Category Archives: Nature

#10 Way-finding

There is an invisible way. A path less trodden.
Not the path of the righteous, but a way of perceiving direction that leads to treasure, to unexpected beauty and secret pleasures.

I like to walk alone. On days when I’m not called to work, there is particular joy in escape. I pack food and drink, a knife, a book, rarely, a camera, and drive somewhere promising. An old wood, a set of hills far from towns, a series of meanders, somewhere I have read about, it doesn’t matter.
What matters most is the mind I take with me.
I get out of the car, put my boots on and look for the most promising direction. A gleam of sun might draw me, a group of trees, a gap in a hedge. It could be one of millions of clues, but, in the moment, there is usually something that pulls.

Last Thursday, we walked: from Combe, near Wotton-under-Edge, up and into Warren Wood, along Blackquarries Hill, into Ash Wood, followed the line of the hills, then cut down through Tyley Long Wood, then back along the plateau and sharply down, through a long abandoned farm and back to the car.

Written differently, the same journey:

The footpath led directly up and, as I was conscious of limited sun, followed it. We reached a road, but a group of trees, choked with creepers, showed a glimpse of a field shimmering brightly green. We struck upwards, her hand was snagged with briars. I put the skin to my lips. We vaulted the barbed wire and were met by a field of feed-grass that fell away to a view west towards Wales. We saw the old Severn bridge, the Black Mountains. The sun was fierce in her waning. The sky was cornflower blue. The hill led us up and back onto the road, which we followed.
Soon, a wood began to cover the slope below us. A gap in the dry-stone wall invited, we acquiesced. Strange ruins of Cotswold limestone lay beneath ashes and stands of beech. Pheasants clattered out from the undergrowth, then scurried away, heads down. Empty booze bottles, a dismembered t.v., a pair of boots, a single potato- signs of occasional purpose. We abandoned the path as it became water-logged and climbed up, then out into the fringe of a failed corn field. Buzzards mewed overhead. Following the line of the crop led to a stile, then to another field. More pheasants. A cabbage field where even more pheasants fled, one just out of my grasp. A cage of young partridge. The line of the hill ran eastward, but a gate showed a wider, deeper view and we vaulted around it.
Before us, the Severn estuary snaked below the Forest of Dean, the towers of Avonmouth blurred into Oz. The blaze of ash and beech embers drew us lower, we followed the edge of Ash Wood. A spring welled up from the side of the hill, easily forded by walking the boulders that stood alongside. We leapt between clods of turf across a swathe of mud, then took our rest on an outcrop of rough grass just at the fringe of the wood. We drank all the mulled wine from the Thermos in one sitting.
We were shown an enchanted vision of the world.
A narrow channel of vistas and diminishing perspective- visible only from here- ran out north west across the Cotswold valleys, out across the Severn towards Herefordshire and the Marches, the mountains misty at the horizon. Saving one white cottage, there was no other sign of mankind.
Drunk with fortune and fondness, warmed with wine, we delved straight down through the steep-sloped woods. We forded the stream by edging across strong, pliant boughs of hazel coppice.
The sun was failing, igniting the colours of beech leaves at the fringe of Golden Knoll Wood. We went upwards amongst sheep and rising terraces of hillside until we reached the summit, the opposite side of the valley. An executive helicopter passed close overhead as I planted a foot deep into cow shit. I would not trade my place.
At the last, a sudden, skipping descent and cautious approach toward a farmhouse. My boot crackled the electric fence. No dog. No people and, as we emerged into the courtyard, it was clear the farmhouse was long-ruined. We walked inside. An door-less pantry, a crate of empty milk bottles mottled with an even, thick film of dust. Upstairs, armchairs and a sofa watching a bare wall of brick, decades without an incumbent. The glass-less windows held a view of our journey, the valley framed and lent an air of solitude. As we left, we peered into what was once a kitchen, Corona orange juice bottles extant only barely within memory, dozens of empty pickling jars. There were other, darker places, unlit corridors leading to dank, airless spaces we daren’t even look at.
We left, crossed the bottom of the valley and found the car.
We were charmed in the rain in Wotton-under-Edge, drank gladly in The Star, returned to the city.

The way found us, we let it and were led.
I like to walk alone, but now, when she will come with me, I choose not to.

#8 Murder and death

I wove my path between the cows, feeling like a farmer, swinging my aluminium water bottle like a miniature milk canister. People are crushed by cows all the time, not continually, but several, annually. Sometimes cows will crowd a timid walker, slowly squeezing him to death with warm, suffocating curiosity. Occasionally, one lone cow will go berserk and charge, utterly out of character. These cows were calm.
They have large heads and walk like heavy horses, their brains must be of a significant size. We often hear that our brains go 90% unused, what if the cow uses all of its mango-sized one? The herd were gathered on my side of the valley in clearly defined groups that faced the same direction, with one or two loners mooching about, doing their own thing (mainly eating). The sinking sun illuminated the opposite hill, about a quarter of a mile away, and I saw instinct more clearly at work. A semi-circle facing a possible threat, a line grazing the best grass. Perhaps they use their brains for sustained empathy. Imagine continual, mindful understanding of the others in your herd, shared parenting, companionship and security. Or perhaps they move instinctively, ancient patterns woven into double-helices.
I eat the dead flesh of these gentle beasts. I can convince myself that I know how to hunt and gather, I should be able to kill and butcher one myself, that makes it okay. Cows are relatively easy to round-up and kill. Meat producers have made the process more pleasant for the animals, kindly designing the abattoir route so that the final bolt through the skull is a real surprise. I don’t dwell on the cow holocaust. I try to eat ethically.

