In planning and researching The Liminal Forest project I’ve found myself exploring a wealth of literature spanning many hundreds of years and covering a very wide range of topics including Welsh history and folklore, nature and travel writing, the economics of climate change and biodiversity and the inner-workings of nature to name just a few.
The more I share parts of the Liminal Forest the more people ask me about the inspiration for the project and what and who influenced my thinking as I walked and wrote about my journey.
So I thought it would be good to share my thoughts on some of those influences and the books that have informed my work.
Let’s start at the very beginning. I first started thinking about our relationship to trees and nature – and just how broken it had become – when I stumbled upon a TED Talk delivered by Dr Suzanne Simard and titled “How Trees Talk to Each Other”. Her premise about the intelligence of nature and how little we really understand about nature works fascinated me and made me contemplate just how detached our modern world had become from the natural one that we all depend on. Her recent book, The Mother Tree, builds on her decades of research and is a must read because of the tough questions it poses about how little we know of the world we live in.
Of course, having discovered Simard’s work I soon became acquainted with Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees. His decades of experience as a professional forester allowed him to study trees in ways few other people have the time or understanding to do. His interpretation of the personalities of the forests and how trees work together and sometime against each other made me look at woodlands in a completely new way – and, as with Simard, made me contemplate just how little we really understood about those inhabitants of the natural world that we absolutely cannot survive without.
Delving deeper into the world of trees and nature I read Max Adams’ The Wisdom of Trees, Jonathan Drori’s Around the World in 80 Trees and John Lewis Stempel’s The Glorious Life of the Oak. All three books opened my eyes to the complicated workings of this ingenious ecosystem but also to how richly intertwined with trees our own human history and experience has been.
Robert Penn’s The Man Who Made Things Out Of Trees, meanwhile, fascinated and enchanted me in the way that it explained our relationship to trees and nature in an engaging, entertaining and highly practical matter.
Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways opened my eyes and ears to a truly magical form of nature and travel writing. At first, I listened to The Old Ways as an audiobook while I walked the hills of Wales in lockdown. MacFarlane’s lyrical, poetic language danced around my head as I walked. It inspired me to return to the travel writing I had made a career out of 20 years before but, in all honesty, it also somewhat intimidated me because I couldn’t hope to emulate MacFarlane’s descriptive and narrative skills.
Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods showed me how it was possible to create an engaging and humorous walking narrative while still dealing with important topics – even though his easy style of writing belied the huge amount of craftmanship that goes into his work. By reading both The Old Ways and A Walk in the Woods I grew convinced that I had my own compelling story to tell but I needed to find my own voice.
Stephen King’s On Writing provided its own inspiration; not just for the practical tips it offered about writing in general and about oneself but also for the engaging way he recounted his childhood and early struggles with getting published.
This writing project is about nature, naturally, but it is also about the importance of walking – which led to me Shane O’Mara’s In Praise of Walking, a book packed full with smart thinking and data about the importance of putting one foot in front of the other for our physical and mental health. I also started exploring the politics of walking and where we wander.
That introduced me to Nick Hayes’ The Book of Trespass and the realisation of just how our society has manufactured our dislocation from the natural world around us and how vested interests continue to deprive communities from reconnecting with nature.
Simon Winchester’s Land reinforced how that process began many centuries ago.
Once I had settled on my plan to map a potential walking through connecting the newly proposed National Forest for Wales I started digging into Welsh history and Wales’ connection to trees and woodlands.
I’ll share more of the influences for my Wales walking adventure in another post.