And if Robin should be cast
Sudden from his turfed grave,
And if Marian should have
Once again her forest days,
She would weep, and he would craze:
He would swear, for all his oaks,
Fall’n beneath the dockyard strokes,
Have rotted on the briny seas …
NOTTINGHAMSHIRE, U.K. — The poem above, by John Keats, reveals three things about English folklore: the power of the figure of Robin Hood, the sacred nature of the oak tree, and the indelible link between the two of them.
Writing in 1818, Keats was invoking these powerful images as he railed against the Royal Navy’s plundering of the nation’s forests to take oak for shipbuilding.
Today, the figure of Robin Hood is again being invoked as his very heartland of Sherwood Forest, and the great ancient oak, fabled to be his hideout, are now facing a very contemporary threat. Anti-fracking campaigners in the UK recently learned that chemical multinational INEOS has been in discussions with the UK’s Forestry Commission to carry out seismic surveys in Sherwood.
If agreed, the survey will allow INEOS to spend up to two years burying charges and using other seismic equipment to search for shale gas in the forest, which is designated as a National Nature Reserve. Additionally, Friends of the Earth have obtained documents under the Freedom of Information laws that reveal INEOS could be active within 200 metres of the Major Oak.
Sherwood Forest, as many know, is at the heart of the Robin Hood legend and a huge part of English mythical lore. The 1,000 year old Major Oak is a pivotal part of that legend as it is reputed to be where Robin and his Merry Men took shelter from the Sheriff of Nottingham. As recently as 2014, the oak came top of a Woodland Trust poll for ‘England’s Tree of the Year.’
The recent facking move has angered and incensed the anti-fracking community. Friends of the Earth campaigner Guy Shrubsole, speaking to FrackFree Nottinghamshire, said: “I can’t think of anything more iconic in the English mindset to go for. You’d have thought they’d have learnt from the mistakes of some of the other fracking companies to avoid it, but they’ve gone straight for it.”
His comments suggest there is a belief that this latest step may touch broader public sentiment as well as galvanising existing anti-fracking movements.
Beyond the Robin Hood mythos, oaks are very synonymous with England and even in mainstream culture are given special reverence. It is still common for people to use such terms as “stout as an oak” or “hearts of oak/oak-hearted” as an epithet for bravery or courage.
Of course, oaks have a special relevance for Druids too. Some scholars speculate that the word Druid is a derivative of the Gaelic word/s for Oak (Welsh: Dar, Darwen Irish: Dair, Scottish: Darach). The Roman historian Pliny speaks of how Gaulish Druids worshipped in oak groves and cut mistletoe from their boughs with golden sickles.
Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, INEOS was quick to emphasise that “any decision to position a well-site will consider environmental features such as the Major Oak.” The company has yet to decide if fracking will go ahead at the National Nature Reserve.
Environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth are concerned that even stand-alone seismic surveys could damage the forest. Part of Sherwood is designated a site of special scientific interest. Not only is it home to some of the most ancient woodland in Britain but also to rare species of bats and other protected animals.
The company INEOS was founded by British chemical engineer turned industrialist Jim Ratcliffe in 1998, and it currently employs 17,000 people. Last month, the company transferred its headquarters from Switzerland to the UK. This move was welcomed by the UK Government as a “vote of confidence in the UK economy”, due to INEOS’s promise of a £1.6billion (roughly $2 billion) investment in businesses including shale gas. Given the backdrop of Brexit, this may go some way to explaining the Sherwood discussions.
Not all public bodies in Nottinghamshire have been as keen as the Forestry Commission to allow seismic surveys. The National Trust, which manages nearby Clumber Park, has blocked attempts by INEOS to frack there.
For many British Pagans, the move to test in the Major Oak area is a shocking decision that has already spurred the anti-fracking community into action. On Jan 7, a 300-strong protest took place in Sherwood Forest. Organised by Friends of the Earth and Frack Free Nottinghamshire, a coalition of various anti-fracking groups and protestors, including The Warrior’s Call, came to demonstrate opposition to any such moves by INEOS or the Forestry Commission.
Greg Hewitt, a campaigner with Frack Free Nottinghamshire, helped organise the protest. Speaking to The Nottingham Post, he said: “I’m really happy with the turnout today. I thought it would be 50 to 100 people but it’s double that at least. It just goes to show that people all around the country are very concerned about the impact on this area.”
“We are here to raise awareness of the future threat this forest has from INEOS and fracking companies. The aim is to get people to talk to each other and hopefully leave here connected and starting to take action.”
Perhaps with the exceptions of Glastonbury and Stonehenge, it is difficult to imagine a more contentious site in the UK to consider for fracking than Sherwood Forest. Many historians and folklorists agree that Robin Hood is based on an older Green Man tradition, who is known by many names in the UK including Jack in the Green, Herne the Hunter and Robin Goodfellow.
There is a striking symbolism in this latest development in UK fracking expansion. Robin Hood is the eternal outlaw and rebel, who stood up to tyrannical King John and his enforcer, the Sheriff of Nottingham. He was a “friend to the oppressed,” as the Warrior’s Call put it.
In addition, The Warrior’s Call has noted the importance of the symbolism as something sparking outraged reaction to the INEOS bid. On its blog, the group explained, “This is due to two strands of folklore fundamental to the consciousness of Albion coming together. One is the oak tree, and the other is the legends of Robin Hood.”
The Warrior’s Call organizers were unable to respond directly in time for publication. However, we are in touch with them and will bring you their full reaction and plans in coming days.