Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature invited me to write a poem IN THE FOREST’S HEARTWOOD inspired by Sherwood Forest to mark World Poetry Day and International Day of Forests, which both fell on 21st of March this year, linking with other cities of literature around the world. As NUCoL notes, ‘Nottingham is a city of poets and Nottinghamshire is a county of forests – not only does the local football club and the county council both use trees as their emblems, we are graced with perhaps the most legendary forest in the world, Sherwood’.
Matt Turpin and I went to do some research at Sherwood Forest Visitor Centre in north Notts (before the current restrictions on meetings and travel), meeting RSPB staff who manage the centre and nature reserve. Visitor Experience Officer Andrew West guided us on a trail that took in several of Sherwood Forest’s thousand ancient oaks, including The Major Oak, said to be 800-1000 years old and often cited as Britain’s favourite tree. The oak and birch forest that remains today looks much as it would have in the medieval period linked to the well-known Robin Hood tales. Early spring sunshine filtered through budding branches as Andrew explained to us how ancient oaks are important habitats for many organisms and creatures including lichens, mosses, beetles, spiders, moths, bats and birds. For instance, oaks often hollow out – a natural process that usually doesn’t affect the health of the tree – and many creatures live, nest or roost in the rotting heartwood or hollow trunk. We also discussed how research has shown that beneath every forest and wood there is a complex underground web of roots, fungi and bacteria helping to connect trees and plants to one another and share nutrients, which has become known as the Wood Wide Web. Our walk in Sherwood Forest invited reflection not only on interconnectedness and the wonder and complexity of the natural world, but also on what has been lost and how we can protect this amazing habitat for future generations.
Back at the Visitor Centre, we also met some of the volunteers who help to bring stories of the forest alive for thousands of visitors each year. One regular group – Heather, Valerie, Vivienne and Linda – were recreating a medieval coverlet in royal red and blue woollen fabric. I found the traditional sewing techniques they were using really interesting and I included one word – counterchanging – in my poem, relating it to ideas both of patterning and exchange.
IN THE FOREST’S HEARTWOOD aims to celebrate Sherwood Forest’s rich heritage as a place of stories and its importance as a wildlife habitat, and to raise awareness of the importance of protecting forests, which are home to 80% of Earth’s biodiversity. It is also inspired by The People’s Forest project, led by NOSF trustee and Nottingham-based artist Sarah Manton, which plans to plant sapling oaks re-connecting Nottingham City with Sherwood Forest.
NUCoL filmed the poem read by myself and RSPB staff and volunteers, celebrating poetry as a shared mode of communication that can help to affirm “our common humanity and our shared values”. Even when forced apart by circumstance, much connects us. My poem celebrates that.
I’d like to thank Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature Team and the staff and volunteers at Sherwood Forest Visitor Centre for all their help and for making us welcome including Andrew, Sam, Gemma, Helen, Ross, Samantha, Karen, Claire, Kate, Luna, Heather, Valerie, Vivienne and Linda.
IN THE FOREST’S HEARTWOOD
Now, Robin Hood can’t scarper
over castle walls – and away –
into the greenwood,
which only persists today
in Nottingham’s place names
– Forest Fields, Forest Rec –
and the city’s football team.
Twenty miles north
in Sherwood Forest’s heart,
a thousand ancient English Oaks
make homes for hairstreak butterflies,
nuthatches, beetles, bees,
And when sunlight splashes,
dark on light on dark,
we may imagine
an outlaw stepping, soft-footed,
through leaf litter, arrow nocked –
or imitating birdsong
from a perch inside the Major Oak,
the whistling of a merry tune,
minder of the people of the forest,
wood and heathland,
hares and fallow deer
but wolf, boar and bear
are all long gone
with thousands of trees used
for timber and ships
(five thousand oaks to build the Victory)
or cleared for farming and industry
(for ‘field’ read ‘felled’).
Leaf through our poems, our tales
and find the forest there, from Robin Hood
to narratives budding right now.
Speak of how to meet the world
in this well-known, well-loved wood.
Voice how, underground,
bacteria, fungi, roots
all interconnect and share:
a wood wide web.
We’re talking too, communicating
our concerns through networks,
pushing sapling-ideas up through tarmac:
how Nottingham will be re-joined
to Sherwood Forest, oak by oak –
our story worth telling.
With special thanks to Becky Cullen, Matt Turpin, Andrew West, Luna, Samantha Bird, Tim Hannigan and the staff and volunteers at Sherwood Forest Visitor Centre for your time, help and encouragement!