Coming up, a week in Dorset with Oliver Rackham, the great historian of English woods and the landscape. I expect to walk a lot, and look at lots of trees, of course - my staff refer to it as my "tree-hugging" holiday - but there should also be lots of wonderful reading to think of, if not to do! I've identified five things to read, but there may be more - my readers are rich in suggestions. And here are some favourite tree poems from one of my earliest posts.
Of course, I shall take some Rackham books, probably his most recent book, Woodlands, though of course he has written many others, including The Last Forest (about Hatfield) and The History of the Countryside. He writes clearly and well, and is a great destroyer of what I shall term rural myths, such as the proposition that the oak woods of England were chopped down to build the Navy. I look forward to having my ignorance exposed!
We will be deep in the heart of Hardy country, so I will take The Woodlanders. It's a long time since I read Hardy, and I'm nervous, because I found it very frustrating. I felt, no doubt with adolescent impatience - and my adolescence last many years beyond the normal span, may not be over yet - that his prose was cloying and his plots creakily sentimental. But I couldn't put him down, he was quite compulsive. So I shall be intrigued to re-explore him; and apart from the appropriateness of the locale, I understand I will learn more about brorches and liggers.
Richard Mabey, a national journalist on landscapes and ecology, is always worth reading, though sometimes too keen on a slightly mystical or spiritual element for me. But I shall, on the recommendation of more than one of you, take his Beechcombing with me. Beech is a hugely important wood of modern British woodlands, though it didn't used to be so widespread. I'm sure I shall enjoy his history and his understanding, and the many pictures of beeches he has culled from art galleries and antique books.
Recently, I read Roger Deakin's Wildwood, and I shall probably take that with me as well, just to remind myself of some European and wider experience, today and yesterday. It was an excellent book, and will be a pleasant browse again.
Of course, the ultimate description of a wild wood is in Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows:
It was a cold still afternoon with a hard steely sky overhead, when he slipped out of the warm parlour into the open air. The country lay bare and entirely leafless around him, and he thought that he had never seen so far and so intimately into the insides of things as on that winter day when Nature was deep in her annual slumber and seemed to have kicked the clothes off. Copses, dells, quarries and all hidden places, which had been mysterious mines for exploration in leafy summer, now exposed themselves and their secrets pathetically, and seemed to ask him to overlook their shabby poverty for a while, till they could riot in rich masquerade as before, and trick and entice him with the old deceptions. It was pitiful in a way, and yet cheering - even exhilarating. He was glad that he liked the country undecorated, hard, and stripped of its finery. He had got down to the bare bones of it, and they were fine and strong and simple. He did not want the warm clover and the play of seeding grasses; the screens of quickset, the billowy drapery of beech and elm seemed best away; and with great cheerfulness of spirit he pushed on towards the Wild Wood, which lay before him low and threatening, like a black reef in some still southern sea.