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The Forest – E. Rutherford

September 11, 2016

tfI enjoyed his other books so I was pleased to find this one.

I read this at an appropriate time –  the 800th anniversary of the Charter of the Forest 1217. Magna Carta, two years earlier, provided the foundation of the common man’s right to justice. The Forest Charter was more relevant to the mass of the population. William I had declared large areas of wood­land and heathland as royal forests where the monarch had the exclusive right to hunt deer and had imposed a harsh code of forest laws.

The charter reined in the forests and removed capital punishment or the loss of a limb for stealing the king’s venison. The commoners’ rights to graze cattle between Michaelmas and Martinmas, and to put pigs into the forest to eat acorns and beechmast, were codified, along with the right to take wood for their own use. The charter ceased to have effect in 1971, although the verderers are elected by commoners and continue to oversee the management of the New Forest, Forest of Dean and Epping Forest.

The New Forest really is a unique bit of England. Many people would see it as a wilderness, a large stretch of natural forest, bog and heath and Grassland. Nothing of course, could be further from the truth. The land has been managed in a variety of ways, resulting in the landscape we see today. As one fictional ecologist in the final section of the novel points out, the Forest is a dynamic ecosystem where man has played an important part in creating and maintaining certain balances and occasionally upsetting them. What Rutherfurd also shows in the text is that it is constantly under pressure in various ways. Population growth tourism and economic pressures being the greatest threats in modern times.

tf-2Although the New Forest was set up as a hunting reserve for the crown, the local population retained a lot of rights for other uses of the forest. They could let their cows and ponies graze at certain times of year, use the underbrush for firewood, turn out their pigs to feed on beechnut and acorn in fall and  to cut peat for fuel to name a few. Many of these rights were linked to cottages or landholdings and have been in effect ever since the founding of the New Forest, although they weren’t recorded until the 17th century. Some of them are still in effect, although the system in under threat. These rights gives one an impression of the numerous ways in with the environment was used but that was not nearly all of it.

The New Forest housed large populations of various deer species. In medieval times these were important to keep the royal court fed and punishments for poaching were very harsh indeed. The deer had a large impact on the forest, eating large quantities of saplings and the lower branches of trees. Later on timber became more important. As the English fleet expanded, the forest’s oaks turned into a valuable asset. Selective felling of trees and the appearance of enclosures to grow trees for use as timber again shaped and changed to landscape. When you think about it, this piece of England was far more intensely used than many people realize.

tf-3 With their local customs little changed since medieval times, the Forest people – represented in the story by the Albions, the Tottons, the Prides, Puckles and Furzeys – have roots that go back to time immemorial.

It begins with a deer being hunted and you can almost feel the deer’s fear.

Down the centuries, a Pride woman has a love child with a monk at the great local abbey of Beaulieu, the Forest folk prepare to meet the Spanish Armada, and tragedy strikes in the turbulent seventeenth century in a famous miscarriage of justice at evil Judge Jeffreys’ Bloody Assizes. The feuds, loyalties, and passions of tf-4centuries climax in a scandal that shatters the decorous society of Bath in the days of Jane Austen, whose family lived beside the Forest. While the mighty Forest oaks are used to build ships for Nelson’s navy, to protect England’s shores against Napoleon, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries see another great battle, this time in Parliament, to protect the Forest’s unique environmental heritage.

And through this echoing tale, the hidden side of the Forest emerges: the secrets of the huge smuggling business, the mysteries of local witchcraft, and the inner life of trees and animals. There is even a dragon.

Quotations:

“Slowly the silent bird turned its head. It could do so, if it chose, through more than three hundred and sixty degrees.”
“Forest?”

Fungus — pale, loathsome, connected with mildew and rot, and poison, and death. And yet it is not. Is it a plant? Of a kind, although it is seldom green like the plants that sustain themselves, for the fungus contains no chlorophyll. Its cell walls, strangely, are made not of cellulose but of chitin, which also forms the walls of an insect’s body. It lives upon other organisms, like a parasite. The ancients, uncertain how to classify the fungus, said that it belonged to chaos.

And in the Forest the fungi are everywhere. Mostly they exist as strings of fungal matter, almost like bootlaces, called hyphae. Under the tree bark, under the rotting leaves, under the ground, they spread into a tangled web known as mycelium. And it is this hidden mass of mycelium that converts the rotted leaf mould, returning the nutrients ­nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus — to the soil to nourish the forest’s future life.

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