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East AND West: Walking the Wood

January 9, 2014

By Angela Jeffs

December 2013

My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was sixty. She’s ninety-three today and we don’t know where the hell she is. Ellen DeGeneres

With a much welcome break in the weather on Boxing Day, we walk to my aunt Jo’s home, named – in accordance with her idiosyncratic brand of wit – Downalong (as in ‘down along the road’).  Except it’s no longer a home; it’s ‘property’. A property that was For Sale, but is now Under Offer, with contracts due to be exchanged mid-January.

I had thought to drive. But 300 metres? Quite rightly, Akii quickly put such a lazy idea to shame.

He is ahead of me now. I follow, allowing a pair of hiking sticks to bear my weight onto grassy verges when the occasional car swoops past driving – in my humble opinion – far too fast for a winding country road. (Fortunately the forestry industry’s brutish logging trucks are on holiday.)

I am not used to walking any distance or trying to put my best foot forward on challenging terrain. Cycling yes, but far too many hills here. My knees are crocked and painful; I get tired easily. (How I hate to admit such signs of ageing. Ongoing chronic pain can make me crotchety, resentful, angry even… “I used to be a dancer, for fuck’s sake!”)

But back to Jo’s house, which comes into view around the next bend. Originally a group of five cottages, occupied by slate quarry workers and their families over a century ago, three are now combined, with a garage at one end, a section of ruined wall the other.   At the front, each family had a strip of land extending to the road on which to grow vegetables and fruit.  Although grassed over now, ancient sets of rhubarb still force their way to the surface in Spring.

The slag heaps of detritus from the quarry workings went to the wild long ago, with bonfires the only signs of life. The last items to be burned: Jo’s much prized three-piece suite in brown vinyl and green shaggy upholstery from the 1970s. Despite my son’s assertions that it would be worth a fortune in retro-inclined London, the rest of us breathed sighs of relief to see it go. Everyone had complained of how they stuck to the seats in warm weather.

The empty cottage always makes me feel sad, throwing up memories to unhinge my equilibrium, so we don’t linger. I don’t want to go backwards, only forwards… Forwards, onwards and upwards, across the back lawn and through the gate in the deer fence into what, for the time being, is still Jo’s wood.

To enter is a challenge in itself. I have not walked here for years for fear… Fear? Fear of what… I need to address this, so take my time locking the gate and soon enough, out of surprised bemusement float the answers:  fear of falling, fear of getting lost, fear of The Forest, fear of Jo’s wrath (of seen to be failing or foolish), fear of fear itself.

Yet just a few steps out from the garden that my aunt planted 50 years ago to essentially look after itself (and herbaceous border apart, so it does) we are in another world. Spring I know from hearsay to be filled with wild flowers and songbirds; as for Summer, it hums and buzzes apparently under a tree canopy of unsurpassed beauty.

Mid-winter? A far bleaker environment of mud and leaf mould, lichens and disparate sounds of water. Drippings from above. Squelches from underfoot. And on all sides the roar of rushing water – water, water everywhere, tumbling from the moorland above, down towards the valley floor, finding any which way it can.

There is a lot of water this year. Late December 2013 we were under snow. This year has seen only rain and more rain, gales and flooding. Large parts England are drowned out. But what we have not escaped are the winds…

There are trees down everywhere, making progress slow and risky. In some cases one ancient trunk has brought down several others… bristling walls of tangled branches that require walking around rather than through.  Others lie like fallen giants, toppled by climate and geography in conspiracy.

Growing on slate, roots grow sideways rather than down, so it does not take much pressure to uproot a tree already sodden and top heavy.  Within living history, this has never been a managed wood. No signs of coppicing, or pollarding. No clearing or even tidying the forest floor. Stone dykes have crumbled and all but disappeared beneath decades off moss-crusted compost.

Jo did not believe in managing her wood.  She always said Nature would look after itself, that the land would regenerate and evolve at its own pace in its own way, without human intervention. And she was right.

