Oak hearts

Near the entrance to Old Broom is the first of the old oaks. Its heartwood exposed and ridged like a giant mammoth’s tooth. The children jostle each other with their elbows as they huddle into the door-shaped space, running their fingers around the raised lip of the bark and the exposed surface that marks more summers and winters than any of us will ever see. Then they’re off, their shrieks and footfalls muffled by a deep carpet of leaves and the butter-soft wood of fallen branches.

It is only the second time I have walked in this wood. The first in spring through fists of buds and now as autumn gives summer the cold shoulder; the season changing with a quiet sigh and a confetti of leaves shaped like dripping hearts. But for me, the shift and the colour of the seasons is only part of the soft beauty of these places.  Like a river source that forever wells from the past and into the future, woods possess a sense of timelessness, with roots that snake over more history than humans can comfortably imagine – the long years captured in pulsing syrupy sap and long laid down rings. John Fowles described the feeling of walking in woods as a haunting kind of “waitingness”, something that cannot be captured by writers anchored and hamstrung by tenses.

We pad round the trail, my friend James bolting after the kids who are trying to shin up the smaller trees, while Jen, Anna and I walk slowly behind, inspecting the elephant skin of the oak pollards that stand like sentinels here – guarding this fragment of wood pasture. It is centuries since these trees were last cut, a management technique that provided wood for fuel and building and kept the oaks in a state of almost perpetual youth. Left alone they have rocketed into grand old age, arching boughs shooting like thick fingers from the arthritic knuckles that mark the path of the woodsman’s saw. The official term for these whirled swellings is bollings, a lovely rounded word that dove tails beautifully with the other names of pollarding, lopping or cobbing. In fact I can’t think of many words associated with woods that don’t have a quiet earthy magic to them. Even saying the names of the trees themselves; ash, birch, oak, hornbeam, beech, hazel, lime, is enough to give me a feeling of deep humus-y pleasure.

The path leads us past other trees, unpollarded, but contorted into curious shapes. One, named the stairway to heaven by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust wardens that manage this wood, has a trunk bent into perfect steps, while another twists like a corkscrew into the ground.

Nearby is a birch that that has seeded into the crumbling heart of an oak, its silvery flanks shooting twenty feet or more into the canopy.  This is one of Old Broom’s nursery trees, nature’s very own matryoshka doll, a giant wooden joey inside the sawdust-filled pouch of old mother oak. It is though a relationship that can’t last. One day this birch will grow too big, either toppling from the weight of its own crown or forcing the trunk that nurtured and sheltered it to slowly explode.

The strain is already beginning to show. A yawning crack stretches from the top of the oak’s trunk to near its base, exposing the umbilical red tap root of the birch. It is the line between life and death.

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