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.
Work-sick, world-shy and heart-weary, I went
To ask the woods if they remembered me.
Would I still find words pinned to every tree
Like poor Orlando’s poems? I had meant
To come there sooner, spend more time among
Them, walk their well-known paths and hunt for rhymes
Like birds’ nests. Of our tiny daily crimes
These are the worst: to leave our songs unsung,
And sights laid on for us unseen. The drive
To Do leaves us so little time to Be.
We’ve endless choice: let’s use it, and be free –
Make livings matter less than being alive.
Come with me, seek the solace of the wood:
Look on its works, and see that they are good.
Thanks, Tom. N.
The day that I left, I came out here
Alone, to the woods. As I stared
Through the trees, felt the summer breeze stirring,
I gazed into myself and declared:
“Don’t ever forget where you come from:
This new life that you’re ready to start
Will be full of things trying to persuade you
They’re important. Stay true to your heart
And this place: what’s around you now matters:
It’s unchanging and won’t let you down.
So remember – these trees, fields and hedgerows
Will be here when the bright lights of town
Have grown dim, and you’re starting to wonder
Why the cash and the company car
Aren’t enough to make life worth the living
And you’re no longer sure who you are.”
And I proved myself right. So I come back
When I can, just to walk here, and grieve
For that lost self – the boy from the country
Who, in truth, never wanted to leave.
Went for a long walk with the whippet yesterday in some beautiful woods not far from my parents’ place. Haven’t been there in ages, but it was just like old times – in so many ways. N.
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.
Now as the new moon rises, they convene
Deep in the wood. Dark shapes in noiseless flight
Alight to watch and wait. Others, unseen,
Announce their presence with their haunting calls.
And now the beech-branch-vaulted meeting halls
Stand ready for the business of the night.
For motions of great moment fill the hours
When day is done, away from watching eyes.
The statutes of these stern nocturnal powers
Are handed down to every mouse and vole
That shivers in its nest and hidden hole.
No clemency, appeal or compromise.
This legislature, old as life and time,
Serves its own interests, not some common good.
And at the distant church-clock’s plangent chime
They will divide and pass their savage law,
To be enforced by talon, beak and claw –
Just as their hapless subjects knew they would.
When the language hands you a collective noun like ‘a parliament of owls’ it seems a shame not to use it. I often hear the twany owls’ debates down in the woods when I’m walking the whippet at night; as a child, I was terrified by their hooting in the trees behind our house, but now it gives me a real thrill.
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.
Out of it
The dull, another-day-dawns groan
From the endless procession
Of gleaming, rat-racing cars reaches me
Across a quarter-mile of fields.
That was me
Out there, on the road, at about this time.
Not now. Nor ever again.
Not if I can help it.
Maybe I’m less
Than I might be, should be:
While I walk in these cold woods
The world runs on without me
And doesn’t seem
To feel the loss.
I can live with that.
I call the dog
Run up the hill,
Dry leaves cracking like early ice
Beneath my boots,
Through wedges of dusty sunlight
Driven between the fading hornbeams,
Loving every moment
Of my virtual commute
To what the world pretends
Is real work
But I know
To be simply an illusion.
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.