Death comes to us all, the cows are murdered. Whether I’m murdered or reach the end of my allotted time, one day I will surely die. Natural death may be considerably more prolonged and painful than a quick gutting. People have probably been murdered in this field on a hillside over the past few hundred years. There is an enticing view into the soft Somerset hills along the valley, it would be a gentle place to bleed.
I have had a tiring and depressing week. The animals and the plants, the mushrooms and the trees have lived and died in the same week. They make no choices in life other than to follow the most direct path toward survival. Do their lives lack meaning? Wouldn’t our Earth be more wondrous if every trace of humans was suddenly removed? What is our great architecture, our invention, our fractured society to a willow by a river? A fox trotting? An owl.
Meaning in life is in its living. Somewhere, death sits and waits and will make it quick or slow, kind or cruel. Life is a cow grazing under a lavender sky. It is me lying under the same sky, staring upward, the seeing of it as relaxing as having my eyes closed.

#1 Coppice with standards

The earth fell away behind me. In the rear-view mirror, I caught a glint of the Avon’s meanders. The road that climbs towards Upton Cheyney sits on an outcrop of the Lansdown Hills, a few miles west of Bath. It is submerged under over-arching boughs of trees that lean from high banked hedgerows. Ascending through the greenness amplified the feeling that I was leaving the everyday behind, entering a realm on an entirely separate plane to that of the nearby city.
I passed a pub, then an old red telephone box with a rambling rose beside. An inviting courtyard of an ancient farm passed by with its sign for a farm shop, then the road forked right and steepened. To my left, through the occasional gateway, I glimpsed a huge vista that lead the eye across both Severn bridges towards Wales, Bristol merely a smudge in the middle-distance. The view to the right fell away into a valley and towards North Stoke, a picturesque hamlet of stout parish church and period buildings.
I parked in a small turning and got out. Until now, I hadn’t realised the strength of the wind. The whole hill was in turmoil; the fields of young wheat were harried and flattened by a thousand zephyrs while ranks of nettles stood motionless, harboured by the field’s margin hedges. The purpose of my journey, a small wood, seethed anxiously behind me, its very architecture in flux. This threshing noise that poured through the porous edges electrified the air; that I was here as a thief, made the sense of anticipation even stronger.
I took the old Sandvik saw, still in its yellow and orange cardboard sleeve, opened the gate, and entered. The path was wet and pocked with deep, muddy footfall. I had to skip from edge to edge and pivot under branches to avoid slipping. I ducked under a natural archway of elder and penetrated the interior of the wood. Inside, it was calmer. The wind still fretted the crowns of the trees, making the sun dapple through the shifting canopy, but at trunk-level, it seemed as though I were in the eye of a storm. Windfall covered the ground: long, sinewy arms of ash, thousands of pieces of oak and hazel shrapnel. These were the dominant trees of the wood.
All about me were stands of neglected hazel coppice, their pale branches shining through the shifting gloom. Many rose over twenty feet, their inverted triangles grown like wiccan altars. That they had been forgotten was clear; in years past, their straight, pliant branches would have been harvested every six or seven years. This would have maintained a uniform crop of the right width for use in fencing, hedging, thatching, even river flow management. Such quaint materials are now much less valued and coppice woods are not often viewed as commercially viable. The hazels here had grown literally out of hand, their shapes and diameters no longer the right cut that the old coppicers would have desired. I could see many that would fit my purpose, however.

I wanted twenty or so thin, straight poles that I could make a gypsy bender with. A bender is a simple round-framed tent covered in canvas or tarpaulin that was favoured by travellers for its ease of construction and the ready availability of whippy hazel, ash or even willow branches with which to make one. I cut my poles near the base (or stool) and at an angle to reduce the chance of damp/infection getting into the plant. The sawing rasped at a lower frequency to the wind and pierced the wood, alerting anyone that might be about to my business. I could hear nothing other than the wind and the saw, and so cast my eye about continually in case the owner of the wood chanced to wander nearby.

As I worked, the dark, bloated oaks and more graceful ashes imposed their presence into my peripheral vision. These were the standards, the larger, slower, overstorey trees originally planted alongside the coppice hazel to provide a more valuable, but less regular source of wood. Where the hazel would have been cut every seven years or so, these guardians of the wood were kept a hundred years before felling; they were the long-term investment of the woodlander. These specimens had been spared the executioner’s axe, but neglect meant that they now cast far too much shadow over the lower trees, causing them to twist and contort, which made the task of selecting suitable poles difficult. In less than an hour, though, I had a good crop which I dragged to the edge of the wood for a covert and hopefully quick loading of the car.
I left the wood reluctantly. It had invigorated me and given me sanctuary, inspiration and purpose. Not one other person had disturbed me, despite being within a few miles of two cities with half a million people between them. The wind blew and the trees remained insentient, but I took more than just sticks.