Sara Maitland on her new book Gossip from the Forest
On Sunday 8th March I was in the Mineral Hospital watching Sara Maitland talk about her new book, Gossip from the Forest. The book explores “the tangled roots of our forests and fairy tales” and Maitland argued that the two were equally important parts of our cultural heritage and both were being threatened by modern life.
Maitland has written a number of books, varying from fiction, short stories and non-fiction. Her last book, published in 2008, was ironically titled A Book of Silence. When asked about the decision to go from writing about silence to gossip, Maitland laughed at the joke but insisted there was another more important reason for choosing the word “gossip.” Before it became associated with spreading rumours, a gossip was the personal friend of a woman in labour. She would provide serious and creative conversation to help in that moment of vulnerability and stress, and she first and foremost there for the baby. Maitland felt that this was an appropriate title because she feels that the forests – and our history – are vulnerable enough to warrant a gossip. “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.”
Fairy tales are closely tied to the forest as the setting for most of the stories that we grew up hearing; Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood are only a few examples. These tales are educational, not necessarily for lessons in morality, but because they have taught us for years that people have the right to marry outside of their class, that love is the only grounds for marriage and that we all have the right to choose for ourselves. We grew up knowing that any king who forbids his daughter from marrying a poor man would suffer horribly. Maitland feels that fairy tales are is important that they warrant a place on the citizenship test. “Upon passing, people should be given a book of fairy tales - preferably Brothers Grimm to embrace our European heritage. Fairy stories bring people together better than knowing who their local bank manager is.”
Maitland went on to say fairy tales have also taught us the importance of walking freely through the forest. But modern life is threatening the forest and, subsequently, our connection to fairy tales. With the growth of the urban lifestyle, forests are becoming unappreciated by new generations. Even the language of nature is being stripped, as words associated with the woods have been taken out of children’s dictionaries. Words such as acorn, brook, conker and mistletoe will not be recognised by younger generations. But they will know the definition of database, trapezium, MP3 player and vandalism. Maitland commented on the differences between generations and wondered if there may be truth in theories that if children don’t go outside they may end up with deficits. “The lack of control in some adolescents can possibly be explained by the fact that they have never been in real danger. It may be good for them to get out and experience fear. In fact there is good evidence to suggest that being outside and having to be self-responsible when young strengthens attention span in later life. The woods may feel threatening, but they are generally safe. Few other natural environments provide this; for example, you can drown in water.” For any parents who fear their children getting lost in a similar way to Hansel and Gretel, Maitland stated, “There was never any forest dense enough in Britain that any child couldn’t walk through it in a day. Not even before the Romans.”
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Maitland has included her own retellings of fairy tales in her book to highlight the benefits of having a connection to the forest. She writes a story about what became of Hansel and Gretel after their traumatic experiences in the forest. Hansel became the head forester to the King, is married with five children and has built a good life for himself. Gretel, however, has become a hermit. She lives alone in the forest and does not leave her house. But Hansel visits her often and the two siblings are still closely bound to each other. It is a story of how the forest can bring people together and that the forest, despite being the place of trauma, can provide shelter from the outside world.
These days we may not be as closely bonded to the forest as we would like to believe. Maitland believes that people ought to know their forests if we claim to love them. I bought a copy of Gossip from the Forest and after reading the first page I understood her point. Her writing is vivid and beautiful – even though I’ve never been to Airyolland Wood, I feel like I’m there with her. But I cannot picture “epiphyte ferns” or “epicormic twigs” because I do not know what they are. It is easy to be put off by a book you don’t understand, but instead I felt a sense of deprivation. As a lover of fairy tales and forests, I would like to believe I have an appreciation for the beauty of nature, but maybe I and other nature lovers could do more. I remember going on walks through the forest with my parents when I was a child and playing hide-and-seek in the trees. Why would we want to deprive our children of the same joy?
Sara M Jacobo