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Monday, June 15, 2015

The Magna Carta and the Forest

The Magna Carta was, in considerable part, about forests. Indeed, it was about what was wrong with "forests." As the noble document celebrates its 800th birthday, this may be a good time to mark its significance to the ecosystem.

In 1215, the barons were in full rebellion and had captured large parts of England from the King. When they all met to negotiate peace in a field at Runnymede on June 15th – the King lost his freedom to have his way with the forests.  

In an otherwise fun and insightful New Yorker article on the Magna Carta, Jill Lepore came across as a bit blurry on all that forest stuff. She seemed finally relieved to note: “In 1217, provisions having to do with the woods were separated into ‘the charters of the forests.’”

But, no, there was nothing about "the woods" in the Magna Carta. The words "woods” and “forests” did not mean anything like the same thing back then. (In fact, those also meant different things to the people who – exactly 700 years later – established the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. But more on that later.)

There are no “original” woodlands in England. All wooded lands have been planted intentionally on land earlier used for some other purpose - mostly farming or pasture. But the nobility enjoyed natural lands as places to relax and to hunt. To establish nature, they fenced areas, kept most people out, and planted. As Kings became more powerful, they wanted larger and larger areas for “the chase” (i.e. galloping after deer or foxes on horseback). For these bigger areas, fencing was too expensive. So they began establishing “forests” – the word deriving from the Latin foris meaning “unenclosed” or “unfenced.” At first, most of these areas were of limited value to most people (moors, barrens, and poor quality grazing land).  They need not have a single tree to be set aside as forests. They were just tracts of land kept as natural habitat, for the enjoyment of Kings and nobles. Instead of fences, the protection that restored "nature" there was the “law” and “justice.” People who harvested the King’s fruit from a forest could (and did) have their hands cut off. People who fed their families the King’s deer could be put to death. A pet dog found in the forest would have one front foot amputated, so it could not steal the King’s game.

King John chases a deer past a rabbit warren. By being a jerk, he helped advance personal liberty.

According to Richard fitz Nigel, royal treasurer during the reign of Henry II (1154 to 1189:
... in the forests are the kings’ retreats and their greatest delights. For they go there to hunt, leaving their cares behind, to refresh themselves with a little rest. There, setting aside the turmoil of serious matters intrinsic to the court, they breathe fresh air freely for a little while; and that is why people who violate the forest are punished solely at the king’s will.”

The hated and clueless King John set aside massive “forests” on some rather valuable lands, removing them from the control of the nobles. He increased the forests to about a third of the country. In so doing, along with other usurpations, he overplayed his hand, setting in motion currents of freedom that continue to flow (and ebb) today.
Thoreau popularized the concept that the wild nature that was good for the king was also good for the public. As he wrote in his journal in 1861:
“What are the natural features which make a township handsome? A river, with its waterfalls and meadows, a lake, a hill, a cliff or individual rocks, a forest, and ancient trees standing singly. Such things are beautiful; they have a high use which dollars and cents never represent. If the inhabitants of a town were wise, they would seek to preserve these things, though at considerable expense, for such things educate far more than any hired teachers or preachers, or any at present recognized system of school education. … As in many countries precious metals belong to the crown, so here more precious natural objects of rare beauty should belong to the public.”

A mere four decades later, that profound thinking was adopted by the Chicago visionaries who established the world’s first metropolitan preserves of nature – that today comprise 11% of Cook County. They called these areas “forests” in the English sense – a preserve of nature.

The citizens of Cook County voted to establish forest preserves and it bought its first land 100 years ago in 1915. The District first reported on itself to the public in 1918 with a 145-page hardbound book. In it County Board and Forest Preserve President Peter Reinberg gives a somewhat garbled account of the definition of “a forest.” But he tries. He starts with the Oxford English Dictionary:
“certain territory of wooded grounds, fruitful pastures, privileged for wild beasts and fowls of forest, chase, and warren, to rest and abide in, in the safe protection of the king for his princely delight and pleasure.” Then he writes that the definition needed to be economically brought up to date. 

At that time, a ferocious conservation debate raged – its principal partisans being John Muir (following Thoreau) and Gifford Pinchot, friend of Teddy Roosevelt and first chief of the new U.S. Forest Service. County Board President Reinberg seemed to side with the bottom-line economics of Pinchot and quoted him writing that:
“forestry has principally to do with the supply of wood for various purposes, with the maintenance of waterflow in streams, with the prevention of floods and with the supply of forage for grazing animals within the forest.”  

Thus “chase and warren” become “forage for grazing animals,” and the report features horses, cows, and sheep pasturing in the grasslands that then made up a large part of the preserves. But all that grazing would be a temporary response to the “national security” demands of World War I.

Elsewhere the report, the politician Reinberg wrote, “There is a popular demand for the preservation of natural tracts from the obliterating trend of unsparing commerce and industry.” And the 1921 report of the new District used words that seemed to join Thoreau with Pinchot:
“The monetary value of recreation is inestimable. Obviously there is a direct relationship between wholesome recreation and the health, enhancing the spiritual tone of the individual and supplying an outlook upon life, invigorating to the mind as well as body.” 

As we celebrate the 800th birthday of the Magna Carta, let us honor the evolution of our culture toward one in which the freedoms and benefits once belonging only to the king are increasingly available to every person, and to the ecosystem as well.


  1. Very interesting. Thank you for sharing.

  2. The United States has its kings too. There are the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and more recently Mr. Buffett and Mr. Gates. Our society appears to be moving in the direction where wealth is more concentrated in the hands of the few.

    Some of the inner city kids I met while volunteering have never left a few block radius and would never have visited our forest preserves without the partnership to have school children volunteer. For a select few the world is very big. For the masses the world can be very small.

    For stewards their site is their world. For the time, sweat, and money stewards spend the only benefit they receive is the privilege to make a small piece of this world better for all.