The “Nature” of “Artificial” Forests
By Chris Pearson
As an historian of France, visiting Kielder forest prompted me to think about the Landes forest in south western France. If you’ve ever taken the train south from Bordeaux into Spain, as I once did, you will have undoubtedly passed through it. The Landes forest, at one million hectares, is reportedly the largest pine forest in Western Europe. Kielder, meanwhile, is England’s largest forest. Size clearly matters to the owners of these mega-forests; ‘The scale of Kielder Forest is enough to take your breath away!’ says the Forestry Commission’s website.
Both these forests are artificial in the sense that humans created them on land deemed largely unpopulated and unproductive. Napoleon III ordered the planting of the Landes forest in the mid-nineteenth century to reclaim supposedly unruly marshlands and dunes, whilst the Forestry Commission oversaw the creation of the Kielder spruce forest from the end of the First World War onwards. National objectives lay behind these schemes; the Second Empire sought to modernize and “improve” French territory for economic gain and imperial grandeur. As Napoleon III declared, ‘we have immense uncultivated territories to clear, roads to open, ports to dig, rivers to render navigable, canals to finish, our network of railways to complete… That is how I understand the empire, of how the empire is to be restored.’ Kielder forest, on the other hand, was to serve as a national strategic timber resource.
Historian Michael Bess has described the Landes forest as ‘artifice folded within artifice’ (The Light-Green Society  p. 262) and the same would probably apply to Kielder. Of course, all forests that are subject to human use and management are “artificial” to greater or lesser extents. But if a prize was to be awarded to the most artificial forest in Western Europe (at a kind of sylvan Oscars with golden tree statuettes for prizes?), it would be a close run thing between the Landes and Kielder forests.
Both these forests are part of history and have their own history. In the present day, when wildness, sustainability, and “green-ness” are highly praised, the forests’ managers have sought to deepen their forest’s green credentials. Both authorities portray their forests as spaces of nature protection, alongside sites of recreation and forestry production. Kielder is home to England’s largest Red Squirrel population and the Forest Commission claims that it is the place to be ‘if it is tranquillity and wild beauty you are after’. Over in France, the Parc naturel régional des Landes de Gascogne (Natural Regional Park of the Landes de Gascogne) manages 315 300 hectares of the forest, with a mission to preserve its natural and cultural heritage. And whilst both authorities are clear that it is the remnants of pre-sylvan habitats that are the most important ecologically-speaking (peat bogs at Kielder, heathland in the Landes), they now seek to manage the forest in more sustainable ways.
The “greening” of these forests springs from changing social attitudes and attests to their cultural malleability. It also shows a certain amount of slippage between concepts of “nature” and “artifice”. Does this matter? Certainly not, it seems, for the red squirrels of Kielder. And I’m not sure that it matters too much for us humans. For both Kielder and the Landes are messy hybrids; one is an artificial forest with England’s largest red squirrel population; another an artificial forest that is part of a protected area. We live in a world where nature and culture are all jumbled up, and arguably always have been for as long as humans have lived on this earth. Both forests question the false separation of “nature” and “culture” and for that alone they are worth visiting.