Moon Books, 2021
Reviewed by Hilary Norton
‘A Spell in the Forest’ is a wonderful bringing together of poetry, inspiration, science, history and guidance about trees and forests. Roselle helps us to see the forest with new eyes, understanding the human’s deep and ancient connections with the wild woods, not just for survival and sustenance but for our magic, myths and poetry.
In the first section of this book, we accompany the author into the Forest, a very special ancient forest in Brittany and are introduced to its population of plants, animals, boulders and birds as well as to the communication network under the ground. (We now know, she tells us, about tree communities, with root systems and fungal highways, mycorrhizal networks and Mother Trees. Roselle refers to the work of Peter Wohlleben, Suzanne Simard and Merlin Sheldrake and many other tree-inspired and tree-taught writers who have had lifelong experience working with woodland and combine ecological thinking with poetic sensibility and empathy.)
We also learn how our ancient ancestors lived there, in this forest, building hamlets and sacred places or travelling through on the way to somewhere else: Romans on their way to Britain maybe. As well as the botanical, cultural and ecological history notes we are treated to lyrical personal reflections and dreamscapes. As we read about the ancient lives lived in the forest, a timeless place is evoked, we are taken into the wildwoods of myths, legend and fairy stories and enticed by the mystery and magic. I find myself longing to visit that Enchanted Forest. This book describes how very much we humans need the Wild Wood. We need to cross thresholds to the liminal places where the physical meets the metaphysical and other realities are waiting to be revealed.
Quoting from Roger Deakin in his book “Wildwood” she echoes his words, To enter a wood is to pass into a different world in which we ourselves are transformed… Somewhere you travel to find yourself often, paradoxically, by getting lost.
Roselle tells us how her forest landscape …informs the collective imagination as much as, or more than, it informs the individual psyche and its imagination as she quotes Sara Maitland in Gossip from the Forest. By entering the Wildwood, we can re-enchant our lives and our world views and find a way to allow ourselves to see the beauty and mystery in the natural world.
The forest itself and the mythical characters that populate it can serve as metaphors for us on our journeys towards knowing ourselves better as individuals and communities. In fact, at the beginning of the middle section of her book Roselle echoes Nigel Pennick in saying that trees are also a metaphor for human consciousness. She goes on to describe how ancient cultures have acknowledged the power of trees to elevate, or mediate human consciousness to higher planes of perception.
Roselle explains that her starting point is that everything is sacred and worthy of respect and cherishing. That there is a denser plane where everything looks separate but also an energetic plane where we are linked invisibly in different dimensions of consciousness. So when we connect to trees it is not just as two separate biological organisms but also, tuning into trees on an energetic level, we may slip the bounds of a separate ego to feel that we are part of something much bigger.
The second part of the book is an in-depth look at thirteen indigenous trees which have been sacred to the people of these islands for many generations. People mark their journeys through the year in different ways and Roselle describes how she marks her own passage through the year by referring to the Ogham or Celtic Tree Alphabet. In this ‘calendar’ each letter of the old Celtic alphabet is associated with a certain tree and each tree with a certain month and quality. For someone coming new to these chapters about the thirteen sacred trees you are in for a treat.
Each tree offers us gifts, and we learn about their appearance, history and habits. We also learn about myths, customs, and folklore. Reading and learning about the trees, one a month at the allotted time is to be recommended and the third section contains suggestions for working with trees in an experiential way, originally offered to participants of the wonderful Tongues in Trees course. I joined one of these courses run online by Roselle and took great delight in receiving information and inspiration at the turn of each tree month to encourage my own study and the flow of creative energies. I made notes, drawings and my own set of Ogham staves from the wood of each tree. I was very moved to be able to relate to the tree realm more deeply and made attachments to certain trees. Here are suggestions for crossing thresholds, making small offerings, meeting a tree, engaging with (maybe in meditation) and responding to a tree. These encounters can move us to poetry, prose, sculpture or land art and to relationship.
The final chapter starts with a quote from George Monbiot: Saving the remaining rainforests and other rich ecosystems, while restoring those we have lost, is not just a nice idea; our lives may depend on it.
It is absolutely right to celebrate the miraculous tree realm and the Forest, but we cannot fail to also address the climate crisis and all that it implies. The last chapter of this book gives a few rather alarming facts and offers thoughts about planting trees, preserving the forests we still have, allowing diversity and natural wilderness. I like the other suggestions that are made… growing food, planting forest gardens, minimising consumption, creating wildflower meadows. After mentioning that our contemporary worldview is that nature is divorced from us leading to destruction, displacement and suffering, very importantly, the book ends on an appeal for reciprocity, a transformed relationship to all that is other-than-human, a conscious relationship rooted in understanding of our interconnectedness.
This book is lovely to read, being informative and evocative, but also because you can read it in chunks and let the inspiration and warm glow of familiarity and “Ah! Yes..” sink in deeply before moving on. I have already said how inspiring the Tongues in Trees section is, with its inspiring suggestions for how to interact with trees. I heartily recommend this book as an immersion into the Forest, a guide into relationship with trees.