Forest

1917 began badly with a piercing coldness covering the country.  The land froze hard and unforgiving and the trees in every woodland clung closely together, huddled against the bitter winds.  Lone oaks on ancient droveways and tracks stood stoically, waiting patiently for the return of Spring and her promise of warmth.  Weeks passed and Winter would not lessen his hold, setting the soil like stone.  He stubbornly gripped every corner of the land from South to North and West to East.  Impatiently waiting her turn, Spring at last warmed the frozen earth releasing Winter’s boots and chased her brother away.    

Soon a gentle southerly breeze blew the first warmth upon the land and colonies of freshly glossed celandines lit the damp ground in the woodlands.  They lined the edges of Northwood, a fine woodland near the rustic village of Slindon in West Sussex and they sprang up in the neighbouring woods of Eartham and the smaller St. Mary’s Wood.  Not long after, they appeared in the Savernake Forest, then Salcey Forest, Ryton Woods, and up to Whinfell Forest.  Copses, spinneys and groves relished the same revival of new life: each day a new clump of the little yellow stars shimmered, rejoicing in the touch of Spring and stretching ever further north, eventually reaching even as far as the woodlands in Scotland.   

During April the forest trees stirred and before long the first few buds began to open and crumpled leaflets poked their way tentatively into the spring air.  The trees stretched their arms and fingers upwards and the leaflets, warmed by the sun, began their work unravelling and opening.  When a sharp frost stung the leaves with its bite, the trees’ fingers held the new leaves tightly.  Rains threatened again and again to overwhelm the tender leaves, but they merely shook the wet from their faces and reached out to be near their leaf siblings. 

The days lengthened, warm and damp.  On the edge of Northwood though, something wasn’t right.  It began with the arrival of men, and with them came axes and saws.  The first tree groaned as the axe cut violently into his side, followed by rhythmic sawing, back and forth, back and forth.  The tree trembled, shaking its limbs in outrage, but to no avail, its scream preceded the thud which laid it prostrate on the ground.   The sound resonated through the earth and was felt and feared throughout the woodland. 

Further fellings were executed and the tremor through the soil became a tally that the trees could not count.  A shrill Easterly wind arrived clean and cold across the South Downs and carried the message along the Greenways to the ancient forests in the West.  When the news arrived in remote Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor, the oaks grouped closer together and with their heads down, like a rugby scrum, held counsel.  They had received similar news from the winds about many other forest fellings across the country, from the nearby Haldon Forest to the Great Windsor Park. 

Back in Northwood, horses began clearing the logs, trampling over the homes of the woodland mice and ants, crushing both rabbit warrens and badger setts.  Squirrels leapt from tree to tree, darting for cover.  Alarmed bullfinches, nuthatches and green woodpeckers flew through the woodland and up overhead Kestrels and Owls desperately sought safety and new homes and territories.  For every tree cut down, a bird, beetle or bat was lost.  Deer, foxes, and mice were also forced out, their homes uprooted like the trees.  The trees were felled skilfully, but their sighs and groans and their final cry cast a dark shadow over the wood.  The men worked on, cutting, loading and moving ever further into the forest.  Soon tracks were laid for railways, a sawmill was built and accommodation for the men and specialist woodmen. 

When the wind changed direction and brought countless tears of sorrow back from the West, it also carried a message of wisdom from the ancient wood on Dartmoor.  “There is a great need for us across the land.  Stand tall and proud.  A new adventure will be upon you where you will be transformed and live on for many years of service.  Our strength will not go to waste and man will not plunder unnecessarily.”

The news arrived at Northwood and amongst the desecration, the beech and oak trees stood tall, waving and tapping their leaves together to support the trees who were destined to fall.  Their rustling halted the song of the woodland birds, even the noisy wrens fell silent, and blackbirds listened with their heads tilted on one side.   A band of jays took to the wing, screaming as they departed. 

Over in the new sawmill, which had been built in less than a month, many of the hardwood trees were fashioned into trench reinforcements for the front lines.  Their adventure had them travelling by train and sailing across the sea to France where their great strength was appreciated by the fighting soldiers.  Others travelled by train to Lancashire, Yorkshire, South Wales and Northumberland and became pit props in the dark coal mines.  Still more were destined to become building materials, while their smaller limbs and off cuts were transported by overhead railway to a munitions factory local to Northwood. 

Fires burnt the scrubby remains on the ground, but the standing beech trees blazed with their own Autumn colours.  The year turned and turned again while work continued.  There was loss among the men too, with slips and accidents.  The remaining beech and oak trees stood quiet and still, befitting their regal Queen and King of the Forest appellation.  A new requirement was designated as certain tree limbs were selected to travel the overhead railway to the Lines Brothers Ltd factory to fulfil the exciting task of becoming wooden toys for Tri-ang. 

