It’s a cold winter’s day. As I walk up to the woods, the weather can’t seem to make up its mind whether or not to rain again.
January can be like that - indecisive and impulsive. The sky looks like it has had a watercolour wash; the various degrees of slate grey contrasting with the washed out blush pinks of the rainclouds. Two sycamore trees stand guard at the edge of the wood as if pillars of a stately house gate. The hogweed left over from last summer is still standing skeletal, glistening sliver in the dripping wet. It’s pepper pot seed heads appear to be waving at me over the stile. I clamber over and I’m in.
Woods take on a personality all of their own depending on the weather, time of day and season. With the wind roaring through the deciduous canopy, today it’s moody, out of sorts and irritated.
The branches snap off cracking as if rifle retort while the swaying trunks creak like a rocking chair.
The wood sounds like it’s having an aural tantrum. The noise puts nerves on edge. But I press on still.
A kestrel hangs on the wind’s ebb and flow just outside the entrance. His gunmetal blue head contrasts with the flash of his yellow beak. For a split second he could be a carved wood Imperial eagle that adorned church pulpits. He looks down through the rain, his searching eyesight scanning for prey. He hunts in the near ultraviolet light spectrum; rodent urine marks reflect UV light back.
He starts to makes a low sudden nosedive, but halfway through thinks better of it and comes up back to the same position as before. He is a silhouette again against the sky.
He and I both move on.
I walk through to the heart of the woods, crossing muddy paths that have turned into microscopic streams. The fallen rainwater preserving a temporary fossilised record of my footprints in the dirt.
The first shoots of dog mercury are trying to break through the surface of the ground. It needs shade to survive; high concentrations of light can kill. In a few weeks’ time their tiny yellow flowers will be fighting with a carpet of light loving bluebells for dominance of the woodland floor.
A battle of light and shade that is dependent on how the weather affects the trees. At this rate, with the amount of fallen branches and uprooted trees, we will be having a fine bloom of the bluebells this spring.
I stand looking at the dead trees fallen in the storms. One trunk has snapped in half. It exposes the annual growth rings. This memory bank of nearly 150 years stored in the dead wood can tell some tales. I see written in the rings years of good weather, when the tree was attacked by caterpillars and faster growth years due to the felling of neighbouring trees.
World history can be read in it too; I have heard it said that the tightening of rings for the years 1883 -1884 is a result of the explosion of the volcano on Krakatau in Indonesia which affected the weather worldwide.
I think of how the tree came into being. Did it fall from a bird as a seed? Or was it windblown? Perhaps a farm labourer deliberately planted it there. What was he thinking about? The civil war in America? Steam agricultural machines he saw at Grimsthorpe? Who will ever know?
I look at the other trees still standing, groaning in the wind, thinking about their history. Peeled bark like ancient grazes cast shadows over the cracks and fissures over the wizened old skin of the tree. Ear like rotting bracket fungus powder the trunks with decayed spores. A disgruntled squirrel sits in an oak, one small mass of sodden tail and little else.
I wish I had packed a tape measure today to measure the girth of some of the oaks. When a student, I was taught a rough guide of working out the age of a tree. It involves standing next to a tree, and then between your neck and your chest, take a measurement of the girth (the circumference of the tree). The theory is that a tree’s girth grows approximately 1.25cm a year if it’s in a wood. If it’s a tree on its own, in a park for example, it grows roughly 2.5 cm a year. You multiply that figure by the girth measurement to get an estimate age.
We look at trees today as just that: trees, tall things that happen to be in the countryside. A natural form of street furniture; somewhere for birds to live, and cutting them down isn’t a good thing for the environment.
To our ancestors they would have been viewed very differently.
Trees were tools, farm implements and industrial applications ready to be cut out of the trunk. Trees built and furnished your house, village and town. They feed you with fruits or via your animals that foraged on the leaves or nuts. They heated your home and cooked your meals. They were a way of paying your rent to your landlord. As a tree left to grow it would be an investment for grandchildren, either to sell or to be used in decades to come.
Trees delineated field boundaries and landmarks, meeting places for markets. Trees demonstrated the power of the law; places of execution and hangings. Old and majestic trees became famous and became immortalised in verse and paint. Ancestors have sung songs and danced in their honour. Some have venerated trees to the point of pagan worship.
We usually don’t think of this when walking through a wood. These days’ woodcrafts are taught as a hobby rather than a necessary skill. Today we just appreciate the quiet and the cleaner air while enjoying the stroll. Perhaps we should remember though just how important these woods are to us.
A scuffling noise behind makes me look down. Amongst the tufts of blonde grass a juvenile robin bounces around foraging, his red breast a dried blood colour. The lichen contrasts its bright green fur with the pewter grey branches on which it grows. The rain is starting to fall again. I decide to head home. Tangled dreadlocks of ivy around a hawthorn flick into my eye as I cross into the adjoining field.
I leave a wild untamed place where one’s imagination can run free, I head back to a world of modern reality.
Stuart Bullen, of Bourne, trained as a biologist at the University of Sheffield and has worked in the media. He is passionate about nature and the environment and he has worked on various conservation projects with Natural England and other organisations. When possible he likes to tramp around the local nature reserves and woods doing a spot of botany. He has recently qualified as a master gardener with Garden Organic.