I have only just realised that the endpapers for the Little Grey Rabbit books look just like the house where I lived when I was a little girl. Alison Uttley’s stories, truth be told, always felt a bit wordy and dull, but the lovely illustrations by Margaret Tempest fired the infant imagination (I still have to turn two pages when we come to the bleakly sinister Weasel’s House). Those silver birches remind us that the world is quite magical enough as it is, thank you, without wands and whizzing. Let us contemplate trees for a moment: they are amazing.
Our old friends Piglet and Owl remind us that trees are for living in; and they provide sticks, too, which make jolly good shelters, as Eeyore can testify. Twelfth Night’s Viola knew that too, of course, and when she set out how she thought a lover should pursue his beloved, she took the practical precaution of including a willow cabin at the gates. Any fool can be uncomfortable, after all, and a lover with the sense to shelter from the rain has to be a more attractive proposition. Henry Thoreau settled in the woods at Walden for two years, two months and two days (did no-one tell him that three and seven are meant to be magic numbers? Where on earth did two come from?) and built himself a cabin there. Yeats thought about it, but the nearest he came to building Walden at Innisfree was in his imagination.
But we don’t have to cut trees down. To start to get a sense of them, some identification might come in handy. There are Ladybird, Observer and quite probably I-Spy books about trees, and any amount of the sort of slightly earnest guide that expects you to know about sepals. A disconcerting number of these call themselves ‘complete’ or ‘comprehensive’, which I’m afraid rather makes me long to scour the continents for the one little sapling that they overlooked. No, better by far to settle down and enjoy Thomas Pakenham’s Meeting with Remarkable Trees. An absolutely gorgeous writer from a family who seem not to be able not to write well, Pakenham’s encomium is a definite must-have for our tree shelf.
And – oh hurray! – we can have Edward Thomas’s ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ as well, with its crystal-clear picture of the fallen elm uncleared because the men have left the land and fallen themselves, in the mud of France. And put with that Thomas’s friend (if that is not too unequivocal a word for that most self-contained of men) Robert Frost. ‘Birches’, we must have, and (especially at this time of year) ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, which is contender for poem-to-learn-by-heart-if-you’re-only-going-to-learn-one (although how could you bear to only carry one poem around with you?).
Woods – even the Wild Wood in The Wind in the Willows – are quite different from forests. To our forebears, woods were managed spaces where they could make a living. They had paths, and edges, and clearings. But forests: ah, now they really are wild. Dante’s selva oscura is the dark forest where he finds himself, in the middle of his life, with no path to follow. Who needs Freud when we have Dante? Or we can follow (if we dare) Edmund Spenser’s lady and the Redcrosse Knight into the forest to find – well, what do you know? – not only an absence of paths, so that they feel lost, but a cave with a terrible beast lurking in it. And the lady gets the Knight to go into the cave. Yup. You see, you’re going to love The Faerie Queene. Whenever young women venture into forests, they have a tendency to bump into danger. Remember Little Red Riding Hood? Take it from me: that wolf was no lupine. He probably wore Tom Ford.
But come away from all these thrills and perils (and yes, we must have Angela Carter’s ‘The Company of Wolves’ on our shelf too). Let us find some comfort under Susan Hill’s Magic Apple Tree, which sounds twee but isn’t, being instead a record of passing seasons and life in the countryside. We can put it with Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure: not exclusively about trees, but Mabey can always be relied upon to bring us back to a sense of our connection to the earth and to nature. And next to him, we shall have Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne.
Trees are the great survivors. They have been here more or less for ever, they cling grimly on no matter what fresh imbecility we come up with to foul up their world, they find themselves – possibly not intentionally – giving us homes, and heat, and food: and awe, which is good for us. Oh, and they give us paper too. And without paper, dearest reader, even in this internet age, we would be lost indeed.