Friday, May 27, 2011

Imperfect friends

Yesterday, I passed a tree down in a meadow; a tall field oak, a victim of the recent gales.  Within the splintered wound I could see the rottenness at the core; an invisible weakness exploited by the unforgiving wind.  It is painful, to see hundred-year-old trees felled in a day of wind.  I remembered the national outpouring of grief following the great gales in southern England in 1987. Remembered also our own local losses in recent storms; woods where we have walked and played, which hold memories of friends and family.
The day before, I had walked in an oak wood freshly scattered with bluebells.  Early pignuts appeared between the bramble and bracken.  Nuthatches chacked between the mustardy green of the foliage.  It should have been a scene of complete peace and calm, and yet, as always when in unknown woods, there was that edge of unease, an almost primeval anxiety which lurks just out of the edge of vision.
Our relationship with trees, and with woods (the two not always being the same) is an ambivalent one; they are the places which, historically, have provided us with shelter and nutrition; safety from the weather and ample hunting, good foraging too, on days when the deer were elusive.  They have also been, however, the source of our predators and fears, the home of wolves and bears, the hiding places for attacking tribes.  These two poles have marked our relationship with woods since we first travelled north to these temperate lands; a relationship so neatly captured in Edward Thomas’ poem The Chalk Pit:
“Here, in fact, is nothing at all
Except a silent place that once rang loud,
And trees and us – imperfect friends, we men
And trees since time began; and nevertheless
Between us still we breed a mystery”
The fear of the woods is the primordial fear which comes to us in the dark night.  It is the irrational fear of unseen places which makes us constantly turn round when we face inwards to the camp fire.  Its roots are in the same sibling connection which creates that sense of home when we step into big woods, and which feels pain at the loss of big trees.

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