This is the book that's set the bar for my years reading - anything better will be in the really remarkable category. The first thing I liked about it was the title - 'gossip' made me think of gossip as we understand the word now, but it also has a sibilance about it that recalls the susurration of leaves, and then I opened the book. Just before the contents page there is a dictionary definition for gossip and it is this -
"1. One who has contracted a spiritual relationship with another by acting as sponsor at a baptism. 2. A familiar acquaintance or friend. Especially applied to a woman's female friends invited to be present at a birth. 3. Idle talk; trifling or groundless rumour; tittle- tattle."
Maitland goes on to say that "This is one of my favourite examples of how the trivialising of women's concerns distorts language. The Gossip of my title is the encouraging, private, spiritual talk that we all want in times of trouble. Stories that are not idle, tales that are not trifling." which was quite a lot to think about before page 1. These other meanings for gossip surprised me - I looked it up to be sure - and now wonder what other words have changed in this way?
'Gossip From The Forest' is subtitled 'The Tangled Roots Of Our Forests and Fairytales' and a large part of the discussion deals with fairy tales - specifically the Grimm's fairy tales, Maitland is interested not in what they have in common with the fairy tales of different cultures but with what is different and what makes them specifically ours (teutonic). Her argument that they are rooted in Northern European forests: were told by people who lived in forests, and likely often told by older sisters to their young siblings is beguiling. I'm from a part of the country where trees are scarce and even after all these years in middle England I have an uneasy relationship with them, but they have always been part of my imaginative landscape having been absorbed through fairy stories as a child. Trees in any combination fascinate me, I still find them a little other worldly, and on a dark and stormy evening they make me nervous in very different way to crashing waves. Trees in the wind, especially in winter make me believe in wolves.
Fairy tales are only part of the equation though, the other part is how we live with forests, what our joint future might be, and why the relationship is symbiotic. This book is a conversation between page and reader. I wasn't convinced by absolutely everything, but I'm not sure I was meant to be; it's the conversation that matters - Maitland makes no bones about how personal some of the opinions are, alongside the research and knowledge are her own emotional responses to what she experiences amongst the trees.
This is a gentle reminder that complacency is a mistake, it's important to question, to think, and to have an opinion. Our roots are deep in the forest, lose sight of that and what else do we risk losing?