Tuesday 7 May 2024

"Nature, the Environment and Sustainability" Competition: Winning Entries 1

Over the next five days, we're delighted to be publishing the winning entries from the short story competition, "Nature, the Environment and Sustainability," which ran in 2023-4. The competition, commissioned by the University of Leicester’s Centre for New Writing and Centre for Environmental Health and Sustainability was judged by the celebrated nature writer, Mark Cocker, and showcased at this year’s Literary Leicester free literature festival.

You can see the results here. There were two winners, one specially commended entry, and two runners-up. Each day, we'll publish one of these winning entries. Today, you can read the story "If a forest," by one of two runners-up, Carol Rowntree Jones.

Carol Rowntree Jones writes poetry, essays and creative non-fiction, and is currently working on writing inspired by the National Forest. She is based in south Nottinghamshire.

If a forest

Once upon a time, there were seven men and one woman who worked at long tables in two rooms in a big house: each table had a wired telephone, and in the corner of each room was a fax machine and a kettle. 

Other people at other tables wrote of trees planted in the far north, planted to earn money in angular blocks with hard edges, in wet places drained to suit trees that did not like wet places. The seven men and one woman read of this and spread stiff paper maps over their large tables, smoothing them out with the edge of their hands. They dreamt of creating a forest where the trees would mean something to the people who planted them, where they would grow near and among the daily lives of these people. Their documents were labelled IF: what IF it were possible? what IF it happened? Over coffee they played with Scrabble tiles to find a name.

The heart of the country was known to contain many people and few trees. The seven men and the woman sent out notices throughout this vast band of ‘The Midlands,’ announcing their intention to create a forest, an invitation to compete for a forest ‘where you live.’ 

In these modern times, jousting for favour (and funding) had become campaigning, signing petitions, newspapers championing causes, local parishioners writing to MPs. Enthusiastic schoolteachers set up class projects entitled ‘What if a forest came to live here?’ Children drew pictures of round-topped trees and set brown and bright colourful birds on the branches where green leaves shimmered, the sun shone in the sky, and a happy squirrel scampered on the ground.

Few would envisage that the success of this forest would be so great that the corporeal descendants of this imagined squirrel would be severely ‘managed’ for loving the trees too much. In an ecstasy of sap, they would strip the young trees of their bark, wounding and opening them to disease, causing many to die.

An anonymous area between four famous cities, shaped as if a rectangular cloth was thrown down on the map and lay ruffled at the edges, began to draw the attention of the seven men and one woman. Here were hardly any trees. Here were many people. This was a landscape damaged by coal mines and clay pits that had worked these communities for more than two centuries. It was the end of these industries here, in this country, and many people were out of work. Even when they found new employment, the men would talk with regret and fondness of the camaraderie, the physical danger, how the light above was brighter when you’d been down the pit all day, how you had to account for the bullet the day you’d had to put the pit pony out of its pain when a stumble, or loose wagon, had broken its leg.

The women would tell you that the work might have been secure and lucrative, but they had 300 years’ worth of mining trauma in their family and they were glad no grandson of theirs would be going down the pit. They’d say how the washing on the line would be black before it was dry. How their husbands would have to stop the car to clean the windscreen after driving down the road by the big pit and the belt carrying the coal to be sorted. “When you’re in it you don’t really notice, but it was filthy. Grey dust, mud everywhere. And you’d never know when the shout would come; someone’s man injured.” 

So as the last pits were closing the women opened their hearts to the notion of forest. They wrote letters of support and sought out materials for the school projects. The local newspaper ran headlines, conducted interviews and polls, and wrote editorials putting the case This Area Needs The Forest Most.

And it probably did. 

It spoke to the core of what the team of eight dreamt of: a peopled landscape where trees would lead a magnificent transformation. Children would play in the shade of trees planted at their school, men and women would learn to plant, prune, forage, how to use a saw and a lathe, but mainly they would all be living in the breath of trees. The young trees would take up carbon as they grew and in maturity hold back water in heavy rain. Insects would creep in the bark and woodpeckers drill for them, small mammals would nest in the shelter of the woodland, and owls would scout them out. This forest would show how trees could heal both the scars in the land and the rift that had grown between people and nature.  

And it won. 

Everyone wanted to plant the first tree, any tree, in this brand-new forest. The local newspaper was not short of forest-related stories. A school has started to collect acorns to grow on windowsills. Women’s Institutes take on a quilting project to welcome the forthcoming woodlands. Money was allocated in special pots for people who owned land to say what they could offer this new forest: “See my plans! I will plant ten thousand trees, they will be native oak and ash, with rowan and hawthorn at the edges.” Of course, these were the days before the disaster of ash dieback had arrived in these lands. Because the intention was always to plant mixed woodlands there were few broad stands of ash as a singular species, to leave a stark scar of stricken naked stems when they died. The ash would quietly fail, and the oak, birch and thorn drop their seed and move into the space.

A landowner would say: “My new woodland will be threaded with silver birch and I will name it after my granddaughter. Children from her school will come and plant the first trees in the far field. Grant me the money and I will allow local people to come and walk over my land, they can learn about the birds that will live among the new trees – I will learn about the birds – and they can picnic and play and enjoy the views.”

The map makers had to find a new shade of green for land that was opened up to the people in this way and it swept over their maps in swathes. In later years there were occasional but regular disputes when the local people came with their dogs and with friends with their dogs. They would catch up and be chatting so much that they might not notice their dogs sniffing in the long grass, disturbing the nests on the ground, or shitting on the edge of the path where later that day a child might step. The tension this could create between people saying: “I’m only walking here," and the landowner saying: “Please don’t mistreat the land and the agreement I have made,” was, sadly, a variation of most disputes about land. I own it and you don’t. The maps and the money and enough goodwill generally ironed things out.  

