English Woods in Words and Picture Series: Wood Engraving of Beech Boles by Agnes Miller Parker., REPRODUCTIONS COURTESY OF 'THROUGH THE WOODS,' BY H.E. BATES

Article excerpt

THROUGH THE WOODS: THE ENGLISH WOODLAND - APRIL TO APRIL

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. …