Thursday, 27 January 2011
An inability to see the wood for the trees?
It's the time of year when many priests seem to make more than the usual number of trips to their local crematorium. Our nearest here is in the middle of the Forest of Dean, just over the border in Gloucestershire. It's a simple timber-framed and glass-fronted chapel in what looks at first sight like a woodland clearing - so not the somewhat industrialised, even distressingly impersonal ending which cremation can bring to so many Christian funeral rites. Sometimes I can't help thinking burial is a far more natural end to a life, although if my recent experience were of burying people in huge, equally impersonal, municipal cemeteries, rather than small well-kept rural churchyards, my opinion might be different.
But the approach roads to the crematorium, through the centre of the forest, presented a strange sight on Monday and Tuesday for two reasons. Firstly the verges were churned up as if they had been attacked by an army of termites, and many of the trunks of the ancient oak trees at the side of the road were tied with yellow and gold ribbons.
Remarkably, the damage to the roadside had been done by the increasing numbers of wild boar now naturalised within the boundaries of the forest - a return to "Merrie England" with a vengeance - after being hunted to extinction by the end of the eighteenth century.
There is a web site dedicated to them [here]
But the yellow ribbons on the trees have been left as a protest against government plans to sell off Britain's publicly owned and managed forests to the highest bidder. Now I can understand objections to an over-mighty state; public ownership on the whole isn't noted either for its efficient management or its profitability. But the forests and woodlands, many of them donated and held in trust for the nation, seem to be an exception to the rule and are for the most part models of good management and of the encouragement of public access. We are constantly being reminded by the "nanny state," including ministers in this coalition government, of what sedentary and unhealthy life-styles we lead. For the same government to put in question the use of our woodlands as public amenities seems inconsistent to the point of idiocy. In fact the money raised for the exchequer by the sale of the public forests is quite negligible and will be balanced out by the public subsidies which will have to be offered to private owners in order to maintain an element of public access and to encourage the conservation of natural habitats and wildlife.
So why proceed with a policy which is clearly not going to save the taxpayer a great deal of money and which, opinion polls suggest, is opposed by some 84% of the population? It begins to look as if this has been proposed for ideological reasons alone, on the basis that private ownership is always, without exception, better than public ownership.
Of course, there would be more justification for that view if those likely to profit by the sale of our forests were the owners of large private estates who believed in the conservation of our natural heritage and were prepared to make management decisions which looked forward several generations rather than to the short term fluctuating fortunes of the market in timber. The likelihood is, however, that prospective buyers will mostly be large and impersonal forestry businesses, quite likely foreign owned, who would have no stake in the quality of life enjoyed by those living in the local areas concerned and no real interest in the future of the British countryside.
I'm sufficiently conservative (or is the word I'm really looking for 'Catholic' - surely the Faith demands more of us than the economic determinism found on both the left and the right of the political spectrum?) to believe that there are factors other than economics and the short term profit motive which are important in determining the quality of our lives. Like their mirror-images on the left, many of the more extreme apologists of the liberal free market seem at times to be motivated by a grimly "Calvinistic" ideology which is promoted above the genuine needs and concerns of human beings.
It would be good sometimes to see conservatives who truly believe in conserving something and liberals who actually know something about living in the country and the lives of those of us who are fortunate enough to be able do so.
Two suggestions (only one of which is made tongue in cheek):
If the objection to publicly owned woodlands is on the basis of economic ideology, then rename the Forestry Commission the 'Royal Forestry Commission,' stick a crown on its logo and return us to a kind of medieval solution - forests not owned by the 'State,' but by the 'Crown.'
Failing that, given that the sell-off is likely to raise a derisory sum for the exchequer, and as it seems the vast majority of us want to keep the status quo and not sell off those woods in common ownership, give us the chance to 'own' what is, in fact, already ours - for the price we now pay in taxation in order to maintain them. I for one would be ready to contribute.
See this link http://38degrees.org.uk/