It is still shocking to read that 46 per cent of ancient semi-natural woodland in the UK was either destroyed or replaced with conifers between 1933 and 1983. Individual trees were killed by being pierced with large ‘Jim Green’ injectors containing ‘2-4-5 T’ (a derivative of ‘Agent orange’), or by the hacking of billhook-wounds into which Ammonium Sulphamate crystals were rubbed. Yet the visual and historic loss during those notorious “locust years” is abstract to many of us, to those who didn’t grow up in those woods, through those times. The same can be said of elm, as Rackham (again) pointed out: “Since the last Elm Disease a new generation has grown up to accept the absence of big elms as normal.”
Can we only mourn what is known to us, lost in our lifetime? Is that really how far our empathy and anxiety stretches?
I think these are powerful questions, indeed the right questions to ask, and I completely endorse Macfarlane and Cooper’s advocacy for the natural world of Britain. But I just wish there were more people who could think this way about our moral and spiritual inheritance (which, rightly understood, includes political culture as well, I am moved to say after two nights of the Republican convention).
Are there ways to make vivid to us the rich inheritance that our parents and grandparents lost, or gave away? Not everything that our ancestors believed, but the best of it? Or “can we only mourn what is known to us, lost in our lifetime?” My kingdom for historical imagination. O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend / The brightest heaven of invention.