Let there be light

Glad­dened by the length­en­ing days and the ar­rival of a new­born Red Poll calf, John Lewis-stem­pel wel­comes the ad­vent of spring on a mild March morn­ing

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Il­lus­tra­tions by Philip Ban­nis­ter

John Lewis-stem­pel wel­comes the ar­rival of a new calf and the ad­vent of spring on a mild March morn­ing

DOWN through the druid’s grove of alder. Over the stile, strug­gling with the sack of cat­tle cake on my left shoul­der, into the wood. The sack weighs me down, so I walk lurched over, like a farm­boy Quasi­modo. From the far top of the wood comes the trum­pet­ing of a cow, re­peated and in­sis­tent. I could have driven round to the cows, as I did this morn­ing, but who doesn't want the ex­cuse to walk through a wood on an early March evening? When the un­bear­able heav­i­ness of win­ter has lifted. When the days are get­ting lighter, longer.

There is an old farm­ing adage: ‘March comes in like a lion, goes out like a lamb.’ It’s a truth my grand­fa­ther taught me. To­day, out of the wind, in the shel­ter of the trees, you can ac­tu­ally feel a new, baby ten­der­ness in the air. Spring is here and there’s a spring in my step as I fol­low the pale clay path through the trees.

A wood is dif­fer­ent to a for­est. A wood is wild, but not so wild that it’s fright­en­ing. You can’t get phys­i­cally lost in a wood, only spir­i­tu­ally and imag­i­na­tively ab­sorbed. For me, for you, ev­ery step along this wood­land path is yard-stoned by the mild English cul­ture of ar­bo­re­al­ity: A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream, Win­nie-the-pooh, The An­i­mals of Far­thing Wood, The Chron­i­cles of Nar­nia and, of course, Bren­don Chase.

The Ger­mans have Black Forests and Grimm tales—they can keep them. I came late to the love of wood­land. I think I was 12 when I read Bren­don Chase, BB’S ad­ven­ture story about the Hens­man boys who lived feral in the for­est, shoot­ing for the ex­is­ten­tial pot. It was he who opened my eyes to the sheer ad­ven­ture of be­ing in a wood, to the re­al­i­sa­tion that, around ev­ery bend, ev­ery tree trunk, there’s some fan­tas­tic en­counter wait­ing.

I’m still that boy. I can’t walk through a wood with­out a sense of won­der. And there’s a re­lax­ing pri­vacy to a wood. There, you’re just an­other dark ver­ti­cal shape among oth­ers, a hu­man tree trunk. No one comes look­ing for you in a wood. As BB un­der­stood, a wood is a desert is­land—but plumb in the mid­dle of ru­ral Eng­land.

This western edge of Here­ford­shire is an ar­chi­pel­ago of small woods. Through the quickly pass­ing trees, I can see, in a sin­gle glance, two small woods sim­i­lar to Cock­shutt. My wood.

I’ve di­gressed in thought, but not work. I’m halfway through the wood. That cow is still trum­pet­ing, a siren call, lead­ing me on. The wood­land floor is il­lu­mi­nated by flow­ers. Down in the din­gle, the black mud trapped in the alders’ roots is lit by marsh marigolds, the blooms as bright yel­low as any sun a child will draw.

The del­i­cate wood anemones are out, too, grouped in ham­lets of white lights, as if seen from on high in an air­craft. The sycamore is in leaf, as is the el­der, and it’s a month since the first Arum mac­u­la­tum, lords and ladies, pierced the wood­land floor to be­gin the killing of win­ter. Al­though bird­song has not reached its spring crescendo, there is a steady, an­tic­i­pa­tory hum, such as you get in an au­di­to­rium as it fills with peo­ple and the orches­tra tunes up. The greater spot­ted wood­pecker is drum­ming out his love song on the skele­tal re­mains of an elm. His rapid rat­tle, as if his beak has been wound up with an elas­tic band and let go, is an in­vi­ta­tion to fe­males to come and breed with him. From the high ash, the cock song thrush pours in his fluty, re­flec­tive melodies. How cor­rect was Robert Brown­ing to write in Home Thoughts: ‘That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,/lest you should think he never could re­cap­ture/the first fine care­less rap­ture!’ There is in­sect mu­sic, too. Bees are about, huzzing. The wood is in mo­tion. At the pond, a pea­cock but­ter­fly flit­ters over the wa­ter, cast­ing a pre­cise fac­sim­ile of it­self. I am a trav­eller in a new land. Spring. I be­gin dog-trot­ting, be­cause the faster you go, the lighter the weight you carry. (I call it the Lewis­stem­pel Law of Grav­ity; if Isaac New­ton had spent less time loaf­ing un­der ap­ple trees, he might have dis­cov­ered it, too). Through the stand of Nor­we­gian firs, planted on some half-baked sub­sidy decades ago. The per­ma­nent shad­ow­land.

Around ev­ery bend of a wood is the pos­si­bil­ity of sur­prise. As I pass the wish­bone oak, I glance right and there, on the par­al­lel path, is the dog fox, with a rab­bit in his trap-jaw. He’s on his way home to the wife and de­mand­ing blue-eyed cubs.

I al­ways think of the Cock­shutt foxes as the ‘wombling foxes’, be­cause they make good use of the rub­bish that they find. The en­trance to their earth is un­der a dystopian heap of cor­ru­gated iron and trac­tor tyres bull­dozed there by some pre­vi­ous owner years ago.

The fox looks at me, I look at him. We both have bur­dens; we give each other a know­ing, matey eyes-raised-to-heaven sigh. For a full minute, we carry on our per­fect sym­me­try, jog­ging our par­al­lel paths, sep­a­rated by 20 yards of bram­ble, un­til the fox dis­ap­pears down be­hind the hol­lies.

By now, I’ve reached the glade at the top of the wood, where Matilda the Red Poll heifer is still moo­ing her big an­nounce­ment to the world. This morn­ing, she gave birth to her first calf, a conker-shiny girl, now arched un­der her belly and suck­ling away. The calf looks hap­pier than the cat that got the cream. She ac­tu­ally ap­pears to be smil­ing. I cer­tainly am. Spring flow­ers are blos­som­ing, I’m down to wear­ing one coat rather than two and a calf has been born.

John Lewis-stem­pel is the 2016 Bri­tish So­ci­ety of Mag­a­zine Ed­i­tors Colum­nist of the Year (Spe­cial­ist In­ter­est & Busi­ness Brand). He is also the au­thor of the ‘Sun­day Times’ best­seller ‘The Run­ning Hare’ and ‘Mead­ow­land: The Pri­vate Life of an English Field’, which won the 2015 Th­waites Wain­wright Prize for Na­ture Writ­ing

‘A wood is a desert is­land–but plumb in the mid­dle of ru­ral Eng­land

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