Spring’s tonic has risen within the trees and hazel catkins have swollen in greeting to the first warm days of the year. Elm and alder are soon to follow heralding beech and oak and in a month or so the firs will show their new cones, green and full of juice, and their catkins will dust the ground yellow with pollen. Throughout the villages cottage gardens will soon be filled with almond blossom and orchards will froth over with cherry white and apple pink spilling an aperitif to summer upon the living fields. The hedgerows and woodlands become en-veiled by the diaphanous greenery of a million tiny leaves, an amethyst haze so tender and tenuous that I fear for its safety lest it be borne away upon the passing breeze. I become aware of a restlessness within me that calls with increasing persistence to forego my writing and step out beneath the cavernous spring sky. The pageant of the trees has begun. Field and lane alike become heavy with leaf and only a section of red tile or a chimney stack, like flakes of old rust within the foliage, betray the presence of human habitation. The blanket of summer affords us a privacy and seclusion that is unattainable in naked winter when one’s every move can be discerned by the neighbour’s critical eye, but here in the depths of summer, we can take our thoughts into the quiet of a woodland glade, we can be silent and be within silence for a little while and rest your eyes upon the shadows of the dancing leaves above. And how restful the colour green, and how restful to the eye and through the eye to the mind that blossoms forth green thoughts.
This spring evening upon which I write is a decidedly chilly one even though the day itself has been full of warmth. Thus I am to be found sitting in an armchair, putting my thoughts on paper, gazing between sentences into the dusty red glow of a log fire. It is a funeral pyre really, the cremation of the last remains of an old local cottage that has long died, having fallen prey through disuse, to the vagaries of our climate and the onslaught of the village urchins. I gaze with half closed eyes at the sawn up piece of beam that was once part of the skeleton of the old house, and see it burn with clear flame and little smoke. In accompaniment to the ticking of the clock upon the mantle shelf I hear the old log’s tinsel murmurings that sound like a piece of screwed up silver paper, tossed aside and left slowly to expand, and as the pure white ash falls without sound, I feel myself drawn into the distant past and fancy I hear the laughter of children as they play beneath the boughs of a tree which this dead piece of wood was once a living part. Whose children are these? From what age do they come? Perhaps they are the offspring of Henry VIII’s generation, the irresponsible youth of the day who cared nothing about the great cultural and religious upheaval taking place about them as they played handball between the northernmost buttresses of the old church wall.
It was at about this time when the monasteries had just been dissolved that the first enlightening book on agriculture by Fitzherbert of Norbury had just been published. Was this historic pioneer of fertility indirectly responsible for the downfall of this old tree? For the seas of knowledge flooded the land and split the forests into arboreal islands and many fine examples of the medieval forests became the battered flotsam of progress.
Certainly this old piece of wood never witnessed an act of enclosure, for the open field system was predominant right up until the late eighteenth century, when round and about the great open fields sprawled the commons, the scrubland and marshes, creating through their wastefulness and their infertility, a barrier to agricultural and therefore economic progress. Although enclosure was a costly business, required finances could be supplemented by felling timber which, during the Napoleonic wars commanded a high price. Also, in order to fence off enclosures, what was more natural than to plant more timber which, unlike normal fencing that needed constant and costly repair, increased in value as time went by. The first choice of timber was naturally that which was most valuable such as ash and oak. But the oak was slow in maturing, and where the ash spread its roots, no crops or grass would grow and no cattle would graze. It was thus that the stately elm made its appearance and stamped the English hedgerow with a character all its own. Being able to grow, and grow quickly in all types of soil, made it a very desirable timber to grow. Also, the elm allowed grazing beneath its boughs and, due to its durability in water, it was at this time much sought after by the Navy Board for its ships. Water mills, lock gates and drain pipes were of elm, and at the turn of the century, London alone still had over four hundred miles of mains constructed from its timbers.
