White-haired, crooked as a cottage beam,
He shuffles through the quiet wood;
Runs crabbed fingers over the young hornbeams’
Cool, straight limbs, picks at their tight bark
With cracked grey nails
And sighs. For these last months
They have been his, stripped bare and helpless,
Bending to his will.
He hears her singing far off,
Sees her first shoots spearing through the slop
And knows: she’s coming.
And beneath her softness she is strong –
Too strong for him, that’s certain –
And with her steely sweetness she will win back
All he’s called his own
Then fill it with her colour, drive away
All trace of him, send warming breezes where
His chill breath lingers, melt his footprints,
Send him to some strange and distant country
Where he’ll lie in iron chains
Until the trees wax fat and sleepy,
Eager for his touch.
Grey-barked, black-budded, hung with lockless keys
They stand in shaws, haunt hedgerows. In these parts
Men called them widow-makers; now the trees
Themselves are facing death. Suspicion starts
To gather: are those leaves just autumn-browned?
Is that a patch of lichen, nothing more –
Or have these woods become a battleground
Where every ash is readying for war?
For once again, the Norselands send their raiders
To pillage England: not with sword and axe
But microscopic spores; unseen invaders
With thirty million targets for attacks.
In dieback lies the ruin of us all:
For mighty Yggdrasil itself will fall.
Ash dieback has been confirmed in the neighbouring county of Kent, so we’re now just waiting to see whether our Sussex ashes succumb to Chalara fraxinea. Ash trees were known as ‘widow-makers’ hereabouts because of their unfortunate tendency to drop large branches without warning. Despite this ambivalent relationship with mankind, they’re very much a part of our local landscape. If dieback takes hold, we could be looking at destruction on a scale we haven’t seen since the Great Storm of 1987.
A thousand years ago, Sussex was ravaged by the Vikings: like them, ash dieback has arrived here from Scandinavia, which gave me the idea for this piece. That Yggdrasil, the great tree that holds up the world in Norse mythology, is an ash seemed the perfect crowning irony.
Call it a wood,
And nothing more, and you will not be wrong,
But telling only half the truth. This is
My own cathedral, with more glory caught
In every bluebell, tender hornbeam bud
And papery anemone than vast
Vaults of Caen stone and acres of stained glass.
And also it’s my study: living trees
Tell stories that the dead wood of my desk
Cannot recall. And it’s my schoolroom, too:
Repository of wisdom of the earth
And every lesson worth the learning. Here
Are life and death writ large, the wheel’s slow spin.
And this is my apothecary: I find
In its rich scents, soft light and shaded paths
The sovereign remedies for all my pains
In heart and mind. And it’s my sanctuary:
The fears that stalk my days and nights don’t dare
Pursue me when I claim protection here.
And this is my great stronghold: bastion
Against the madness, ugliness and noise
That lie beyond its green, enfolding walls –
Call that the world.
This is a blank-verse reworking of a piece I wrote a year or so ago. I’ve had a bit of a week of it work-wise, so writing some iambic pentameter between phonecalls this morning has been very soothing: form and subject matter coming together, I guess. I’m afraid I wasn’t up to rhyming it as well, though! N.
March morning. Walking in the woods I heard
A hollow knocking, like Fate at the door
Beethoven-style. Hard looking flushed a bird,
Slate-grey-and-clotted-cream, who crept with sure
And certain stealth along a rot-racked limb
And, with his testing tapping, set the tree
Reverberating. I could have held him
Between my thumb and finger easily
And yet, he made a towering oak resound
And showed me that, small as we may appear,
When time and place are right, we too can sound
Like giants, with a voice all men can hear.
I’ll hammer on the world’s dead wood and make
A noise no-one can silence or mistake.
The nuthatch is one of my favourite woodland birds: small, not showy and rather tricky to spot, but seemingly able to defy gravity, running head-first down treetrunks and along the undersides of branches with perfect aplomb. This one was looking for insects in a big oak tree in our local woods; I could hear him tapping the bark with his beak from a hundred yards away.
Letter of wishes
When I am gone, do not lay me to rest
In some town-council cemetery: my bones
Would ache for all eternity, distressed
By unfamiliar soil and serried stones.
Don’t bury me at sea: I’ve no desire
For an afterlife with Davy Jones’s crew;
Nor box me up and feed me to the fire:
The planet doesn’t need my CO2.
No – take me to the woods. The trees will keep
A vigil, that you need not lose your years
In watching me. On rainy days, they’ll weep
For me, that your sweet eyes may know no tears.
But now, the sky is clearing. No more thought
Of this: there’s much to do – and time is short.
This came to me while I was walking the dog this morning. It was cold and raining, and the woods were ankle-deep in the special mud we have around here that manages to be both treacherously slippery and unbelievably sticky at the same time. I knew I wanted to write a sonnet: it started out, perhaps understandably, as a rather melancholy piece, but happily, I think it’s turned out rather upbeat. I guess the poem knew how it wanted to be written: all I had to do was stay out of the way.
