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.

An Agent of Saruman or a friend to Treebeard

Treebeard has learnt sympathy during the long years of his sojourn in Middle-earth. On learning from Gandalf that Saruman has refused to leave Orthanc he says:

“So Saruman would not leave?… I did not think he would. His heart is as rotten as a black Huorn’s. Still, if I were overcome and all my trees destroyed, I would not come while I had one dark hole left to hide in.”

“No,” said Gandalf. “But you have not plotted to cover all the world with your trees and choke all other living things.”

For Saruman had indeed dreamed and plotted to cover the world and to rule over it. Many have commented that it was the creeping spread of industrial Birmingham in the English Midlands into the Worcestershire countryside where Tolkien grew up that inspired much of the story of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien grew up in the village of Hall Green. I know this now as a suburb of Birmingham that lies well within the modern city boundary a few miles to the north of my own home. I can well see how he would have seen this encroachment as an invasion.

My own home lies still within the Worcestershire countryside. As I write this on a frosty February morning I can detect the first signs of approaching Spring about me. Soon I will see swans, ducks, moorhens and coots marking out their territories in the waters around my home and soon after I will see them raising their young once more. I have made the acquaintance of an angler who sits patiently by the waters through the warmer months of the year. I say acquaintance for like most anglers he is a marsh wiggle by nature and keeps himself to himself but he is ready to share his wisdom as long as I don’t disturb him from more important matters. The best time to talk is at the end of the day when he is about to make his way home. He has taught me where the kingfishers will make their nest and, for me, most exciting of all, where he has seen an otter and her cub, something not seen near here for many a year. And he knows the difference between the native otter and the pernicious foreign mink so I believe in his sighting. One day…one day… I hope to see an otter near my home myself.

I think that Tolkien would have loved the country near my home. Indeed he probably knew it himself. And yet if I walk towards the small town near where I live it is not long before I reach a major highway that cuts through the heart of the county. I have written before about my early morning walks through woodland with my dog in the autumn and winter darkness. What I have not mentioned is the noise of traffic from the highway. The dark of the woodland is real thanks both to the trees themselves and to a high embankment that lies between them and the road but so too is the noise.

I have developed a form of prayer for my daily walks with my dog and more and more I feel that the place in which I pray is a part and a vital part of the prayer. It is not some simplistic expression of “all that is green and living is good and all that is asphalt is bad”. I am too much implicated by own participation in the modern world to be able to do that without being justly called a hypocrite. But it is right that my prayer should happen at this point of tension in the woodland by the highway in which I do not know how much I am an agent of Saruman or a friend to Treebeard. Last year a group of folk planted the land between the woodland and the highway with hundreds of young saplings. That was a fine deed. Perhaps by supporting it I can offer something to Treebeard and to the Worcestershire man who created that character and in whose Shire I still live.