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
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.