The wood is absolutely silent. The children and Mark are up at base camp, clearing away after a campfire meal, and I have walked down alone to check on the cosy shed. Is that why the wood seems so still; does it stand in contrast to the explosion of noise and laughter, fun and festivity of the last few weeks? I look around. I don’t think that is the reason the wood is so quiet.
As we came to the wood today we saw a little egret skulking in a ditch. It was a brilliant white flash against the dull winter colours. In bursts of flight, each a few wing beats followed by a landing, it kept its distance for a while, then gave up hoping we would divert our course and flew away into a neighbouring field. It stood, a radiant slash in the wet, grey fields.
In the wood, everything is grey too. The sky above is grey. I struggle to describe it. Leaden? Steely? Like flint? None of these words are right, the grey is not intense enough. It is a non-colour, a damp, wet blanket of all enveloping gloom. There is no separation between cloud and sky; the grey mist of the cloud merges with the land, flowing over the earth, sucking out its colour.
The weather of the last few weeks has been similarly non-descript; it is not cold enough for frost, but there is no warmth either. The air itself has become stagnant; there is no wind, no movement in the wood. The trees and the spaces between them are damp and dark. Even the holly’s deep green is toned down to almost black.
I know the wood is not dead. I am a biologist, I know the science. But today, a primeval fear stirs. I catch a glimpse of the unease with which my ancestors waited for the spring’s approach, the fear that this could be the year it fails to arrive. With the weather as it is, the slight increase in day length has been undetectable. I feel the need to prove to myself that the wood is still breathing. Dropping to the woodland floor, I search for life. And of course, it is not long at all until I find the evidence I need. A violet leaf, heart shaped, delicate, pushing out from the heavy, wet leaf litter; new growth of a tiny moss plant, intricate and feathery; hazel buds swelling on the tiny shoots at the base of a coppice stool. Feeling glad, I stand. As my focus pulls back, the tiny green jewels I found are shrouded again by the wood’s dank cloak – but it doesn’t matter – I know they are there. I return to the fire, to the family noise and bustle. Soon the sound will be tinged with sadness; our Christmas is drawing to an end. But in the days to come, there will be more little jewels, and colour will eventually return through the grey.