Rating 4 stars
Paul Scraton is a British writer who lives and works in Berlin. I’ve read his psychogeographical novel Built on Sand, which is still one of the best books I’ve read in recent years, and his walking travelogue Ghosts on the Shore, that tells the history of Germany’s Baltic coast via a personal cartography.
I’ve been eager to read his fiction collaboration with German photographer Eymelt Sehmer since it was announced by the publisher back in spring. In the Pines continues Scraton’s exploration of our relationship with landscape and what it says about us. Sehmer’s images were created using the wet collodion process, and have the eeriness of crisp dark tones against the slight haze of the silvered light familiar to me from the 19th century images in the collection at work. The wet collidion process is a tricky technique to use when photographing landscapes, and I appreciated the inclusion of some of the images that didn’t turn out so well.
There’s an image that accompanies one of the chapters, The Hunter’s Pulpit, that called back to Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. In the space of a few weeks, I’ve gone from not knowing what a hunter’s pulpit is to knowing what one looks like. I couldn’t find much online about them, and wonder if they’re an East German/Polish thing. The Sehmer image is beautiful and appears in this article about the collaboration in the Elsewhere journal.
The novel begins with the unnamed narrator recalling his first real encounter with a forest, aged ten, when he decided to run away from home. In the novella’s landscape, there’s a housing estate with a forest adjacent, and it’s here that the narrator attempts a few hours as a wild man of the woods. I felt the north west of England in this vignette, although it could be anywhere within the UK. With the mention of red squirrels in the forest and the wind in the trees sounding like the sea, my mind took me to Formby in Lancashire. Later, with the mention of wild boar and the pine forest being ancient forest rather than the farmed forest of the UK, I realised that the setting is more likely to be somewhere on mainland Europe, although I’ve learnt that we have some accidentally rewilded boar in the UK now.
Wherever it is, this forest is a place the narrator returns to in memory. It’s a place imbued with personal recollection as well as with folklore. The stories told by the narrator’s father to explain the landscape and create a sense of magic around their forest walks draw on ancient British oral traditions. They called to mind Alan Garner’s reimagining of the gnarled landscape around Alderley Edge in Cheshire, the historic legends of Wales captured in the Mabinogion, and the folktales that persist about moorland landscapes. It sometimes feels as though we have lost our connection to such stories, perhaps because we have lost our connection to the land. It’s hard to imagine another reality when your landscape is a built environment of brick, steel and concrete, and the rivers running through it have been tamed and managed for commercial purposes. Reading the narrator’s personal folklore made me feel wistful.
That lost but longed for connection is picked up on in the tale of a forest sojourner; a man who camps in the forest for three summers. It’s the local librarian who experiences the pangs of urban living on the edge of something more ancient. She orders a book about the transgressive space a forest can be, thinking that the three summers old forest recluse will like it, thinking that they might make a connection through it. But he never picks it up from the display table the librarian leaves it on. I found this poignant in the way it captured a shyness around nature and each other, a faltering wish to be more connected, an unwillingness to be direct about making a connection. When the man fails to return for a fourth summer, the forest begins to cover over his encampment; eventually, the council removes all trace of his having been there, and he fades into legend. I loved the stillness of this chapter, and the way it positions human transience as the briefest moment in a much larger tale.
The brevity and changeability of human life is captured in a chapter about a man who moved from the city to a village next to the forest for work, and finds himself still there 30 years later. It’s an unexpected thing that happens as you get older, your impermanence putting down a taproot. I find myself 18 years into a job and 14 years into residence in a house, having spent at most two and a half and four years respectively in previous jobs and houses, often less than that. The longer you stay somewhere, the more you see the small changes. Tourists to the man’s village think of it as never changing, and believe that the countryside exists in a state of stasis. For him, and for the narrator returning from his time in the city, only the path through the forest is unchanged.
Across the narrative is the sense of ancient landscape, created during an ice age that carved ravines, abandoned boulders, compacted earth beneath a permafrost that eventually melted and brought forth the ideal conditions for trees to proliferate. The routes through the forest follow the ravines and bear names inspired by the first to use them regularly as paths. In my mind, as I read, I pictured my favourite forested area: Delamere Forest in Cheshire. Sehmer’s photographs have kinship with the images of that forest in my mind. It’s a managed, Forestry Commission woodland, but it still feels wild to me.
I read a book about the history of the Forestry Commission, which touched on something that is picked up on in In the Pines: the possible contribution monocultural forests make to dieback. The Forestry Commission changed tack on its planting, introducing a mix of tree species, after decades of growing very commercial but non-native pines. In the Pines also considers the impact of pests, such as bark beetles, and a warmer, drier climate. Forest fires regularly ravage the woodland around the narrator’s village. And yet, the narrator tells us, the forest waits. The implication is that, when people are gone, the forest will reclaim its territory.
People are incidental in this book. Scraton barely sketches out the character of his narrator. In telling his story, he lets a few things slip about his life, but he is here as an observer, not a protagonist. The outsider-observer is an element of both Scraton’s longer novel and his travelogue. For me, it works better in those longer works. In this novella, it left me with a sense of fragmentation. Perhaps this was Scraton’s intention. Each chapter is a literary version of a photograph, the capturing of a moment. The chapters are connected but, rather than creating a fluid narrative, they hang together like pictures in an album. A photographer works to tell a story in an image, to present something of the personalities of those whose portrait they are taking or something of the atmosphere in a landscape. Their own personality leaches into the image through their framing of it, but it’s not their aim to be entirely present. For me, the narrator of In the Pines performed a similar role.
I debated whether to include this novella as an official book in my European literary tour, adding it as a stop off in Germany, but it doesn’t quite fit my bendable rules, even with extra bending, so it’s more of a tangential read. Still, it was a perfect first read for a new year. 1 January is a time for making resolutions, traditionally. I rarely do that, as I rarely keep them, but reading In the Pines has made me resolve to spend more time among trees in future.