Caught by the River

The Heart of the Woods

Sue Brooks | 14th June 2024

Newly published by Aurum, Wyl Menmuir’s ‘The Heart of the Woods’ recognises the wisdom and dignity of trees over the course of a Celtic year, writes Sue Brooks.

There is something breathtaking about the last decade for Wyl Menmuir. He moved to the NW coast of Cornwall in 2013 and his first novel (The Many) was published in 2016. Two more followed, and in 2022 his first non-fiction book The Draw of the Sea won the Roger Deakin Award for that year. Two years later he has researched, planned and completed a second work of non-fiction, The Heart of the Woods. 

Both books have a similar format — a series of essays about our relationships with the sea, and with trees. What they mean to us; how we feel about them; the stories we tell. There are black and white photos, a glossary of Sea/Tree Words, and comprehensive notes to each section. I approached with reservations; about the crowded genre and the feeling that a second book copying a winning formula could turn out to be a risky venture. Does it work…?

Resoundingly — yes, it does. The journey loosely follows the Celtic year in the UK. Starting and ending around the Winter Solstice, Wyl makes short visits as far North as Scotland and West to County Clare in Ireland. Each have a different focus, a different aspect of woodlands, wood working and the people who make their living from it. Arrangements have been made for meetings with certain people — Merlin Sheldrake, Guy Shrubsole, Mark Rylance — and many others who have particular expertise in certain areas. Wyl has a fine ear for recorded speech, with himself as narrator, introducing the other characters and allowing the scene to take shape. Sometimes large passages are quoted in the text, but it doesn’t come across as intrusive or didactic. Merlin, for example: “in the fungal sciences, you’re never more than half a step away from a deep unanswered question. It’s an exhilarating feeling…”

Around midsummer, when Wyl is in Scotland for the Clootie Well at Munlochy and soon after for the Forest Bathing chapter in Northumberland, certain Japanese words are scattered in the text. All becomes clear in Chapter 10 when he is in Takayama in Japan meeting the traditional craftsmen who use tools and skills unknown in the West. There is a reverence in Buddhism and Shintoism towards ancient trees which is palpable in the way the carpenters speak about the wood as they handle and shape it — into exquisite netsuke, for example — which makes this one of the most deeply moving sections. 

A meeting with an old friend at a Wassail in Cornwall sparks a visit to London and an appointment with Mark Rylance at The Globe theatre. A theatre well known and loved by Wyl from the past, but on this occasion, it is as if he is there for the first time. One thousand oak trees (some from the Forest of Dean) were used in its construction in the 1990s and there is no amplification on stage. Extraordinary to hear Mark Rylance say “The building is the teacher…we know that sound penetrates matter, so all the sound we have made…has gone into the wood. The energy is there.”

December brings four generations of the Menmuir family — Wyl himself, his son and his father and grandfather — together in N.Wales, where his father has planted a fresh piece of woodland. It is close to the ancient yews at Pennant Melangell, the Shrine Church of St Melangell. A perfect place for solitary contemplation. He thinks back over the vast range of experience in twelve short months and his strong sense of a “deep time” relationship with trees ‘which allows us to slow ourselves down, momentarily at least ‘.

Alongside, and undeniably, there is the sheer enjoyment of being an explorer. His love of the more-than-human world, but also, his love of meeting and talking with people and making their stories come alive. Fiction or non-fiction, the writing flows effortlessly.   

A postscript — as I was reading The Heart of the Woods, a tree “died” in the field opposite the house. One of a line of six 200-250 year old oak trees. The only one to be entirely leafless. There was no wind that day, but at some time during the night, the tree fell, parallel to the road, scattering no debris and avoiding the sapling planted a few years ago as a successor. 

What an honorable death. What wisdom. What dignity. I mourned it for days, and knew that Wyl Menmuir would feel the same.


‘The Heart of the Woods’ is out now and available here (£16.14). Read an extract from the book here.