Nuthatch

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.

Desecration

Heart broken

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.

Sounding the alarm

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.

Directions

Directions

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.

Payment in kind

Life and living

I know how it looks:
My riding the roads and
Walking the woods
On weekdays;
My chair growing cold
Keyboard quiet, screen boarded-up
Dust settling slowly on the desk.
But
Putting others’ words on paper
Like hammering bent, rusty nails
Into a rotten, splintered board
Is just a job.
The real work is here,
Among the tongue-tied trees
And voiceless flowers;
The wind grows weary
Of whispering to itself,
And the woods are bursting
To share old secrets
So long held in.
All this
Must be taken down,
Absorbed, distilled, translated.
A life’s labour,
Voluntary, open-ended:
Without pay or prospects,
Pension, promotion.
No kind of living;
And the only true life.

Seeing the wood for the trees

Call it a wood

Call it a wood
If you will,
But this is my cathedral;
A greater glory captured in a single hornbeam bud
Or papery anemone
Than any Caen stone vaulting
Or stained-glass acreage.
And this is my study;
These living trees inspire more lines
Than the dead wood of my desk.
And this is my schoolroom;
These mute tutors hold the wisdom
Of the earth, and every lesson worth the learning
Of life and death, of failing and returning.
And this is my hospital;
In these soft scents and shaded paths
Lie sovereign remedies
For all my pains of heart and mind.
And this is my sanctuary;
The fears that stalk my nights and days
Dare not follow when I claim
Protection beneath this canopy.
And this is my stronghold;
A bulwark against the madness,
The ugliness, the noise
Of all that lies outside:
Call that the world.

Democracy in action

A NEW LEAF?

I thought that I should never see
This triumph of democracy;

Our voices raised across the land
Forced ministers to stay their hand,

And cancel plans to sell our oaks
And other trees to greedy blokes

Who only see the beech and ash
And chestnut as a source of cash

And would have curbed our ancient right
To walk the woodlands. So in spite

Of pressures on the national purse
Our leaders paused, engaged reverse

And said that they had got it wrong
(As we had told them all along).

The law is made by fools, you see;
But only God can make a tree.

A follow-up to yesterday’s U-turn by the Coalition on its proposed national forestry sell-off. Alfred Joyce Kilmer’s poem ‘Trees’ has been parodied many, many times, most famously by Ogden Nash. I figured one more couldn’t hurt.

Fallow ground

A poem about a group of deer I spotted on a ride this week.

FALLOW GROUND

Were they cattle
I could count on them
To still be here
At sunset.
But within an hour
Or at some sudden sound
They can vanish,
Passing like woodsmoke through
The arbitrary lines and limits
Ruled across the land:

Fences, gates and hedges
Do not hold them;
Feeding like sheep
In this quiet pasture
They’re never for a second
Less than wild.
Everywhere and nowhere,
Slotting in among the common stock
Then blithely with their white rumps bobbing,
Misting into the sheltering woods
Leaving the tame, compliant and confined
Flat-footed in the field.