The woods are full
Of the concert hall’s
Should have been here last night
When a great Beethoven gale
Made the whole world its instrument:
Only the soft southern fringe
Of the heavyweight hooley
Making trouble over the border
But still a thug,
Coming in hard with boots and fists:
Snapping off branches like a thoughtless child
And setting the chain-link fencing
Shrieking like a girl.
A proper wind that draws
Half a hemisphere into its lungs
Then rips the hat right off my head,
Shrink-wraps me in my coat,
Turns strolling around the field
To wading thigh-deep through the sea.
I walk among the dazed and breathless trees
Shocked at their shattered limbs
But smiling –
As any woodwind player should –
At seeing the world refashioned
By the moving of the air.
I have found myself
So filled with others’ clamour
My own word-hoard is spent and plundered.
I have measured each hour’s value
While leaving its true worth unweighed;
Made walking in the woods and fields
Another tick on the to-do list,
Gloried in the dawn departures
And burning quarts of midnight oil,
Talked of plans and strategies,
Of doing, being, wanting more.
So I must lose myself
Again; become forgetful,
Run my hands along the bark
Of growing trees, watch the wind
Turn ash-leaves silver,
Smell the grass the cows have trodden,
Find my old ways through the woods.
And if I wander far enough
I know that I will meet myself
Coming back again.
Rounding a rise deep in the wood
I feel my throat and fingers tighten:
A half-dozen young hornbeams
Supple, wrist-thick, new in leaf,
Wrenched from their ancient coppice-stools
Or snapped off shoulder-high,
Torn ends splayed like old paintbrushes,
Stark-white as wantons stripped in the market-place.
Someone seized these living limbs
And broke them, felt the soft bark split and curl
Heard the tender fibres tear
Smeared their hands with green and sap
And – what then? Just walked away
Or – more likely – ran off laughing, leaving
These slender lengths of springtime bent
And sticking out like dislocated fingers.
I stand in my defiled, sacred space
And grieve. For more than trees died here today.
The night watch
Walking the woods as twilight slips
Like a poacher between the fading trees
My every step sets off some new alarm:
A blackbird chinking like a mason’s chisel;
A stream of shrill invective
Pouring from an unseen wren, blazing with a courage
A hundred times her size;
Pigeons clattering from the topmost branches
In a fusillade of frantic wings;
Jays and magpies rasping threats, while the silly yaffle
Hides behind his nervous laugh.
The watchword is passing through the wood
Like a creeping barrage. I advance behind it,
All element of surprise long gone
And with it any hope of gaining ground.
And as I pass back into the world
Of cars and curses, litter and the ugly shouts
Of boys and girls abroad too late, grown up too soon,
The darkening wood still rings with song:
The all-clear, and a sweet lament
For what the world once was
And all that we have lost.
Pass in under the wood’s eaves
And take the right fork past the tall lone ash
With the hole high up where the nuthatch hides.
Four steps down to the silted stream
Its banks revetted with iron roots
Like veins in the back of an old man’s hand.
Five back up to the field corner
And a sinuous trail, just shoulder-wide,
A winterbourne of mud between low branches
That pluck at clothes like nagging children.
Four ways shake hands in the trampled clearing;
Follow the one that rounds the rim
Of the deep pit dug by long-dead brick-makers.
Into the coppice, over twin ditches
The hunting-dog hurdles in two long leaps.
Past the great fallen tree, worm-holed, beetle-bored,
And weave through the birches down in the dip.
Hug the wood’s edge where it fronts the field
Home to rabbits and cows in the warmth of the day
And the fox in the evening. Up the short steep slope,
Sandy, seamed with burrows, to a broad, level ride
Under spreading oaks, where the bluebell scent
Hangs thick as smoke. Pause in a soaring hornbeam hall
High as a church, with a floor of beaten earth. Call the dog.
Over a young tree, still bravely bursting into leaf
Though laid low by a curl of wind a dozen nights ago.
Down the slope where the squirrels sprint
For safety in the tangled trees. Three steps down
To the sleeper bridge, then the last drag up
To the wood’s front door. Close it behind you.
Keep the key.
I got the idea for this poem from the wonderful ‘Britannia‘ atlas of England and Wales – the world’s first-ever nationwide road map, published by Scottish polymath John Ogilby in 1645. It consists of a series of 100 strip maps, drawn at the then-innovative scale of one inch to the mile, each describing a section of road, such as ‘London-Bromley-Sevenoaks-Tonbridge-Rye’ (plate 31) or ‘Oxford-Buckingham-Bedford-Cambridge’ (plate 80). It bridges the gap between modern cartography and the medieval means of navigating across country, which basically involved following directions from one town to the furthest extent of local knowledge, then asking again.
For my poem, I simply followed Ogilby’s example and wrote notes as I walked round our nearby woods. (Incidentally, Ogilby claimed to have surveyed over 26,000 miles of roads in order to compile his atlas, measuring distances using the intriguingly-named ‘Wheel Dimensurator’; about 7,500 miles’-worth appeared in the final version) Sadly, I can’t draw, so I’ve created a ‘strip map in words’, which I hope gives some flavour of what you might find if you ever chance upon our corner of the country.