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Roger Smith reviews a new book celebrating trees and their relationship with humanity and the environment

Our lives have been inextricably connected to trees and woods since the dawn of civilisation. Trees have provided material for houses, furniture, fuel, ships and much else. Trees are celebrated in prose and poem and millions of us enjoy a regular woodland walk.

Woods are places of sanctuary and inspiration, but in our febrile imagination, can also generate darker feelings. Think of all the stories connected to woods and forests which end badly – from Hansel and Gretel right up to the Blair Witch Project.

All of this is explored in depth in Peter Fiennes’ new book. He looks at every aspect of our relationship with trees, and is particularly concerned with the plight of those vulnerable fragments classed as Ancient Woodland which he feels should get much more protection than they currently do.

His own feelings are often laid bare – he is found hugging an ancient oak and imagining it ‘speaking’ to him, but also at one point rushes out of a wood, convinced he is being followed. I expect we all recognise that feeling!

Peter Fiennes shares my view of politicians – our current bunch are rightly condemned as ‘part of a continuum of ecologically destructive governments’ and he notes almost with despair the pathetic efforts to check the spread of ash dieback. Climate change deniers get similarly short shrift: ‘a bunch of over-indulged charlatans with a childish resentment of being told what to do’. The vital role of trees in balancing the planet’s ecosystem is firmly underlined.

This is a joy of a book and a delight to read. My one disappointment was that Peter barely mentions the Gaelic tree alphabet – trees are a vital part of Gaelic culture and this strand could have been greater explored. The book ends with a heartfelt plea for action to dramatically increase our tree cover and save our remaining Ancient Woodlands, regardless of the cost.

Read this book. It may lead you to re-evaluate your own feelings about trees. Perhaps the tide is turning. On the day I wrote this review, a planned housing scheme near Dunblane in Scotland which would have destroyed the ancient and wonderfully named Wanderwrang Wood was turned down. One small victory for the trees.

Roger Smith

Oak and Ash and Thorn by Peter Fiennes is published by Oneworld Publications (£16.99).

This review was first printed in The Great Outdoors, October 2017.