“Before the Norman tyranny, it was supposed, Britain had been mantled with the greenwood, a habitat where lord and peasant, thane and churl co-existed in prefeudal reciprocity – the one exercising his hunting rights with moderation, the other allowed the freedom of the woods to pasture his swine and collect the wood for his wattle and hearth… Greenwood was not… darkling forest where one lost oneself at the entrance to hell. It was something like the exact opposite: the place where one found oneself…”
Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory
In contrast to the dark, Germanic “wald”, the greenwood of England has always been, in the native imagination (and largely in fact too), a far more welcoming locus. More Beatrix Potter than Grimm’s (and grim…) Fairy Tales. Both managed and manageable, a place of birds and bunnies, not wolves and bears. Of course it once was the latter… but long ago, unlike it’s German equivalent. Once upon a time both Germany and England were densely forested; two millenia ago, for example, Germany was 90% woodland (now around 20%) and England was originally much the same. But the wholesale deforestation of England occurred much earlier and, too, creatures like wolves and bears have long been totally eradicated.
So much for the actual facts, however. What is more to the point, as I have alluded to before, is how such forested areas as have survived are viewed in the respective national imaginations. English Romanticism, which flowered earlier than the German, was also always of a different order. More “romanticised” than “Romantic” (with a capital ‘R’). Less sturm and drang, more elegy. The English have always preferred to imagine some lost “Golden Age”, albeit largely mythical. The greenwood is a homely place whereas the Germanic idea of wald is always tinged with it’s opposite; the “unheimlich” (uncanny) and inextricably linked with the supernatural, the other-worldly “Sublime”.
Today’s perhaps lighter and airier images express the still sometimes dense but altogether more welcoming nature of the greenwood, I decided to use a “polyptych” format necessitating the use of a more extreme “letter-box” aspect ratio. I more or less appropriated the notion from my friend and sometime collaborateur, Anna Lee Keefer, as you can see here. I don’t suppose she will mind. Though I, of course, didn’t check in advance…
To accurately reflect my own notions about the “Englishness” of the greenwood I have selected for today’s post the piece “Elegy” for String Orchestra by Sir Edward Elgar which you can hear below. Obviously an old recording, it was conducted by the composer himself. Tinged with sadness, nevertheless it is an elegiac sadness rather than a heartbreaking one…
Elegy, Sir Edward Elgar