Caught upon the ebb flow of time, I see the trees’ ancestral giants, the calamites, that reared two hundred feet into the sky. They heard no child’s laughter, neither did they hear the buzz of insects nor the songs of birds, for they existed in the dim distant dawn of the carboniferous age millions of years before the birth of man, when even the birth of the first blade of grass was aeons in the offing.
They grew long, long before man, mute sentinels surveying the changing landscape, witnessing scenes that no mortal has ever gazed upon. Then when man came, they furnished him with food, shelter and fuel; they gave to him the means of traversing the oceans. They have been instruments of both war and peace and have featured in mans’ writing, music and art. They have been made gods and devils and have bought good luck and bad. Man’s long and close association with trees is evident from his desire to wander beneath the green boughs when time and toil permit, and from picnic parties who would sooner travel an extra mile to spread their chequered cloths within their shadows. Perhaps it is because a tree expresses continuity, a security that mankind through all the ages and searched and worked for.
Although not a native of Essex, this ancient county endears itself to me more and more as time rolls slowly by, and time does pass slowly in Essex, for to plumb its highways and byways is to plumb history itself. It has been slow to change through the centuries and there are numerous back lane hamlets which, even to this day, have experienced virtually no change for many, many years. One lively youngster or eighty five who lives on the borders of Chignal Smealy and Chignal St. James (what delightful names are these), told me that the only difference he could see in his village was the height of the poplars at the end of his garden which, when he was only “knee high to a goose-pimple” were only a “stack an’ ‘alf ‘igh”, even the cottage gate that was propped open on one rusty hinge was the very same one his grandfather had made.
Having been one of the most heavily afforested counties in England, Essex is rich of fine examples of man’s utilisation of wood. It can be seen in his architecture, in his tools, farm implements and vehicles. The men of Essex are very conscious of their affinity with trees, and go to great lengths to preserve the more eminent members of their arboreal population, and I find it hard to believe that there is another county in the whole of the British Isles that can boast a greater number of ancient trees that have been propped up and strung up to cast their humbling shadows upon the heads of men. Most of these old trees are of course oak, for Essex was noted for its oak forests, but as farming spread, so the forests disappeared, and the elms lining the fields and lanes now outnumber to oaks and are a far more familiar sight. It is these old isolated trees that afford us a tangible link with the past. They disperse any feeling of isolation in time and give to us instead a much needed sense of continuity, of that which has no end.
read the collected work as it is published: here
blossom wormhole: BLUEFLAGS by William Carlos Williams
branches & mind wormhole: Lapping Reflections [Deep Within Waters] – old George
breeze wormhole: A Solitude by Denise Levertov
change wormhole: Bridgnorth
church wormhole: TO A SOLITARY DISCIPLE by William Carlos Williams
evening & sky & thpought wormhole: space for probing thought
eyes & passing & shadow & speech & walls wormhole: ‘… plane is upright …’
fir wormhole: Pilot 125 … // … being excursion in the interludes
garden wormhole: The Boats of Vallisneria by Michael J. Redford – With Pigs
green & Spring wormhole: LIGHT HEARTED WILLIAM by William Carlos Williams
hedge wormhole: The Boats of Vallisneria by Michael J. Redford – With Cows
history wormhole: and ‘naerrgh’ a mention of a seagull’s call
knowledge wormhole: ‘a blacknight fitted perfectly …’
leaves wormhole: SPRING & LINES by William Carlos Williams
London wormhole: London refugee march – 120915
oak wormhole: behind / glass walls and wan and hooded eye
pink & time & white & yellow wormhole: THE LONELY STREET by William Carlos Williams
red wormhole: SPRING STRAINS by William Carlos Williams
silence wormhole: despite that
sitting wormhole: getting fat in me old age
smoke wormhole: cross-section
society wormhole: raised brow
trees & war & winter wormhole: What You Are by Roger McGough
writing wormhole: JANUARY by William Carlos Williams