Tolkien and trees

Yesterday I caught the Tolkien biopic which is right at the end of its release in cinemas. Without giving away any spoilers, it’s set against the latter part of his childhood, time at university, and service in the trenches of the First World War. The main themes are his relationships with his similarly-gifted school friends (the other three boys of the “TCBS” club) and his difficult pursuit of the love of his life, Edith, but there are secondary themes of his fascination with language and hints at the importance he attached to trees. It reminded me of how he influenced some of my own early treeish thoughts.

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Woodscraft?

A reader asked me about the “woodscraft” category that some posts on the Centurywood.uk blog have. Using modern computers to communicate forces us into a world of hashtags, keywords, and categories, so that things can be sorted and found. But it turns out that this word and related terms have a surprisingly long history.

First, I should say what I mean by “woodscraft”. The About Page says it’s “living out in the woods, managing them, and making use of their produce”. The craft of woods if you like. And that’s small woodlands rather big forestry as well.

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Lake Isle of Innisfree

I don’t know about you, but poetry at school was a hit and miss business. Looking back, it feels as if a lot of verse was thrown in my general direction, some of which has stuck and some of which just bounced off – even when committed to memory overnight to placate a teacher. W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” is one that stuck, and a couple of years ago I realised its connection to hutting and to Walden in particular. The poem is short enough to quote in full here:

Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Until I came back to the poem a couple of years ago, I remembered the island but not the cabin. Perhaps as a boy I imagined escaping from the pavements of my own city to the island, but as a man I think ahead to shelter and the cabin. Yeats thought even further, to food, with his nine bean rows and bee hive. Rereading it I then saw the connection to Thoreau’s account of two years living in a hut by a lake, in “Walden”. Thoreau grew his own food, and sold the surplus to pay for other necessities. He talked at length about cultivating rows of beans in particular:

Before I finished my house, wishing to earn ten or twelve dollars by some honest and agreeable method, in order to meet my unusual expenses, I planted about two acres and a half of light and sandy soil near it chiefly with beans, but also a small part with potatoes, corn, peas, and turnips.

Which is more prosaic and more extensive than Yeats’ nine rows of beans, but represents the voice of experience!

Some digging of my own turned up passages in Yeats’ autobiography which spelt out his childhood connection between Walden and the island, starting with a conversation with his father:

When I said to him, echoing some book I had read, that one never knew a countryside till one knew it at night he was pleased (though nothing would have kept him from his bed a moment beyond the hour); for he loved natural things and had learnt two cries of the lapwing, one that drew them to where he stood and one that made them fly away. And he approved, and arranged my meals conveniently, when I told him I was going to walk round Lough Gill and sleep in a wood. I did not tell him all my object, for I was nursing a new ambition. My father had read to me some passage out of Walden, and I planned to live some day in a cottage on a little island called Innisfree, and Innisfree was opposite Slish Wood where I meant to sleep. (Part I, xvii, p.43)

Years later walking on the grey pavements of London in 1888, he remembered the island and composed the poem:

I had still the ambition, formed in Sligo in my teens, of living in imitation of Thoreau on Innisfree, a little island in Lough Gill, and when walking through Fleet Street very homesick I heard a little tinkle of water and saw a fountain in a shop-window which balanced a little ball upon its jet, and began to remember lake water. From the sudden remembrance came my poem Innisfree, my first lyric with anything in its rhythm of my own music. (Part II.I, xv, p.94)

One of the impulses of hutting is not just to go to more natural places, but to go back to them. Repeatedly. To maintain a connection to them, even when walking the grey pavements of cities. To carry part of them inside you, “in the deep heart’s core”.