If you’ve been here a while you’ll know how much I love to read (if you’re new, hello and welcome) but I’m finding it hard to read anything at all during these days of social distancing and isolation. It’s ironic really, most of my time I spend wanting to not be doing the thing I’m doing so I can read instead! Now I find myself not short of books, but very short of concentration. The big books are there but I can’t get them down, I shy away from them on the shelf, they feel too much. I need pages to lead me into a landscape, with numerous places to stop and rest; a book with space in it. I also needed A Sign (magical thinking – we all do it, all the time).
On a day just after social distancing began, but before lock down (this is how I measure time now), we went out on an early evening family bike ride. The first half of the ride on larger now mostly empty roads with the occasional alarming speeder just to keep us on our toes. Eventually, crossing the eerily silent A34, we ended up at the top of the winding lane which passes the wood. I hadn’t been this way in a while, during normal commuting times it’s a slightly alarming road to cycle on, so I avoid it. Today I remembered the bluebells of the year before and glanced to my left. No bluebells yet, but the whole woodland floor was a carpet of green with white stars – the wood anemones were out. If I’d been on my own I’d have stopped but instead, catching up with husband and child, I decided to return one day soon.
That little glimpse of woodland affected me, the tall trees and darks shadows, with patches of light and scatter of star like flowers gave off a feeling of ancient peace in an increasingly crazy world. When we got home I went to my bookshelves, and there it was, the book I needed to read: The Wood, by John Lewis-Stempel.
Lewis-Stempel is one of my favourite writers of the countryside. I find his writing direct yet lyrical, he can turn on a sixpence from a beautiful description of a country scene, to telling a joke to his pig, to serious points about land and farm management. All of country life (and death) is in his books. The Wood is his diary of the final year spent managing Cockshutt Wood in the old ways. The woods are coppiced, pigs, sheep and cattle are kept among the trees. Lewis-Stemple is a working farmer, has a shotgun and will occasionally will take a pheasant for the pot. He clearly loved these woods from root to tree top, and pretty much all the plants and animals to be found there.
Some of the diary entries in The Wood are only a sentence or two long but evocative of the woodland experience:
14 June: Windy, and the willows dance the dance of a million veils. Taking half an hour off from shearing sheep, the hardest, most back-breaking work known to man. Sitting in my chair: I am mesmerised by the lichen patches on a young(ish) ash, floating lumps in a 1970s lava lamp.
Others are detailed, discussing ‘what is a wood’? Or describe a specific tree, or animal. We’re also treated to John’s recipes and to poetry and folklore. The Wood is what an individual visiting from 1600s would recognise as a ‘Commonplace Book’; a scrapbook of ideas and facts; items of interest to the collector such as a piece of poetry, lists of of livestock, or tables of accounts – these have returned in recent years in the form of bullet journals and the like (there is nothing new under the sun). The whole thing is a gorgeously informative piece of writing, filled with energy and love of place.
The piece which jumped out at me the day after I saw the wood full of anemones was on the ancient nature of some woodlands; “Various taxa can be used to give an indication that a site has been continuously wooded for more than four hundred years” begins the paragraph, before listing both invertebrates and vascular plants. Cockshutt contains dog’s mercury, woodruff, wood speedwell, bluebell, wood anemone, opposite-leaved golden-saxifrage. On returning to my nearby wood, this new found knowledge in hand, I found it contained both dog’s mercury and anemones, as well as the bluebells I’d seen a year ago which were now just popping their flower heads up.
That ‘ancient vibe’ I’d had a tingle of the previous day felt justified. This wood is not modern, but possibly four centuries old. A marvellous thing to think on while living through this always rapidly evolving pandemic. The wood has stood, in some form, for at least 300 years (it’s on Roque’s 1761 Map of Berkshire, and must have been mature by then). I know the wood too will and has evolved – it is by no means pristine wilderness. Trees grow and fall, a road is built then tarmac-d. A couple of mobile home parks nudge in on the edge of the wood, with streets named Bluebell Ride, Blossoms Glade, Fir Trees.
I like to believe, somewhere in the deepest part of these woods, there is an ancient stone maybe, or a precious thing dropped by accident, hundreds of years ago, laying peacefully in the ground, undisturbed by the world above and its constant changes.
The Wood, The Life and Times of Cockshutt Wood by John Lewis-Stempel is published by Penguin/Black Swan details here.