Si­lence is golden

Cool, dark and serene, Cock­shutt Wood pro­vides John Lewis-stem­pel and his Shet­land pony, Wil­low, with some respite from the heat on an op­pres­sive Au­gust af­ter­noon

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - John Lewis-stem­pel, BSME Colum­nist of the Year Il­lus­tra­tions by Philip Ban­nis­ter

John Lewis-stem­pel and his Shet­land pony, Wil­low, en­joy the quiet of a wood in Au­gust

ALONG the wood­land ride and into the trees. Af­ter the beat­ing heat, the wood shade is pleas­ant. The re­lief is short-lived. The tree leaves are aged and coarse. Long gone is the spring­time translu­cence, when ev­ery oak leaf was a pane of green glass.

The Au­gust wood­land is dark. Low, over­hang­ing branches of sy­camore form black grot­toes. Some ex­tra­or­di­nary force has sucked all the oxy­gen out of Cock­shutt Wood. The bar­rel chest of Wil­low, our Shet­land pony, ex­pands per­cep­ti­bly. The air doesn’t work; it pro­vides no en­ergy.

We gape, just as beached fish do. I gee up Wil­low, with a shake of the long reins. We plod on, 4/4 beat, me walk­ing be­hind him, a lonely wight in an English wood, go­ing deeper into the gloom. Wil­low, a palomino, lu­mi­nesces; he’s lit­er­ally a guid­ing light.

Au­gust is sum­mer’s breath­less zenith, when the veg­e­ta­tion has reached the limit of growth and the tree canopy is dens­est. In the wood, it’s night in mid morn­ing. The si­lence is al­most to­tal. Black­cap, wil­low war­bler and wood war­bler all stopped their singing in mid July. Even the chif­fchaff has ceased his pierc­ing two-tone chant. How­ever, there is a rhyth­mic plague of fly­ing in­sects. Lucky Wil­low is doused in lemon-strin­gent Naff-off fly re­pel­lent. I’m not. Midges and mosquitoes grope at my face; I con­tin­u­ously bat the slate-grey horse­flies away. Black flies, green flies, brown flies zoom around my head; their noise, I sud­denly per­ceive, is that of boys back in the quad pre­tend­ing to be jet fight­ers.

Up in the rig­ging of honey­suckle, which is still in flower, some bees drone on; a drone

that dumbs the brain and drugs the wood into stu­pe­fac­tion.

The path swings be­side a glade and there’s a sud­den joy­ful stab of sun­light. A pea­cock but­ter­fly rests on a stump, dry­ing its wings, af­ter emerg­ing from its chrysalid case in the net­tle bed.

Au­gust is a quiet month in a wood, if a busy one. Large white but­ter­flies (cab­bage whites to all gar­den­ers) are on their sec­ond brood; a new gate­keeper but­ter­fly threads its course through the trees like a blown leaf. Hedge­hogs also pro­duce sec­ond lit­ters in Au­gust, as the first trot un­der cars on the lane. At least Cock­shutt is at the edge of the lo­cal badger’s range, so the wood’s hedge­hogs aren’t scooped apart by his me­chan­i­cal grab­bers.

Two long-tailed tits, with a late brood to feed, work over a sil­ver birch branch, then start on the branch again. Eat. Re­peat. A long-tailed tit takes an in­sect ev­ery 21⁄2 sec­onds. Or there­abouts. For my great grand­fa­ther, Ae­git­ha­los

cau­da­tus would have been mum­ruf­fin. Pity, I say, the old words have gone. The afore­men­tioned badger would have been brock, the wood­louse un­der the rot­ting el­der log a chooky pig, the dun­nock halfhid­den in the bram­ble bush a blue Isaac and the pur­ple fox­gloves at the glade’s edge elves’ mit­tens.

Au­gust is a quiet month on a live­stock farm, too. We ‘hayed’ in July and the maize isn’t cut un­til Oc­to­ber. The lambs are weaned, the cows not due to calve un­til Septem­ber.

Thus, Wil­low and I are on DIY du­ties, off to haul two Nor­we­gian spruce trunks out of the wood for poles to make a field shel­ter. In the Year of Our Lord 2017, there are still times when horse­power is all—only an equine can fit along the wood­land path.

On an alder, a fallow-deer buck has left shreds of vel­vet. In Au­gust, when the new antlers are fully grown, bucks are ea­ger to rid them­selves of the madly itch­ing vel­vet. On hot days like these, when the urge to scratch be­comes un­bear­able, they rub against rough-barked trees un­til hard antler shows clean be­neath.

Un­der a hazel, there’s the shell de­tri­tus of an im­ma­ture squir­rel that’s rushed through the hazels try­ing the nuts and find­ing them all still sour and whiteish-green, im­ma­ture them­selves.

The crab ap­ples are swollen with a sort of prom­ise. They make the jelly for au­tumn game and Sun­day-morn­ing toast. One of the beech trees is start­ing to show golden. Ev­ery year, it’s the same: this one tree is the first to sign the dy­ing of sum­mer. Some­where at the north end of the wood, where it points to Hay Bluff, a wood pi­geon clap­pers, finds a hole in the larch and es­capes the op­pres­sive heat. From the same place an­other pi­geon calls coo-coo-coo/ coo-coo-coo-coo/coo-coo-coo-coo/-coo. The end­ing is abrupt, as if the bird de­cided its soft sum­mer melody was hope­less and gave up.

I tie the two trunks to Wil­low’s har­ness; the blue-ny­lon rope around the dead trees is elec­tric vivid in the dead shadow of the Nor­we­gian spruce.

We start back. The trees close in. Birch. Alder. Sy­camore. Hazel. Sal­low. Beech. There are spi­ders’ webs on the bram­ble.

We take the path along­side the pool to try to find some air and light. The tarry wa­ter is un­mov­ing. In the reeds, the moorhen ker­rups an alarm. Her protest lessens, but is never wholly aban­doned and she con­tin­ues to bark in­ter­mit­tently at me from be­hind her fortress of green swords.

Sud­denly, from out of the sun, a swift dips and dives down, takes a sip of wa­ter and screams a last farewell. The ‘Devil’s screecher’ is mi­grat­ing south. The stay-ath­ome moorhen is un­im­pressed and con­tin­ues her scold­ing.

I can tell you now why the shade of the Au­gust wood dis­mays—it’s a fore­taste of win­ter’s shadow.

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