserable in a cage for me misses point. What are several hundred of railings to a tree who has lived for those thousands of years? The railings do not bite the bark, are not rubbing the wood sore. The railings are about humans and access and an inadvertent ease from trampling feet compacting the earth (go and look at the Major Oak for a tree sighing with relief now that its roots aren’t quite so oppressed by wellington boots). Surely a tree like a yew would take railings in its stride? Sprouting under, or leaning over, growing past them one way or another. It is the Fortingall yew. It is several thousand years old. Given half a chance it will go on simply being itself, regardless of us, for a few years more.

Wolves, beavers and bears
There is a similar sense within all the beauty of Crumley’s writing of the woods serving his own arguments. Admittedly, any writer does that but wolves and their absence seem to surface crop up every chapter (echoes of an earlier book) to the extent of feeling “read this before, get on with the longer tale”. My copy is paperback published in 2011 and it would be interesting to see a more recent edition reflecting on current discussions about re-wilding and the importance of large herbivores (and for northern woods the associated wolves and lynx). Or discussion about the impact of the now clearer much largely than ever anticipated colonies of feral beavers in tayside - or a detour down to Forest of Dean to see the impact of a returning wild boar tribe.

Whose myth is it anyway?

“The Great Wood” of the title is the “Great Wood of Caledon”: the almost legendary wildwood that stretched from sea to sea across Scotland, frowning at Romans and sheltering lupine, cervine, ursine and human tribes in equal measure (I like the way that different animals are tribes as much as humans throughout the book) . The Great Wood circles back to dispelling this prevalent myth repeatedly - and interestingly - what trees grew and where and when. The myth of the Great Wood is taken for granted. It is assumed that the wider population of these Islands firmly believes that we were once blanketed with trees from shore to shore. I am not convinced of that. I think the environmentalist/conservationist/nature writing worlds all thin that that is what everyone else thinks. But I’m not so sure. I wonder if the myth of the Great Wood is our (see tribe above and add in some nostalgic Golden Age pagans and occasional Druids) myth and not everyone else’s.

I tried talking to folk in the pub “what did Britain look like before the Romans” - no mention of the Wildwood, just feed the line out and see what comes back...And we had pretty much what it looks like now, yes, with more trees, “but they couldn’t have grown here. Soil’s too thin”*. Probably a bit more Ice Age (the animated films not a nice documentary) than anything else. But no wildwood, no blanket cover of ancient woodland with grandfather oaks and grandmother ash. Maybe we - professional environmental types and artists and mythographers and storytellers need to look more closely at the myths we take for granted.

Rambles aside. I enjoyed this book. Vivid, passionate and provoking - in a way that has kept me reading it rather than throwing it across the room (which happens with some other woodland books)


* I live in the Peak District: bleak, beautiful hills; limestone dales, gritstone moors

(Photos: are all mine and not trying to reflect content of Crumley's book, more my responses to it. )


  1. Love your point about the non-shared nature of some of our 'urban' myths. I am very aware of living in a bubble of artists, musicians, storytellers and the like and on the one hand I wonder if it matters that we don't share the same modern mythologies and on the other hand I'm worried that it really matters. How can we have any cohesive sense of 'tribe' if we don't?

  2. Thanks for yr comment, Suzi

    I agree about wondering if the myths we share/don't share really matter...I think that what jars for me is when we don't let our myths evolve as we learn more and that feels disrespectful to the tribes we tell those myths about (the woods) - and the assumption that everyone else believes a myth that "we" environmentalists have discarded (ie the Great Wood) helping us scramble up to some sort of moral/emotional/learning high ground, when that assumption itself may well be unfounded.

    And overall that jumble of ideas above has something about anyone taking other people's understanding and stories ("right" or "wrong" for granted)

    We need to listen in order to learn: to the trees and their woods and to each other....ramble over