Into the Woods

‘Our English woods are a complicated and sustaining myth. We yearn for traces of the original tracts of greenwood. We grow to understand that human activity in these islands had denuded the tree cover fairly significantly even during prehistory, but nonetheless we retain a strong imaginative attachment to our woods, especially as places for hiding and as places beyond the codes and authority of the day.’

– Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, Edgelands

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My first encounter with Dukes Wood was on a cold, dreary Sunday afternoon in the late autumn of 2011. It was one of those days where the air felt wet without the need for rain, as if a layer of the atmosphere had dropped earthwards veiling everything in a thick, heavy mist, giving all a sense of ethereal otherworldliness. The resounding feeling on entering the wood was one of perfect stillness, a kind of untouched serenity that would surely be broken by my presence. As if the slightest human disruption would stir the entire place into a brief, jolted frenzy of commotion. Like clapping ones hands beneath a tree full of nesting starlings. It was exactly what I had hoped for, everything I had expected and anticipated from this tiny pocket of the Nottinghamshire countryside – steeped in obvious, but as yet unexplored, natural and cultural history, brimming with narrative potential, quaintly charming yet strangely eerie – an exemplary English wood.

But what is meant by such a phrase? What does a place have to have in order for it to be conceived as such – as both true woodland, and a truly English woodland at that? For most, an image of woodland is one of relative wildness, if not full-blown wilderness. It evokes thoughts of an idyllic return to nature, an atavistic reawakening of our innate primordial hunter-gatherer instincts, ‘going back to nature – not just to ‘the natural world’, but to their own true nature, as creatures of the wild woods.’(Farley & Symmons Roberts – Edgelands) Of course this view, albeit a common and rather appealing one, is wholly romantic. Perhaps we are so comfortable with, and equally so protective of, our woods because they are instances of wildness that seem approachable, convivial, somehow perversely tame, domesticated even? This is hardly surprising, owing to the fact that the vast majority of our woodland is in fact very closely monitored and scrupulously cultivated, very much influenced if not manipulated by man.

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The view adopted by the modern sensibility of an image of nature as a beatific ideal, precisely formed, well behaved and perfectly presented, ‘Nature as a reified thing in the distance, under the sidewalk, on the other side where the grass is always greener, preferably in the mountains, in the wild.’(Timothy Morton – The Ecological Thought) This is of course a myth. Such a notion derives from this very attachment to a sense of ‘imageness’, a tendency towards a framing or picturing of our surroundings following a tradition of artistic representations of the natural world – the relatively recent phenomenon of landscape, the notion of the picturesque – looking like a picture. It also comes out of man’s sustained intervention in the land, through methods of farming, agriculture and industry, that has come to shape our countryside as we know it today – the rolling hills, the thick hedgerows bristling with life, and the seemingly arbitrarily occurring dense clusters of trees – all products of a sustained, historic interference with our environment. As such, it is wrong to think of our woodland, or indeed any part of nature, in terms of independence. Rather, it is essential to consider the interdependence and interconnectedness of all things, natural and man-made; a truly ecological view, one that includes human beings effect on the environment, both good and bad, in the complex mesh that represents a truly unified, symbiotic outlook.

The very specific natural environment of Dukes Wood is truly a case in point. It symbolises a wonderful cooperation between two things that might on paper be considered ideologically and ethically diametrically opposed – heavy industry, (specifically crude oil production) and wildlife conservation. However, as with most complicated agreements that carry their own set of social and political implications, the narrative of Dukes Wood is long, with many twists and turns. Once a dense and unmanaged woodland, it has long been a site of transformation as well as reconciliation. The oil industry came and went over a period of around 70 years and, at various stages throughout this time, undertook large scale industrial operations leaving in their wake areas of damage where entire sections of the woodland were lost.

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These intermittent patches of openness formed the woods signature clearings and have given rise to a marked diversification in Dukes Wood’s ecological portfolio. Rare grasses and wild orchids that would otherwise never have found their way to the site now flourish and line the bases of decommissioned nodding donkeys that still occupy the clearings, like odd sculptural spectres of a bygone industry. The formation of Dukes Wood as you will find it today is the result of a long and fractious relationship between man and nature, one deferring to the other at various points in its history, like a game of tug-of-war complete with moments of recession and reinvigoration, depletion and rejuvenation. The conclusion is certainly not as simple as “nature prevailed”; as the unique ecology of the wood must surely give a degree of credence to man’s industrial intervention. It is the perfect illustration of co-dependency and interconnectedness, whether knowing and welcome or not.

‘Ecology includes all the ways we imagine how we live together. Ecology is profoundly about coexistence. No man is an island. Human beings need each other as much as they need an environment. Human beings are each others’ environment. Thinking ecologically isn’t simply about nonhuman things. Ecology has to do with you and me.’ 

– (Timothy Morton – The Ecological Thought)

What Dukes Wood signifies is not only this interconnectedness, or interdependency between man and nature but also a coming together of people and place under the auspices of industrial work. It enables a kind of topophilic reading, one that acknowledges the affective ties between people and place, whereby place is given its character and its historical agency through utility, through working in and on the land. Not to be interpreted as a positivist conception of industrial capitalism, but rather as a celebration of the salutary sociological effects of industry and its ability to form strong and prosperous communities with a common aim and a shared reliance on the land. With the exhaustion of natural resources comes the loss of the industries that relied on them and, in turn, the fracturing and denigration of the communities that were built around them. Dukes Wood expresses the feeling of lamentation over the loss of a way of life and making a living, a symptom of so much of the industrial wasteland of Northern England, whilst simultaneously representing the salubrious effects of the evacuation of heavy industry allowing for a sustained period of nurture and convalescence.

Dukes Wood conjures an imaginative interpretation of the land; one that satisfies our search for a conventionally pictorial view – a framing of an idyllic scene – whilst also asking us to imagine those that occupied and lived on the land as ‘insiders’ and carved out permanent marks upon it. It is a place of memory, ‘Even the landscape takes on a different quality if you are one of those who remember. The scenery is then never separate from the history of the place, from the feeling for the lives that have been lived there.’(Raymond Williams – The Country and the City) Dukes Wood is also a landscape of hope and potential and should not remain fixed to this symptom of melancholia often associated with sites of memorialisation. We are encouraged, rather, to envision a bright future of natural conservation whilst commemorating the woods past as a clandestine military industrial operation. A mnemonic attachment to Dukes Wood only acts to strengthen the notion that the land signifies a rare and valuable example of the reconciliation between human progress and the preservation of the natural world. The two need not, and cannot ever again, be thought of separately if real progress is to be made. It is a model, not for hiding, but for the radical expansion and redefining of the ‘codes and authority of the day’ – a ground at once for remembrance and re-imagining. Perhaps art will go some way to helping us do this…

By Aaron Juneau – Dukes Wood Project Co-curator

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