To live in a wood is to shack up against truth. It is stark in its reality; life and death parade before you at every turn.
Stand quietly and cast your eyes across the woodland floor. See the young ash seedlings trembling with vulnerability? They have no parent to protect them, they stand alone. They can die from an infinite number of things: lack of light, water, mineral salts, or bullied out of existence by bigger trees.
Disease can reap havoc among them, deer too, their young shoots gobbled up by what to the forester must seem the gory infanticide of browsing animals. They can be crushed by windblown trees, or die from sheer ignorance on our part – we tread on them, as I have done, when careless. Yet despite these odds, they always appear to me so optimistic, the strength and equanimity of the adult tree already there in the fragile infant, as if glowing.
For those that got away, they now stretch above me, the youth section in a canopy of varying ages. Slender adolescents, playful and carefree, fraternising with the wind; vigorous middle-aged trees adding girth, soon to challenge those reaching senility as chieftains of the wood; gnarly veterans manically shredding seed before they die.
Among the living, one can also count the dead. Standing corpse-wood shot with holes, a home for beetles and bats, a vertical larder for woodpecker and treecreeper. Below, toppled giants returning to the earth that bore them. A horizontal fir, pole-axed by an Atlantic storm, slowly breaking down. I try the trunk with my toe cap, it crumbles without demur, the innards as friable as a loamy soil. Dead animals too: a wood pigeon’s remains picked clean, just a shell-burst of feathers; a grass snake on its back, irrevocably expired; under a leaning woodpile of hazel, a partly decomposed fox. Looking upon it a surge of pity passed over me, a wave of sadness I could not duck. I was reminded me of a friend’s dog that had been lost in a house fire. Unable to get out, she had retreated inside a wardrobe and curled up. I found the memory too awful and did not dwell.
Back to the fox I scrutinised the fine skull and intricate vertebrae, the tufts of damp, russet fur. The animal was gone, what made it ‘fox’ had departed. All that was left were the raw materials and they would be recycled. For just like the sediment which forms on the seabed from the marine dead, the wood, too, builds its layers. Creatures decay, leaves rot, the carpet of animal and vegetable matter drawn down by earthworms. Bit by bit, the leaf litter is altered, undone by saliva, passed through their digestive tracts and back out as soil.
In the gloom of the woodland floor, my eye caught a glimmer of movement, an exclamation of life as vivid as it was small. A bright green caterpillar, no longer than the nail of my little finger, was pinching its way across the mossy girth of a beech tree. The mismatch in size between the grey pillar and the luminous grub was at once ridiculous – so much so it made me smile – but also poignant. Despite such polarities of scale, there was instant music there, a wedge of common ground. Not only of a shared home, but of shared goals: survival, growth and pro-creation. In what seemed a spirit of fraternal solidarity, the vast, immobile tree waived the tiny green life form through. And I sat transfixed. Like a desert nomad aiming across infinite dunes, the minute traveller seemed so noble, so prepossessed. What drove it? At that moment it seemed so acutely tuned-in, as if wired to some vast computer, as close to the clockwork of the universe as the hare or owl.