This is definitely a book to take your time over. I received my copy at the book launch in Bristol this March, and have been dipping in and out ever since – to me this seems like the ideal way to enjoy Sara Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairytales.
The book is divided into 12 chapters, each dedicated to a particular forest and Sara’s experiences of it during a particular month, beginning with Airyolland Wood, “a tiny triangle of ancient oak wood” in March.
Sara partners each month and forest to her own retelling of, mostly, well-known fairytales, and packs the pages full of information on the forests and fairytales – discussing their sociological impact and the threats that have challenged the survival of both.
Ideally this is a book to be read at a pace of one chapter per month, but once you begin reading I suspect you’ll be unable to resist racing onwards, enticed by Sara’s facts, theories and tales.
Sara argues compellingly that forests and fairytales are deeply intertwined – citing countless examples of how fairytales must be as firmly rooted in forests as the trees themselves. More controversially perhaps, she believes that forests are equally invested in the fairytales, that they have a somewhat symbiotic relationship: “The fairy stories teach us how to see the forests, and how to love them too. They are spooky but special in our imaginations.”
Each of the woods she researches for the book (and what a lovely task that must have been) has its own specific character – the one that enticed me most is the gorgeously named Staverton Thicks in eastern Suffolk, which Sara visits in August, “which is the right month to go, because it is the month of childhood.” This is a place of lichen, ferns and fungi, numerous butterfly species, and oak trees that have been pollarded, a management technique that apparently has a side effect of making them so easy to climb that Sara’s 20-year-old niece was unable to resist. It sounds like a magical place.
Sara’s reimagined fairytales are plump treats laid out after each journey through a forest – and again I have a favourite, this one being Sara’s version of Hansel and Gretal, written many years after the children burn the witch in her own oven, once they have grown old themselves. It’s a thought-provoking and deeply pleasing tale.
Sara’s delight in each of the woods she explores is evident (even when she expresses her fright experienced while walking alone in The Purgatory Wood and discovering she is not actually alone after all), as is her interest in their histories.
Reading this book you will learn about the influences that have shaped the woods we know today, as well as the myths that have sprung up about what they once were. You’ll also discover an awful lot about wildlife and trees. With Sara’s lyrical narrative carrying you forwards, I suspect that if you read it before bedtime you’ll fall asleep with your head full of shifting leaves.