Into The Wild Wood

Every year I (re-)read Kenneth Grahame’s masterpiece The Wind in the Willows to my children. I favor the Candlewick Press edition illustrated by Inga Moore. It is a slight abridgment, omitting Mole’s and Rat’s encounter with the god Pan in “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” But this functions as a stand-alone story and can easily be supplemented by reading from another edition (there are several on our bookshelves).

The defining virtue here is Moore’s superlative illustration. She has accomplished precisely what Grahame himself has: a transcendent vision of the English countryside.

An interview with Moore about her illustration of The Wind in the Willows was published by The Guardian in 2010 and can be read on its website.

Stonehenge Undermined

Associated Press reports:

The British government went against the recommendations of planning officials Thursday, approving controversial plans for a road tunnel to be built near the prehistoric monument of Stonehenge in southern England.

As I wrote back in 2018:

The lifespan of concrete is remarkably short. Modern reinforced concrete needs repairs after only fifty years. In the fullness of time the decay of the tunnel will destabilize the landscape around Stonehenge. Assuming this generation wishes to bequeath the monument to posterity the risk is unacceptable.

A regrettable outcome.

Update (July 2021): The High Court has ruled against the consent order; there is new hope for the old stones.

The Old Straight Track

John Michell writing in The View Over Atlantis describes the moment Alfred Watkins discovered ley lines:

One hot summer afternoon in the early 1920s Alfred Watkins was riding across the Bredwardine hills about 12 miles west of Hereford. On a high hilltop he stopped, meditating on the view below him. Suddenly, in a flash, he saw something which no one in England had seen for perhaps thousands of years.

Watkins saw straight through the surface of the landscape to a layer deposited in some remote prehistoric age. The barrier of time melted and, spread across the country, he saw a web of lines linking the holy places and sites of antiquity. Mounds, old stones, crosses and old crossroads, churches placed on pre-Christian sites, legendary trees, moats and holy wells stood in exact alignment that ran over beacon hills to cairns and mountain peaks. In one moment of transcendent perception Watkins entered the magic world of prehistoric Britain, a world whose very existence had been forgotten.

Pictured above: Michell photographed by Paul Broadhurst.

The Village Survival Guide

This week the Prince’s Countryside Fund released a Village Survival Guide. The 104-page booklet addresses challenges and needs facing rural communities in Britain. It follows from the belief of Prince Charles that, “The role of the countryside, with all its diversity and idiosyncrasies, in our national life is too important to be left to chance.”

The guide offers ten suggestions, including the reorientation of village life around the time-honored poles of pub, parish church, and post office. These are elaborated upon with stories and advice. Read the whole report and order a printed copy here.

Manhattan in Better Days

Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer writing in The Century Magazine (May, 1897):

There have been times when the word “suburban” rang pleasantly in the ears of the citizen of New York. Such must have been the times, long ago, when Greenwich village and Chelsea village were the summer resorts of local magnates, and when Harlem village (legend affirms it) was a health-resort so placidly umbrageous, Dutch, and small that people who could not sleep in town were sent out there, assured of a week of unbroken slumber. And such, again, were the nearer times when all the isle was still suburban north of Washington Square, covered with farms, and dotted with country mansions that were often set in forest-like domains, and often fronted on the East or the North or the Harlem River.

Villages, Genetics, Genius

In The New York Review of Books this month Freeman Dyson reviews Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies by Geoffrey West. Dyson offers insight into why small cities and villages have historically produced men of genius and why the present-day trend toward mega-cities is almost certainly dysgenic.

If a small population is inbreeding, the rate of drift of the average measure of any human capability scales with the inverse square root of the population. Big fluctuations of the average happen in isolated villages far more often than in cities. On the average, people in villages are not more capable than people in cities. But if ten million people are divided into a thousand genetically isolated villages, there is a good chance that one lucky village will have a population with outstandingly high average capability, and there is a good chance that an inbreeding population with high average capability produces an occasional bunch of geniuses in a short time. The effect of genetic isolation is even stronger if the population of the village is divided by barriers of rank or caste or religion. Social snobbery can be as effective as geography in keeping people from spreading their genes widely.

A substantial fraction of the population of Europe and the Middle East in the time between 1000 BC and 1800 AD lived in genetically isolated villages, so that genetic drift may have been the most important factor making intellectual revolutions possible. Places where intellectual revolutions happened include, among many others, Jerusalem around 800 BC (the invention of monotheistic religion), Athens around 500 BC (the invention of drama and philosophy and the beginnings of science), Venice around 1300 AD (the invention of modern commerce), Florence around 1600 (the invention of modern science), and Manchester around 1750 (the invention of modern industry).

These places were all villages, with populations of a few tens of thousands, divided into tribes and social classes with even smaller populations. In each case, a small starburst of geniuses emerged from a small inbred population within a few centuries, and changed our ways of thinking irreversibly. These eruptions have many historical causes. Cultural and political accidents may provide unusual opportunities for young geniuses to exploit. But the appearance of a starburst must be to some extent a consequence of genetic drift. The examples that I mentioned all belong to Western cultures. No doubt similar starbursts of genius occurred in other cultures, but I am ignorant of the details of their history.

West’s neglect of villages as agents of change raises an important question. How likely is it that significant numbers of humans will choose to remain in genetically isolated communities in centuries to come?

Tolkien and the Secret Life of Trees

Fangorn Forest from The Lord of the Rings, illustrated by J.R.R. Tolkien

I read a fascinating article recently about the German forest ranger and ecologist Peter Wohlleben in The New York Times. Wohlleben is the author of a book, The Hidden Life of Trees, and is featured in the documentary film, Intelligent Trees. His observations about arboreal biology are exciting and even startling:

trees in the forest are social beings. They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the “Wood Wide Web”; and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.

Obviously this is a type of life and “society” quite different from our own. But trees are living creatures. I imagine it would benefit our understanding of them to consider the ways in which they behave like living creatures, not inanimate objects.

Reading this profile of Wohlleben reminded me of a writer who shared a similar outlook on nature: J.R.R. Tolkien. In The Lord of the Rings Tolkien portrayed trees as possessing various degrees of sentience, and as being shepherded by Ents, a race of tree-like giants. His imagination was informed by a deep sympathy with the forest, and a perception that trees were conscious on some mysterious level.

In 1972 the Daily Telegraph published an article which contained the description of a landscape “transformed into a kind of Tolkien gloom, where no bird sings.” In a letter to the editor, published a few days later, Tolkien replied,

I feel that it is unfair to use my name as an adjective qualifying ‘gloom’, especially in a context dealing with trees. In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies. Lothlórien is beautiful because there the trees were loved; elsewhere forests are represented as awakening to consciousness of themselves. The Old Forest was hostile to two legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries. Fangorn Forest was old and beautiful, but at the time of the story tense with hostility because it was threatened by a machine-loving enemy. Mirkwood had fallen under the domination of a Power that hated all living things but was restored to beauty and became Greenwood the Great before the end of the story.


McGrane, Sally. (January 29, 2016) “German Forest Ranger Finds That Trees Have Social Networks, Too,” The New York Times.

Tolkien, J.R.R.; Carpenter, Humphrey (ed). (1981) The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. London: George Allan & Unwin.