It’s hard to imagine. More than 1,000 years ago, the Charbonnière forest was so vast, it was a border between kingdoms, just like the River Rhine. Today only a remnant is left, about 11,000 acres near Brussels.
A few of my characters in The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar stop at the edge of the forest after taking a wrong turn on the way to Le Mans. Actually, they are far off course.
In their time, the 8th century, the forest was too dense to be worth clearing for agriculture. Called Silva Carbonaria in Roman times, it probably was a source for charcoal, a valuable fuel for heating homes and smelting iron.
The extent of the forest is difficult to determine. Roughly, it lay between the rivers Sambre and Scheldt.
Deorlaf, my heroine’s teenage son, doesn’t know about the forest’s prior history—that it stopped a Frankish invasion from the north side. Nor is he aware the Roman road that crosses the Meuse at Maastricht skirts the forest. With winter approaching, he and his companions face a more urgent matter: where to wait out the season before they resume their travels.
Long after Deorlaf’s time, aristocrats claimed portions of the forest for hunting grounds, thus preventing anyone from settling in it. Elsewhere within the woods, religious communities established themselves—the wilderness provided a retreat from the world. But in the 18th century, landowners who needed money cut down many trees for their timber.
It’s easy for a 21st century American environmentalist to judge our ancestors’ decisions. If my children were hungry, would I cut down and sell centuries-old trees? Maybe. Still, I must admit some melancholy when I think that this enormous forest has mostly disappeared. We humans indeed can change our environment. It’s up to us to make sure it’s for the better.
I am thankful someone had the foresight to preserve the remnant for the Charbonnière, the Sonian Forest, for future generations.
A History of Belgium from the Roman Invasion to the Present Day by Émile Cammaerts
La Forêt Charbonnière by CH Duvivier