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Guide to the classics: Steeped in the arboreal sublime, Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders has a surprising urgency


In Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders (1887), the trees sing.

Sometimes the sound is like a Gregorian chant, a thump of the rustling leaves, the creaking branches, the undulations of limbs heavy with the leaves, swaying in the wind that rushes through the woods of Dorset’s Little Hintock.

At other times it is a low moan, a cry of pain, uttered as if sympathizing with the tragic plight of the characters who wander these woods, searching for something lost or never quite possessed – for a Hardyian character is always driven by a restless urge to move.

Even in silence, Hardy impedes the minute transformations of the body – from human limbs hurt by tree wounds, or the trunk of one of the forest’s oldest inhabitants – pulsating with life, desire, will.

These sylvan protagonists – English oaks, crab apples, silver birches, willows, blackthorns, hazels, ash and elms – come to life with a sigh, an audible exhalation coming from deep within the trunk.

Read more: Where the old things are: Australia’s oldest trees

The vocabulary of trees

The Woodlanders tells the story of a small community living and working in the woods. They are lumberjacks and spruce makers, fruit pickers and timber merchants, busy under the canopy that forms a second heaven.

Human labor keeps pace with the seasons in Little Hintock, the fictional hamlet Hardy maps on Dorset topography in the south of England: felling wood in autumn and winter; pressing apples for cider in the spring and summer. Hardy’s tragic hero, Giles Winterborne, is constantly evoked by the traces of labor clinging to his skin, hair and clothes: apple seeds and pulp, the remnants of fleshy matter on his hands.

The bodies of the novel’s characters are expressive, not so much of their individual personality as their contact with the forest. Their flesh is imprinted with a woodwork history unique to each. The skin is a sign of elm accidents, logs, rubbing of bark and brushing of twigs. These disorders become the means by which the body is known, to itself and to others. Memories and resistance joints are reminiscent of the past.

One of Hardy’s great themes, and an element of his aesthetic achievement that still amazes us, is his disquiet of the individual, understood as sovereign, private, and united. Hardy understands the self as formed by and continuous with both human and non-human others.

In The Woodlanders, the fluidity and impressionable sense of awareness cannot be separated from the botanical. We can see – and hear – this in the vocabulary of trees, which structures characters’ speech patterns and ways of thinking and being. Desires and passions are shaped by the sculpting hand of the natural environment.

Sometimes the words that characters speak to each other are cut like wood: in many of the novel’s climactic scenes, speech is painfully restricted, an inadequacy camouflaged by physical activity.

Winterborne suffers most acutely from this linguistic disorder. He finds his words “split in two pieces”. They do not respond to his conscious intentions, but, for example, to the arc of his arm while carving. In this way, language is a consequence of the primacy of the body: like an echo, it constantly confirms the fact of the embodiment.

In an era of environmental catastrophe, The Woodlanders has a new and surprising urgency. The cumulative effect of the ubiquity of trees is to imply something about our notions of selfhood, something that philosopher Dalia Nassar and plant scientist Margaret Barbour have described because the lesson trees can teach us about embodiment and boundary, of “our rootedness, relationality, dialogue, and responsiveness.”

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An English oak.

Read more: How trees communicate through a Wood Wide Web

Attuned to the forest

The expiration date of the trees is recorded by the two characters most lovingly attuned to the forest: Marty South and Giles Winterborne. In one remarkable scene, the pair – not quite lovers, yet united in a complicity born of their possession of a unique affinity for the plant world – plant saplings on a winter morning.

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Thomas Hardy (1840-1928).
Public domain.

Hardy’s affection for Winterborne is emphasized by the attention he pays to the young man’s movements. A skilled lumberjack, Giles has a mystical ability. His fingers are “endowed with a gentle magician to spread the roots of each sapling, resulting in a kind of caress, beneath which the delicate fibers all spread out in the right directions of growth”.

But it is the young woman Marty, barely more than a girl, with her hands roughened by the skin of trees, that she can hear “hissing.” Hardy also lets us hear it with that beautiful word. As he places the plant in the hollow of earth Giles has made, Marty listens as “the soft musical breathing immediately sets in, which day and night would not cease until the mature tree should be felled”.

