Wednesday, September 11, 2013


Like Baboons Let Loose in a Garden

H.J. Massingham (1888-1952), "Tongues in Trees", The Faith of a Fieldsman (London: Museum Press, 1951), pp. 250-252:
I wonder to what extent the country at large is aware of what is happening down in Somerset. Centralization has proceded so far and rapaciously in our time that local affairs rouse little or no interest outside their own boundaries, even (which is rare) when they are known. At any rate, a real hullabaloo is taking place in Somerset, and for this reason. Pursuing its customary methods, the Forestry Commission turned up on the Quantocks and, exactly like a foreign invading army, set about felling the hanging woodlands, so exceptionally fine in oak, which drape the flanks of this little range between Bridgewater and Exmoor. It must be one of the smallest in England. But it makes up for its diminutiveness by a wild prolificacy and fertility that stamps it, together with its delicate contours and bold headlands, as one of the most individual and interesting ranges among the hill-lands of western Europe. The Quantocks also, of course, were the scene of the earliest partnership between Wordsworth and Coleridge, of Dorothy Wordsworth's earliest Journals and it was from their association and the inspiration of the Quantock glens and tops and woodlands that the Lyrical Ballads of 1798 was begotten.

You can imagine with what derision this cultural reminder would be greeted by such a body as the Forest Commission, if indeed it has ever heard of Wordsworth and Coleridge. However, the issue has gone far beyond that of trying to defend places of historical or aesthetic memory in our land from the grasp of the barbarian despoiler. The people of Somerset themselves are up in arms. I have beside me a petition of the Whortleberry Pickers, who, "accustomed to pick and sell whortleberries as a regular part of our livelihood, protest against the attack on their hills, which "cannot fail to bring serious harm, and possibly ruin, to the 'worts' industry". I have another petition from the residents of Holford and District, who protest against the destruction of Hodders Combe. "This will destroy the whortleberries, prevent grazing, and the present wild animals, birds and flowers will vanish. Camping, rambling and walking will go." I think of Hodders Combe as I knew it only two years ago, its deer, its pied flycatchers, its sun-drenched glades, its senatorial oaks and beeches, their branches full of bright wings and voices. I have by me yet another petition with a list of signatories which includes the Bishop of Bath and Wells. To crown all, the Somerset County Council has submitted to the Ministry a Tree Preservation Order and through its efforts the devastation has been halted for a couple of months. But 2,000 acres have already been sacrificed to the conifer. The eroded wilderness will step into the place of the wild garden, like Macbeth into the royal seat of Duncan.

One of the most astonishing features of England's war against her own country is the reason given for waging it. Shortage of timber! When Nero butchered his mother and set Rome on fire, he was presumably acting on behalf of the Mothers' Union and the Preservation of Ancient Buildings. If a visitor to the Quantocks, ignorant of their fate, should suddenly come upon what he expected to be a woodland walk and actually was a hillside strewn with trunks like a battlefield, bulldozers tearing up the green paths and new roads in the making, what would be his reaction to the information that it was all because of the shortage of timber? I imagine that he would not "stay upon the order of his going but go at once". There is a passage in Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra—"when we in our viciousness grow hard, the wise gods seal our eyes". Yes, we commit these atrocities against our own country, we lay waste our heritage, we act like baboons let loose in a garden, because understanding has left us. We act like beasts of prey, because the godlike reason has deserted us.
Hat tip: Eric Thomson.


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