In all, 185 acres of trees were proud of their benefaction and contribution during the war years whatever the role chosen for them. 

When the men moved out at the end of the war, the land became quiet again.  Rabbits were quick to colonise the scrubland.  Some of the trees on the new edge of the forest began to spread their arms into the space their brothers had left.  At first, they curled their hands and fingers into the sunlight but they were exposed when fierce winds blew and some finer limbs, not yet hardened, cracked and fell down lost. 

Twenty years passed in relative tranquility.  But change happens as sure as day becomes night.  Custodians of the country in the form of the Forestry Commission and later the Woodlands Trust along with private individuals and other bodies worked tirelessly to replace lost forests and plant new ones.  But for Northwood no replanting happened.  Instead, ploughs arrived and dug the whole area for crops to help feed the country for the duration of the second world war.  There was new activity for the trees to observe from their lofty perspective.  Crops and cattle fodder continued to be grown for nearly seventy more years. 

But in September 2013, nearly one hundred years after the desecration of Northwood, the National Trust became the custodians of the land around Slindon and a plan was formed to replant the lost woodlands.  Once again, the Easterly wind with her empty coldness carried this message West and eventually it reached the ancient oaks of Wistman’s Wood, up high on Dartmoor.  They held counsel and nodded sagely.  The time was coming. 

The oaks summoned a huge band of Jays.  “Fly East.  Find acorns as only you can do and plant them in Northwood.  Go now, gather your brothers as you speed across the country.” 

But the Jays were uninterested in this suggestion.  They had food and shelter and were content busying themselves for the coming Winter.  “We are too shy” the clever Jays said, “We need to remain out of sight or our activity will be observed by Man.  Send a different bird or creature to do this thing.”

The oaks spoke quietly to the Jays.  “We have provided shelter and food for you for many years and in difficult times.  Now is the time for repayment of that debt.  You will find many hiding places on your journey, oaks standing sentinel on the old Green routes will guide you, Spinneys and Copses will be your refuge.  But make that journey for the future of your offspring and the memory of your predecessors.

A Westerly wind sprang up and gustily carried the news to every tree Eastwards, so that the Jays were received and cared for on their journey.  They screamed their plight as they flew, gathering their brothers who followed alongside or behind them.  As they approached Northwood, they prepared for their task of gathering acorns and planting them.   Squirrels joined in the work, while hedgerow birds ate the abundant fruits helping to disperse seeds.  A breeze wafted lightweight seeds over the area. 

On the site, a young woman was one of the ranger team.  They announced their intentions for raising Northwood again and soon volunteers spilled into the site, with spades and wheelbarrows, chatting and laughing with enthusiasm for the work ahead.  These were days of activity and fun and hard work with children and grownups coming together to be a part of this project.  They toiled and planted and firmed the saplings into the ground.  The old trees waved their leaves to the little children down below.  “We have chosen some Hornbeam” said the Ranger “as they will cope with the drier and hotter Summers that we are likely to have as the climate changes”.  The old beech and oak trees shifted and smiled, spreading their toes a little deeper into the soil, feeling the good moisture pervading throughout their old limbs.

There are many conscientious and caring Rangers across the country working on similar long-term projects, repairing and regenerating nature that has been harmed for one reason or another in the past.  In Northwood, looking over the area where serious replanting has taken place and comparing it to an area left to regenerate itself, the Ranger observed “the trees we have planted are doing well, but for some reason, they are not as tall as those in the area where nature is taking it’s own course.  For example, where jays and squirrels have planted acorns and forgotten to come back to them.  There, the trees are taller and stronger.”

“Forgotten?” smiled the old trees, and clasped each other’s limbs with joy. 

2020 began badly.  Winter waded across the land with water in his boots drowning the land and hiding rivers under immense new lakes, until, in her customary impatience, Spring once again chased her wilful brother away.   Newly painted celandines began to creep northwards as the days grew longer with new woodlands and forests to colonise like Thetford Forest, Kielder and the infant Forest of Marston Vale and Millennium Country Park.   

But after the floods had retreated from the farmland, leaving a deep sludgy mud, a blight came upon Man and a change transpired.  The winds still blew and the sun shone, but there was a silence across the land.  The trees could not feel the reverberations of man’s machines through the ground, nor up in the air.  Indeed, man himself seemed absent from the tracks and pathways.  It did not take long for the birds and mammals living in woodlands and spinneys to become a little braver.  In forests and copses, a few more flowers and insects spread and hummed happily.  As the air became a little cleaner and clearer, it seemed that the sky became bluer and the birds sang more loudly. 

Early one morning, when Dawn had lit the sky with her breathtaking crimson paintbrush, a barn owl flew, silent and watching, across the cool, misty plantations at Northwood.  The ranger, bending to observe a beautiful bee orchid, saw him and smiled to herself.  Things would be alright. 

Gill D’Hooghe