But she was also wrong. Because the lack of care had begun to severely impinge on the community in recent years. Yet despite all pleas to save neighbours from flooding, she refused. Not because she an unpleasant person – far from it – but likely because the wood was her last defense against loss of control.  At 96, 97, she was increasingly dependent and unable to look after herself. Saying no to all attempts to get her to change her mind about managing the wood was Jo’s own Custer’s Last Stand.

Yet how long since she herself had walked all 27 acres and witnessed its disintegration, near primeval decline?  Decades…

How long since she had stood on the edge of the quarries and seen the skeletal remains of fallen animals? Years…

How long since our last barney (argument) about the need to encourage excess snow melt to join the main Lunan burn, rather than spill down through the wood and over farmland,  inconveniencing friends? No more than 15 months…

Now the ditch has been dug. And a family from Edinburgh is about to take over the wood, the cottage, and the 7 acres opposite, fields that Jo bought long ago to ensure that nothing would ever be built in her time to obstruct her view.

Will the new tenants clear all the fallen trees and encourage drainage? Will they plant saplings? If so they will need to erect fences to prevent the deer eating new growth. Indeed, this is another major reason why the wood is in transition: deer strip everything in winter… nothing tender has any chance of survival.

The deer are with us as we stand and watch the Lunan’s awesome tumbling in a series of waterfalls. We can feel their presence rather than see them, but when we turn to leave a herd of 20 or more make sudden movements ahead of melting into the landscape.

Fortunately, the general public has the right to roam anywhere in Scotland, so this will not be the last time we walk the wood. In fact, we have plans to walk on New Year’s Day, with friends. (Yes, we are slowly finding like-minded souls with whom to share our lives.) Now is the time I need to acknowledge that in its present state, however uncared for, it is a magical place, with nothing at all to be scared of.

As richly varied and magical as the 12 very different wooded landscapes walked through the seasons by the writer Sara Maitland for ‘Gossip from the Forest’ (Granta, 2012) Reading her book is indeed like “walking with one of the wise women of the woods who has a profound knowledge of folk tales, their underlying meanings, and how they emanated from forests.”

Here then, a point of interest. Just as - for example – an exploration of Epping Forest (technically in London) led Maitland to reconsider the teutonically-inspired story of Hansel and Gretel, I can think of no fairy story that somehow connects with Jo’s wood.

Akii can’t help either, because he links Japanese folk tales with mountains and rivers rather than the trees of forests, woods, groves and coppices.

Which makes me think: maybe walking Jo’s wood – my last self-imposed challenge of an already exceptionally difficult year – will inspire a fairy story all of its own.

The very thought lifts my spirits… Imagine putting my energy into a fresh area of creative activity rather than endlessly struggling to put the past to rest on so many fronts. Yes, I like the sound of that.

Two hours after setting out, we finally reach the top road, and we cling to one another, laughing.  Though somewhat muddy and my boots filled with water, I had not fallen once. The quarries were not the nightmare pits of dark water that I (or my children) so often fell into and drowned in my dreams. I had not got lost.  Jo’s wood was a tired ageing friend seeking a hand, not an imagined enemy. A mirror of my self, a mirror of my relationship with my aunt.

Suddenly I feel not only that mix of exhaustion and exhilaration that I remember now so often accompanies and completes physical exertion, but a sudden release of depressed energy, as if a bubble has burst.

Now shall I walk

or shall I ride?

 
“Ride,” Pleasure said:

“Walk,” Joy replied.


 W.H. Davies

 

LABELS:   Angela Jeffs   Countryside   Family   Past   Walk   Woods  
About the author: After training in theatre and Laban dance, Angela Jeffs (http://www.angelajeffs.com/) stepped sideways into London publishing. She worked freelance as an editor from 1973, then reinvented herself in Japan as a journalist and writer from 1986. She was a weekly columnist for The Japan Times for 22 years, and Japan Correspondent for Asia Magazine in Hong Kong from 1989-1996. Her book Insider's Tokyo, commissioned from Singapore, was published in 2001. Since 2005 she has been developing and facilitating a programme of therapeutic creative writing under the title Drawing on The Writer Within (www.thewriterwithin.net/). Her latest book, Chasing Shooting Stars: A South American Paper Trail into the Past, can be ordered via Amazon.com.
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