Marty’s sighting indicates her prophetic role in the story. She sees and hears the signs of an impending tragedy long before the other inhabitants of the village.

There is more to this relationship between humans and trees, something of ontological significance that Hardy realizes about our embedding in the environment. Hardy doesn’t think of humans without reference to the natural world. Put another way, and somewhat awkwardly, there is no character without a tree. There is not a human voice, nor human love or pain, that is not uttered without this defining correspondence with fertile and carnal matter.

The human drama that is so delicately moving in The Woodlanders arises from the damp soil and the branches laden with unnecessary leaves that ‘rub each other in wounds’. The diffuse vocabulary of nature, tender and violent, is incorporated into the representation of human emotion. When Grace realizes that she is more deeply and irredeemably in love with Giles than she had first understood, “her heart rises from his grief like a loose branch”.

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Rufus Sewell as Giles Winterbourne and Emily Woof as Grace Melbury in the 1997 film adaptation of The Woodlanders.

In Hardy’s radical cosmology, love is his desire for metamorphosis: a poetic and fantastical transposition of metaphysical desire into the earthy and sap-stained realm of the trees.

While Hardy’s prose vibrates with the energies of nature, a competitive and sometimes antagonistic time order regulates social life. Obsessions with patriarchal lineage and class define the elaborate marriage plot, which involves five characters: Grace Melbury and Winterborne, residents of Hintock, who have been engaged since late childhood; Edred Fitzpiers, an urbane and brilliant doctor, who becomes Grace’s worthless husband; and Fitzpiers’ lover, Felice Charmond, a widow, indulgent in her love but capricious in her affections.

The last is Marty South, who watches the romantic entanglements from a distance and intervenes when necessary, usually using a tool from the forest itself.

Arcadian Lovers

The rigors of secrets, lies, and betrayal that bind the characters are too complex to describe in detail here, so I’ll focus on the couple that captures Hardy’s and the reader’s interest: Grace and Giles, the Arcadian lovers, whose quietly magnificent passion for each other is inseparable from the brilliance and pain of the forest. It is in his depiction of their acts of tenderness, culminating in a spirit of mutual adoration that characterizes their love for each other, that Hardy most fully realizes a tree sublime.

Hardy’s fiction is notorious for its tragic spirit, so distilled it’s almost unbearable. Suffering even seams the rare moments of bliss in his stories.

In The Woodlanders, this tragic spirit is portrayed in the extraordinary encounter between Giles and Grace, staged as a slowly unfolding lovemaking, but of a different kind altogether. As the story inevitably drifts towards the desperation predicted throughout, Grace and her lover descend into a Dantean underworld of dense plantations, a world so thick with foliage it feels as though it is undocked and belongs only to these two.

Eroticism does not take place through real lovemaking, but through small gestures, touching the fingertips, sharing food, naked words spoken. As Grace realizes that Winterborne is dying, her forest myth transformation is complete. She drags his feverish body onto a bark of ferns and branches and carries him to a place of warmth. Sheltered from the incessant rain, she kisses and bathes his too-warm flesh, nursing him with all the care she dared to give so far.

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The path to Thomas Hardy’s cottage in Dorset, England.
Wikimedia Commons

In these ritualized acts of love for a dying man, we see Hardy’s ideal of love. It is spiritual rather than carnal, but not a simple opposition. Rather, it is a dialectic between the ideal and the fleshy. The lovers “burden each other’s souls”, but it is a desire anchored in the material.

We see this when Winterborne dies, just hours after Grace’s desperate efforts to revive him, to keep him with her. Walking through the woods to her father’s house, and to her grieving husband, the world has changed. The trees mourn Winterborne, weeping sap that is a phosphorescence, a milky substance that catches the dim light and is tenacious enough to penetrate the canopy. Giles has become “her wood god, smeared with lichen”, the milieu in which she moves.

The Woodlanders is as devastating as it is extraordinary in its beauty. One does not so much read Hardy, in the sense of following the black marks on the page, as experience the world he creates.

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