Matt Collins on H. E. Bates, Through the Woods 1 - Slightly Foxed 62

Small Is Beautiful

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Among the books I’d assembled to help steer me through the boundless subject of trees and woodlands for a recent commission, H. E. Bates’s Through the Woods – a month-by-month account of a small copse in Kent – looked unassuming. Recommended via some unnerving algorithm of online commerce, it sat for many weeks among the accumulating pile beneath my desk.

When at last I glanced through it, however, one passage brought it suddenly alive:

Fear begins to come more quickly in a wood, with darkness and twilight, than in any other place I know. I have been in a wood gathering violets or orchis or primroses in the late evening, when the sudden realization of twilight coming down has sent a sudden damnable running of cold up my spine, and I have half run out of the place. That feeling is common.

When I later spent a long winter’s night in the notoriously ‘haunted’ Wayland Wood in Norfolk, Bates tramped with me, not only helping me interpret the experience but also contributing to it an element of purposeful enquiry. ‘A wood at night can be a strange place,’ he writes. ‘Why is it? It is not simply darkness. We grow used to darkness. It can only be some quality in trees themselves.’

In writing my own book, I was greatly helped by the observations of other writers. Some, like John Stewart Collis on his Dorset ash wood, and Roger Deakin on his global excursions from Suffolk, could always be relied on. Others kept me company on particular woodland jaunts: Jim Crumley in a Caledonian pine forest, Francis Parkman through strange tree farms on the North American prairie, Gertrude Jekyll, a little unexpectedly, on a wooded mountainside in Switzerland. But it was Bates’s Through the Woods that became my constant companion.

His lyrical yet down-to-earth reflections upon the life of a little wood – a chestnut copse just outside the village of Little Chart Forstal

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About the contributor

Matt Collins is Head Gardener at the Garden Museum in London and a writer on landscape and gardens. His new book, Forest: Walking among Trees, traces an intercontinental pathway between trees and their wilder wooded contexts.

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