Sunday, 13 February 2011

Forest for Sale

Government plans to sell off the nation's forests were met with a public outcry. The debate suggests something more is at stake than the demise of a rural idyll. For supporters of public ownership it meant the axing of a deeply cherished part of the countryside. For the government it represented £100m of extra funds for empty coffers. We live in rural and urban landscapes which are shaped by us and the choices we make. But they also shape our lives, so what is the true value of places where we find belonging? And what can this teach us about city life?

My own dismay at the plans turned to a glint of interest when I began to wonder why the forests are so important for us. There is more to valuing the countryside than just idealizing a rural past. We are deeply affected by the environment in which we live and the possibilities it opens for us. The surge of passion in the current debate reminded me of the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass in the Peak District. On 24 April 1932 some five hundred ramblers marched across the hills near Manchester to protest that they were denied access to privately owned open land. Ramblers tussled with keepers and police officers with the slogan: “take action to open up the fine country at present denied us!” Five walkers were arrested in the kind of political action which seems quaintly out of place today. However these protesters were successful and as a result, laws were changed with with far reaching implications. Today much of Britain's open country is freely accessible to walkers so that everyone can enjoy it.

The surge of rural passion on that demonstration and in the current debate is not about preserving the countryside as a relic from the past but about the possibility of using the countryside with freedom in the future, and the knowledge that it isn't being used by others for their own ends. This kind of brave freedom can only come from one source, the knowledge that all of it belongs to God. The environment in which we live does not belong to private companies nor does it belong to public bodies. It is God's place. We have to use it for his purposes because these are the purposes which lead us to the freedom we passionately seek. With God's purposes in mind our freedom is different and that is what strikes my conscience in this debate. And if God has given us the forests, then he has also given us the cities. Its here that I live my daily life and its here where I need this freedom the most.

When I commute into college everyday in the middle of the bustle of London, I feel like am surrounded by people out to earn and spend money. Its as though the city is using them for something rather than the other way round. Of course, I too fall into the same trap, letting the city use me for its own ends. Its timetables and advertising dictate my life: how I spend my free time, where I spend my money, who I meet and talk to. I know that if I let these shape my life I am not being free. I need to realize that I am not built for the city, nor is the city built for me. The city is God's place too and I need a passionate craving for freedom, like a walker trespassing on the hills, to break out of the traps that I fall into. I need to seek out places where I feel free, where I am shaped by God's hands alone, so that I can live in the city to take a few brave steps off the beaten track.

London Mayor Boris Johnson has pledged to spend £4m on planting trees on the streets of London before the end of next year. It might make London greener and more pleasant, but just maybe seeing those trees grow tall can remind me that the city really does belong to God.

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