From the beginning the people who held the funds to make this revolutionary forest happen knew it was important to consider carefully where the trees would be planted. One cold winter’s day, there was a child who travelled from one of the four cities that surrounded the forest, travelled from the city in a hired bus with classmates, to meet the foresters on a hill where several hundred trees had already been planted. The children and their teachers picked their way up the muddy field, but the trees were tiny and easy to tread on. The child, who had neither hat nor gloves and wore a thin blue anorak emblazoned ‘Foxes’, tried not to step on the trees and worked out that most of them were marked by a stick and guard supporting and surrounding them. The woman from the forest who walked with them explained that the trees were protected in this way from all the things that wanted to eat them - rabbit, vole, hare, deer. Foresters love few furry creatures. 

Laid on the ground were spades and bundles of slender young saplings wrapped in black bags against the wind. Oak with a few tattered leaves, hazel and small leaved lime. The foresters showed the children how to plant a tree: the size of the hole they should dig so that the fine, thirsty roots could be teased out and would fit with ease. They pointed out where the colour changed on the stem of the tree, the stem that would thicken to be called ‘trunk’, and to plant the tree deep enough so that this point of colour would be level with the ground when they’d finished. “Break up the soil and pile it back into the hole. It helps to do this in pairs. One to hold the tree, one to replace the soil carefully. Heel it in. Tread carefully with your boot to press the soil down. We want to squeeze out any empty spaces, so the roots won’t sit in pockets of icy water during this, their first winter out in the wild.”

The forester explained that the trees they were to plant that day were some of the many thousands that were added each year to this forest, and that the location of every tree and group of trees was chosen carefully. “For instance, we wouldn’t want to spoil the view from a site like this.” And the child from the city in the thin Foxes coat, with bare blue hands, said, “Sir, what’s a view?”

And there were students who came to the forest, from a big institution in the same city as the child’s school. One wore walking boots, one wore fashion boots and one wore white trainers. They came to make a film about this forest being created near where they were studying. They wanted to talk to people who had made the forest and about the difference the forest made.

The forester was talking about richness. How the trees flourished, and people walked amongst them in the spring and smelt the scent of the blossom, and in the autumn they gathered nuts and berries. That the trees produced firewood for the woodland owner to sell, who then planted more trees. How the trees would soon offer timber for furniture makers, and how children learnt and played here, and their teachers saw different children thrive. That the leaf fall each autumn made the forest floor richer and healthier and encouraged more insects and animals to make the woodland their home. “I don’t understand,” said one student, “what is ‘forest floor’? I’ve only heard the term ‘floor’ for carpet or dance.”

The people in the forest lived on farms or in villages but mostly in towns. There were four towns in this forest: one built on water, one built on fireclay, another built on history, markets and spa treatments. The fourth came into being because of, and was named for, the coal.

The town built on water was built on beer and brewing. The water ran hard. Tall warehouse buildings with many small-paned windows grew up along the riverbanks, the banks themselves reinforced with timber and iron. The warehouses were full of people, hops, sacking and mice. Outside, carts drawn by horses took the barrels to the buyers. The river, the canal and the railway took the beer to the ships setting sail for the whole world.

The skyline of the town built on fireclay was a stave rising and falling with the outlines of bottle kilns shaped like cones for the firing. This fireclay had special qualities and was formed into white sanitaryware, also sent across the world, supplied to keep the British Empire comfortable. Pipes, pots, chamber pots and kitchenware. 

A favourite mixing bowl might take you by surprise, might be found to have the mark of the town on the base, clay from the forest, purchased by a mother long ago and handed down. Made years before the forest was even begun, even thought to be necessary.

One solitary brick-built bottle kiln was saved, in this town surrounded by forest, and became known for its acoustics, when people sang songs about the clay in the past tense, and songs about the woodlands in present and future tenses.  

In the town built on history, therapeutic spa water would be brought in water wagons drawn by horses from the mines where it pooled, to the smart hotel in the town. Rich people bathed while miners sweated, each a few miles from the other. 

The town built on, built for, and named for the coal, had to find a new identity. The coal was only ever there because of trees that grew millennia ago: trees compressed into the ground, becoming coal, the coal extracted, the world turns and heats and now trees are planted again.

When the first potato farmer signed up to plant trees, it was a sign that the forest would happen. When the estate agents started to include in their fancy words ‘desirable, in the heart of the forest,’ the people knew that the area would thrive once more because of the trees.

Wildlife began to arrive. Diggers were working in a wet field surrounded by gravel pits and fast roads. They had made long shallow scrapes in the topsoil to attract water-loving birds and were packing up to leave. No sooner had they gone than two pairs of lapwing arrived, with their crest feather fascinators and iridescent wings, birds not seen here for over twenty years. This is how they learnt that nature is opportunistic. It does not need ‘beauty’, does not need chocolate-box perfection. Make it good enough and it will come. 

A man was dying. He was one of the first farmers to throw in his lot with the forest and years later he told his story. “Farmers do what pays off the loans. In the 70s we ripped out all the hedges, because we were paid to. The forest came along and offered us a new way to use our land. It’s the best thing we ever did. I never thought I’d see the trees grow but they did, the canopy is over our heads. I feel I’ve put a marker down that will never be removed. For the children round here, everything’s rosy. The forest is everything to me.”

A woman was walking. She had walked from her door to this cafĂ©, in the heart of the forest. “I’ve hardly touched a road. I walked past the lake, glittering with birds, through woods which lead one to the other – the colours are glorious today! It’s uplifting. The forest has been the saviour of this place.”

This is what the seven men and one woman, long since retired by now, had known all along. 

The lichen started to gather.

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