Forests are Strange Things. The Hobbits Enter the Old Forest.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 107-09

Anyone who has anything to do with forests for any length of time soon comes to know that they have an identity that is very much their own. In his introduction to the wonderful book, The Hidden Lives of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben, the Australian palaeontologist, Tim Flannery, writes of Wohlleben, “His deep understanding of the lives of trees, reached through decades of careful observation and study, reveals a world so astonishing that if you read his book, I believe that forests will become magical places for you, too.”

The magic of the forest (A painting by Alan Lee)

And the essence of this “magic” is the ability of trees to communicate with each other so that they can give aid to one another against any potential threats. They even continue to feed the stumps of trees that have long fallen or been cut down knowing that these stumps still have their part to play in nurturing the future of the forest. I recently came across the stump of a tree that had been cut down and through a neat round hole in its centre a healthy young sapling was climbing vigorously upwards towards the sky.

I have been walking my dog in woodland near my home in north Worcestershire, in our own Crickhollow, close by the farm where Tolkien’s aunt and grandfather lived and where he often stayed as a child, I discovered, to my pleasure, that I can have the woods to myself because most people are nervous about entering them. You really don’t know what you will find within them. So most people stick to the paths that run alongside the woods. A bit like Fredegar Bolger really.

I find that the best time of the day to walk in them is the early morning. I have the particular pleasure of greeting the sunrise in the spring and autumn. In the summer the woods are already fully awake. In the winter I enter their mysterious darkness. I have got to know the paths and so I feel confident in making my way through them, even when I cannot see more than a yard or so ahead of me.

The Forest by Night

At least that is how I like to reassure myself as I step off the wide pathway and into silent darkness of the wood. Except the wood never stays the same. The weight of a snowfall in winter or a hig storm will almost certainly bring down tree branches, sometimes hefty boughs or even whole trees. One path that used to take me down to a secret place at the joining of two streams is now completely blocked by the fall of an ancient hollow oak. There is a gap beneath it that my dog can pass through but I have to clamber over it. It is worth the effort but I still remember my dismay when I first encountered this obstruction.

There have been many obstructions in the years in which I have come to know the woods. Some have required the making of new paths. First, the trampling down of the undergrowth. There are far too many nettles in the late spring and summer in this modern nutrient saturated environment. You might think that the surfeit of nitrates would be a good thing but wild flowers prefer a plainer diet and, sadly, nettles thrive on them. So the first stage in the making of a path is always a discomforting affair as I get my legs covered in stings that go through my trousers. The second stage is the removal of branches that lie across my way. And then the third is to walk the path again and again and again until the earth beneath my feet is gradually forced together and, for a time at least, the life beneath is not able to make its way through to the world above.

A Forest Path by Grrroch

So yes, the Old Forest is a strange affair, but only because it is not like “the woods and fields and little rivers” of the Shire or my own county of Worcestershire where everything takes time to happen. In the Old Forest the speech of the trees and the endless changes that take place in every wood all happen much more quickly. And the Forest has little love for hobbits. Frodo and Sam and Merry and Pippin really will have to be rescued before the day is out.