The recent plant by the British government to generate desperately needed cash by privatising the English national forests didn’t come to me as a surprise since the current incumbent is turning into some traditional hardline Tory force rather than trying to find a new path in the UK politics. However, leaving party politics to one side, the commotion caused by the selling off plan set me thinking. I’ve lived in England long enough to understand why people were so against it, but for a Finn this whole debate sounded like waste of time. Of course land and woodlands alike are both privately and state-owned. What’s the big deal?
The big deal about trees in England is that there are hardly any proper forests left in this urbanised and barren landscape. And that’s something I’ve never got used to while living here. Yes, there is some wild and beautiful landscapes in the British isles but most of them are treeless. I admit it, at hearth I’m still one of the forest people. My spirit and soul abides with the pine, birch, spruce, rowan, alder and aspen mixed woodlands that go on forever and are not just bushy patches in the middle of habitation and agricultural lands. Not only do I value forests for their timber and monetary value, but also for the crops of berries and mushrooms that they yield. Picking these yields is both free and so relaxing and therapeutic, that after a day spend on foraging you really do feel rejuvenated and find yourself breathing with ease. No wonder our ancestors worshipped trees and forests, and thought there were spirits occupying every living creature. I suppose in the grand scheme of things they were right.
But back to picking humble berries and mushrooms. I have come to realise that knowing the land and customs that go with it are talked as an ancient skill in England! I think this is a measure of how long the country has been industrialised. I hope that Finns continue to understand the asset we have in the humble knowledge of mushrooms and not just focus on the monetary value of timber industry. Another curious thing that reveals how long England has been urbanised is the plenty of survival programmes on English television. To my knowledge these have yet to take the prime-time slots in Finland. I think this is because, whether we Finns like it or not, in Finland the ‘survival’ and wondering the wild is yet to be shrouded in mystery or treated as antiquity. Most Finns still, I think, feel comfortable in woodlands. I for one feel home in them.
There is also another, maybe more historical angle, to the growing alienation of woods in the minds of English. In Anglo-Saxon culture, especially literature has created this image of forests being places of dark, deadly and foul spirits. Particularly at winter. This not quite true in Finland. I would argue that most Finns find the notion of scary pine forest a bit, well silly. Even at winter the forest are alive and although they definitely are a lot quieter than at peak of summer there is something almost uplifting in their majestical stillness. They truly are places to recharge your batteries.
So back to the uproar caused in England by the government’s plans to sell off state own forests to private owners. I really think, given the tradition of strict ownership rules, “what’s mine isn’t yours” attitude to land, people in England deserve a place where they can relax and get to know nature and share that knowledge with their children. Fortunately in Finland even though land is privately owned to some extent that doesn’t prevent anybody from entering forests and picking up mushrooms or berries regardless who owns the land they grow on. ‘Jokamiehenoikeus’ is something that every Finn knows about and has learned to take as granted. But as is the case in England free access to roam the land around us is not something that has come to be without a long campaign by group of enthusiastic hikers. And yet this ‘right to roam’ does not extent to everywhere. To restrict access to land is an alien concept to me. It is strange to think that on my holidays in Finland I couldn’t pick up a bucket and go foraging blueberries in the woods. If that freedom was taken away from me, it would feel as if some ages long and sacred umbilical cord has been cut off and something precious is lost forever.
Let’s hope the British government seriously rethinks it’s position on land privatisation. The least the ministers can do is to make sure that free access for recreational purposes is maintained and even better extended. Like the native American chief once said:
“What is this you call property? It cannot be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?”
21/02/2011: For those out there interested in British forests, I found an informative blog which lists all the main woodlands in the UK and shows their size as well as location! Please check Gabriel Hemery‘s brilliant and woody 🙂 blog site.