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
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