Saturday, January 19, 2013

Gossip From The Forest - Sara Maitland

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?          
  
 

13 comments:

  1. Thank you for this review! This looks like a fascinating book - I really enjoy the investigation of fairy tales as psychological revelation. I've added it to my wish list.

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    1. There's quite a lot about forestry too! It's an interesting book and far more readable than I expected it to be which was a bonus!

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  2. Yay! So glad you enjoyed it. I agree that most readers won't nod at everything Maitland suggests or argues but I love the way she mixes opinion in with research and throws ideas out there for the reader to think about. :)

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    1. I loved it and perhaps because I didn't always agree with her - it's the sort of book that makes you think instead of telling you what to think and that's always welcome - and most of what she argues I do agree with.

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  3. Other cultures have stayed closer to their forest roots: German lied are littered with references to woods and forests and as a nation they are keen on walking and hiking in their woodland. In Japan they have a delicious phrase for this: shinrin-yoku or ‘forest bathing’.

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    1. Shinrin-yoku is a lovely phrase. It's odd how we've strayed out of the woods and yet get so attached to individual trees.

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  4. What a fascinating book this sounds - but I must confess, I was most interested by your response to trees. Since I was 7, I've lived in places that have lots, and I'd find it strange not to see them - even though (as I discovered at a pub quiz last week) I am completely incapable of identifying them.

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  5. I find them eerie Simon, though one of my favourite places is a beech avenue in the Borders. The trees do a good approximation of cathedral pillars and fan vaulting, the light is always different under there, and in the summer it buzzes with insects. In the winter there are often owls flitting about and it feels altogether other worldly. Still when the wind blows through the branches I keep looking over my shoulder and must admit to feeling more at home in places where you can see for miles and everything is wide open to the sea and sky.

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  6. Sounds a highly original book. I remember staying in the New Forest a couple of years ago and I kept wanting to fall asleep. I later heard that this is a common experience of the New Forest which was a little unsettling!

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  7. How curious, I've never been to the New Forest but you've made me want to visit it now - it must be very restful. It's an interesting book and one that I'm still mulling over - it's going to stick with me for a while.

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  8. I'm now in a frenzy of anticipation for this! Alas, my copy arrived hopelessly damaged so I'll have to wait even longer to get to it, bah. What you write about gossip reminds me of my MA thesis, which was about Tutivillus and idle chatter. The book I'm reading at the moment focuses on the literary background of fairy tales, so something which looks at the orality will be an interesting counterbalance. I like the idea of book as conversation.

    I too am interested by your response to trees, I love your description of the beech avenue. Having grown up in rather flat Suffolk, I find hills and mountains discomfiting because, as with you and trees, you can't see far.

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  9. I hope you enjoy it when you finally get your hands on a copy - such a lot of expectation now. Your MA sounds fascinating, I hadn't heard about Tutivillus before - when I googled him I landed straight on your blog.

    I'm not frightened of trees in the way I am of spiders or cows but they occupy an odd place in my imagination. I can quite see why hills and mountains would do the same and that mountains particularly could feel very oppressive.

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