English Woods in Words and Picture


By H.E. Bates

with wood engravings by Agnes Miller Parker

Frances Lincoln Publishers

142pp., $27.50

'It is a contrast," wrote H.E. Bates, "of power and delicacy, space and littleness." He was talking about the English wood. Earlier in his book "Through the Woods" (a series of analytic essays in praise of woods), he had contrasted the English wood with the German forest: "The whole effect is altogether too vast and illimitable. You stand awed by the forest, but without affection for it." Of the Russian love of forests he says they "are forests only on paper," the invention of literature, "the idealised forests of prose" and not "the forests of actuality."

He goes on: "Whereas, as I see it, prose can never over-rate the wood: the small intimate English wood with its variation of trees, its many flowers and bird-voices, its feeling of being only a part but never the whole of a countryside. It never dominates, never assumes the dark dictatorship of forests."

"Dark dictatorship" was no doubt a consciously emotive phrase. "Through the Woods" was first published in 1936. And it seems feasible that this feeling-full book, and another that was almost a companion volume called "Down the River" (1937), was part of a national need for the English to value things that are "forever England."

Not that this book is political. Bates mentions Hitler once, but only when he describes a farcical confrontation where he and his wife were being frog-marched, by an enraged "under keeper" (of game), out of the "fields beyond the wood" where they had been mushrooming.

Bates's book reserves his least lyrical - and most ferociously ironical - language to splutter out his dislike of two aspects of the countryside: gamekeepers and the hunt. He is very funny about the hunt, suggesting among other things that it might serve a better purpose if it went in pursuit of a cow rather than a fox.

But the heart of the book is his evocative, observant eulogy of woods.

I have had a first edition of this book for a while (it is a book-collector's item, but not very rare). I bought it for the illustrations: wood engravings by the Scottish artist Agnes Miller Parker. I have looked at them often, with a mixture of respectful admiration for their meticulous skill and simple pleasure in their accurate, if stylized, depictions of natural detail; but I had done no more than dip sporadically into the accompanying prose. In fact, Bates wrote before Parker illustrated, so one should read before looking.

Now, however, I have read "Through the Woods" from cover to cover, and I can see why it has achieved status as a minor classic (now reprinted courtesy of Frances Lincoln in the United Kingdom and Trafalgar Square Publishing Company in the United States). There was a revival of interest in Bates not long ago because of a TV series based on his stories about the Larkin family in "The Darling Buds of May." "Through the Woods" is not so human or humorous, but Bates's nature-writing has a sturdy, compelling vigor and conveys the intensity of his woodland-watching. He does not approach his subject as an objective naturalist, though; he is a subjective witness.

What I have also found of great interest is the interaction between Bates and Parker, between writer and illustrator. It is not altogether a simple harmony. There is an incisive restraint, as well as a calculated sense of design, about Parker's cuts: They are not only pictures of the foxes and squirrels, the ash-tree buds and the harebells that appear in the words, but are conscious book embellishments, decorative nature studies with a life of their own.

Bates's writing, by contrast, appears to have a spontaneous energy that bursts out in words. What you cannot imagine is this writer subjecting his overflow of thought, feeling, and memory to the strict confines of a tightly worded inscription wrought on a small rectangle of paper. He is no haiku writer. And he is no wood engraver.

Parker's images of nature belong to a different tradition from Bates's words of nature (which have something of Richard Jefferies about them). Wood engraving harks back to the 18th-century work of Thomas Bewick, who was as keenly aware of the minutiae of nature - the minuscule markings of a fish or a bird, the exact curve of a weed leaf, as any of his successors. And Parker is certainly a 20th-century inheritor of the Bewick mantle.

The control and fineness of her engraving on the block of boxwood that is the wood engraver's traditional work surface is scarcely rivaled by anyone before or since. She was an astonishing craftsperson. But within all her fastidious precision a sense of the potent life of animal, tree, and plant pulses; her art is a strange combination of sliding, fluid movements and a severe, tranquil stillness, a tameness that is perfectly misleading, because - like the wild cat lurking inside the domesticated - her black-and-white pictures contain an almost feline degree of wild instinct.

This paradoxical combination of qualities is a completely appropriate thing for this book in praise of woods. (It is not even inappropriate that it is wood on which she engraved her images.)

Parker's engraving of beech boles to accompany Bates's description of a beechwood on the top of a hill shows splendidly how these two complemented and counterpointed each other. Bates wrote: "It is the beeches that are the undeniable glory of the hills. They have been grown here very closely, so that they stand on either side of the deep-cut tracks like vast pillars in a church of trees, straight as pines, extending far up and down the hillside in steep grey aisles that create an effect of massive and incalculable solemnity. They are literally grand; they give out grandeur, a grandeur of strength and almost awful nobility."

His illustrator's engraving ("a contrast of power and delicacy, of space and littleness") says no less. But it does so without words.

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