Into the Forest: Woods, Trees and Forests in the Germanic-Speaking Cultures of Northern Europe, c. 46 BC - c. 1500.

Lead Research Organisation: Bath Spa University
Department Name: Sch of Writing, Publishing & Humanities


Ecologically, culturally and economically vital, forests are both a fundamental part of our natural history and deeply rooted in our human history. These are spaces where the biology of our planet meets the structures of our societies, our bodies and our minds, constructed as much by storytellers and legal authorities as they are by ecologists, foresters and the planet itself. The roots of these cultural and historical associations are deeper and more tangled than we might imagine, particularly in the northern world. This project will be the first in-depth, multidisciplinary study of forests - and by extension trees and woods - in northern Germanic cultures. It focuses on three geographical and cultural areas: a) the Nordic world b) the Germanic-speaking peoples of the British Isles c) north-central Europe known to the Romans as Germania. 'Germanic' refers to the language group that maps onto these geographical areas; it is not in itself an ethnic or cultural signifier. By bringing together the study of three areas across a broad chronological span, I will shed light on a complex network of historical and cultural connections and influences - religious, political, artistic, literary, economic, legal - and their development over time. This project will provide new ways for understanding how historical cultures thought about and engaged with their physical environments, and what this can tell us about how humans think about the world around them and their place within it.

The study begins in the 1st century BC with Caesar's commentaries on the Gallic/Civil wars, where we find some of the earliest descriptions of the northern forests of Germania. The vast Hercynian Forest formed the northern boundary of Europe in the Roman geographical imagination. Interpolated passages in the commentaries fill these forests with marvellous creatures (such as unicorns) and barbarian tribes. A century after Caesar, the historian Tacitus wrote of the cataclysmic loss of three legions in the forested badlands of Germania, with accompanying tales of human sacrifices in sacred groves. For classical authors, these impenetrable forests were synonymous with barbarism, an association that was carried over by the 'barbarians' themselves in the early medieval period. With the proliferation of source material for Northern Europe, insiders' perspectives emerge. The intersection between embodied and imaginative engagement with the forest becomes more complex, blurring into spheres including economic use, resource management, law, storytelling and religion. By the end of the medieval period (c. 1500) forests had flourished as a central topos in the literary cultures of Northern Europe, not least in the interconnected romance traditions of the British Isles, Germany and the Nordic world. The chronological endpoint of this investigation brings us up to the dawn of the early modern era, with the seeds planted for many of the significant developments of the following centuries where once again trees and forests play prominent roles (scientific enquiry, nationalism, romanticism).

Today, the forest continues to flourish in our collective imagination, from the legacy of the Brothers Grimm to Tolkien's Mirkwood, from Julia Donaldson's Gruffalo to JK Rowling's Forbidden Forest. Yet while the cultural and historical potency of the forest is alive and well, the same cannot be said of the average modern Westerner's relation to it. In demonstrating how deep and tangled these roots go, I seek to expose the tension between lived experience of the forest in earlier periods, and its mediated remnants, actual destruction and unprecedented importance in an era of climate change and deforestation. Through outputs including a book, interdisciplinary workshops, and impact and outreach activities, I aim to stimulate dialogue and synergies not only across the academic disciplines but also with experts from broadcasting, ecology, heritage, education and the creative industries.

Planned Impact

Through a series of interactive, multisensory journeys through the forest, three dynamic, interconnected pathways to impact will encompass an exciting variety of non-academic beneficiaries, from public audiences through to creative artists, storytellers and broadcast media. This mirrors the complex ecology of the forest itself and the different human responses it has provoked through time and space. These pathways highlight my development of leadership skills in a variety of different contexts, drawing on experience gained as an AHRC/BBC New Generation Thinker. All measures of impact will also provide on-going, iterative reflection on leadership skills and style. The three pathways to impact and their principle impact beneficiaries are as follows:

1. The first pathway impacts on the National Forest in the Midlands, particularly its media programming and communication strategy. With this Project Partner I will research and present a walking podcast for visitors that explores how and why the historical forest landscape has changed over the centuries, each episode featuring local guests (artists, musicians, forestry workers) and tied to a stage of the 75-mile National Forest Way. While I have an existing track record as a BBC podcast and radio presenter, this pathway will enable me to expand my work beyond the BBC and impact on a different type of public-facing intermediary body. Primary impact is on National Forest communications strategy.

2. The second pathway involves two different educational bodies. With Seven Stories, the National Children's Centre for Books in Newcastle, as a Collaborating Organisation, I will develop an outdoor children's creative writing project working with local ecologists, creative writers and illustrators, in order to help children explore how forests have shaped our imaginations and lives. The second is Southmoor Academy in Sunderland, with whom Durham has an on-going access partnership. I will give two talks, to pupils and parents, as part of a new venture to raise aspirations for university application and showcase dynamic collaborative research projects. Impact is on the institutions' outreach policies and their users/audiences.

3. The third pathway brings together two Project Partner impact beneficiaries, The Projection Studio (an architectural light projection art organisation) and the National Forest, as well as the Cheriton Light Festival in Kent. I will advise on the creation of Sylvania, a sound-and-light show exploring the role of forests in the historical religions of Northern Europe. Performances will run for three nights at the National Forest and three nights at the Cheriton Light Festival, linked to explanatory pre-show talks that I will present. Primary impact is on the artistic direction.

The three pathways to impact are designed to interlock with the research, as integral to the research insights as the insights are to the pathways. This is built into the structure of the programme, since, through the three interdisciplinary workshops, impact beneficiaries and academic beneficiaries come together to share their experiences and findings, before moving back to their respective spheres. Through them, impact becomes an integral component of the project, with influences and synergies flowing in both directions. As someone who has experience in both spheres, my role is to direct and nurture these contacts, while developing leadership in bringing them together.


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