As I sit in the Cosy Shed today, I see a glimpse of the sun as it shines directly through the window. It is not something that has happened before, but now that the sun is low and the leaves are gone from the branches, light penetrates where it could not in the summer.
It’s been a peculiar few weeks in this part of the country. The weather has oscillated between sunshine and storms, and with temperatures ranging from minus three to a balmy fourteen degrees, it’s difficult to know what to expect when I arrive at the woods.
Last week was cold. At 9:30AM, the fields were still white with a heavy frost and the sun shone weakly between the trees in hazy strips. The ground was hard and mist swirled over the fields, gathering in any dip. I found the sheep huddled under the wall of the wood. At these temperatures, the trees are still able to protect the wood from frost, but the floor was damp with condensation. The fallen leaves, drenched in dew, were soft; they allowed me silent passage. The woods were still, but I could hear traffic noise unusually far into the trees; the leaves that now muffled my footsteps would, till recently, have kept out the sound of the road.
Birds chatted quietly in the background as I walked between trees, pulling strings of spider’s thread from my face over and over again. The jay was about, occasionally shouting at something that was disturbing it. I went to check out the badgers and found the annexe setts unused, the entrances hidden in drifts of leaves; badger paths too needed some imagination to distinguish. But at the main sett, it was a different story; sett entrances were still clear, and the badgers had obviously been busy. Leaves and dry grass had been rolled and dragged underground – bits and pieces were snagged in the doorway – and the leaf strewn ground round the sett looked as though a distracted gardener had been haphazardly turning over the ground; instead of the cleared and compressed earth of the summer, the area round the sett looked like a building site.
As I walked away from the sett, I caught sight of some bulbs that the badgers had dug up – they were bluebell bulbs and I was cheered to see that they had already put down a good root system. They have every faith in the turning of the seasons and will be ready and waiting when spring comes. As I left the wood, the deer were barking. In the field, the sheep had spread out; the frost was gone, and each sheep was standing unmoving in the rays of the sun, soaking up the warmth.
Today is very different. It still feels cold, but the sky is steely. The last week has seen a dramatic change in the feel of the wood. The leaves have come down in their thousands. Our paths are obliterated, trees are bare and winds whistle between trunks. The wood is exposed, naked. As the branches are blown about, I no longer hear a rustling sound but a deep rumbling and sighing, rising and falling, a mournful sough. It is a loud noise, which moves from tree to tree, each branch bending to pass the sound along; the wood feels like a living creature. Somehow, in its winter state, the wood takes on more of an entity; without leaves individual trees merge into a mass of skeletal elements. The wood becomes a presence made of it’s component parts. It doesn’t feel malevolent exactly, but there’s a definite edge to it. I think of Kenneth Grahame’s Wild Wood, Tolkien’s Ents, the Norse Mirkwood. I jump as leaves blow up in a crackling wave behind me. The wood has changed once more; it has taken on a severity more suited to the winter ahead. It’s character is somber, creaking, mythical; I am a little intimidated. As the trees bend to the wind, the noise fills me with a unexplained nervousness. I stoke up the fire, and pop on the radio… I feel I need a little human company in the wood today…