BY BEN EAGLE
Striding along the cow-parsley avenue my mind wanders, escaping the everyday. Jess the spaniel jumps among the sheaves of wheat in the field adjacent and I call her to my side. She initially ignores the demand, as usual, and then sprints towards me, over-passing on the path. I am sauntering towards the wood which lies just a few hundred metres from where I live. This place is a refuge, somewhere I head when I need to leave things behind me. It is unchanged by time yet often not unblemished, litter tainting the ditches, bordered at this time by retreating bluebells.
As we enter the wood the temperature seems to drop and the light dips. The bright sunshine, that had previously caused me to screw up my eyes, transformed, only now apparent by the occasional heavenly torch through the branches, illuminating sections of the woodland floor, bringing life to the lower canopy.
I sighed and smiled with feelings of joy and quiet satisfaction knowing that for the next thirty minutes it would just be me, Jess and the trees. Few people came here, at least they didn’t seem to when I visited. Many years back it had been part of a much larger expanse of trees which stretched across the district. Urbanisation and the demands for land from agriculture have reduced it to its current size, mere remnants of greatness, yet just as poignant. Away from the ecological, woodlands have multiple benefits which are sometimes easy to forget about. Physically, they provide a space for exercise: for walking, cycling, running. However, the mental health benefits are just as important. Trees seem to reduce stress and anxiety and alleviate symptoms of depression. Prescribing time in places such as this should not be met with raised eyebrows. It would do us all the world of good to spend time beneath the trees.
Jess and I turn the corner and an old fallen beech blocks the path in front of us. The dog takes little notice and bounds around it, jumping through bramble and thorn to reach the other side. My only option is to clamber over the top, thinking as I do of what it represents and what has happened beneath it over its lifetime: years of slow growth, moving outwards and upwards as the world changes around it; the simplicity and graveness of mortality; a sense of home, with thousands of organisms having lived and died in and around it; the people and animals that have passed by it over the decades; pain and disfigurement as lovers have gouged out sections of its bark to denote their undying love, only for this to turn out as a fickle lie, seemingly unending infatuation leading to breakdown and separation, and yet the fading memory of what once was is here for all to see, years later; the happy families who have picnicked beneath its boughs, the shouting and whooping, the laughter; the homeless man who called this wood home for three months in 1976, the trees shading him and protecting him from the harm and judgement of society; all these now lie dead on the ground as the earth itself begins to reclaim the tree for itself, the ground being reborn as young saplings compete to take its place, continuing the never ending circle.
Sometimes it takes something as seemingly ordinary as a fallen tree to put our own lives and society in perspective. The fast pace and overwhelming complexity we are faced with now, along with the pressures of a world in which social media and twenty-four-hour news shines a permanent light on the small things as well as the big, leaving little space for the simple and the individual. Whether we live in town or country we would do well to remember the words of William Henry Davies. ‘What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare’. Press the pause button. Reflect. Tell somebody what they mean to you. Be grateful. Be thankful. Experience silence, even in times of trouble when it seems the most difficult thing to listen to.
As I leave the wood, walking back towards my home in the distance, my mind returns to the harshness of reality, and yet for a short time I know that I had been in a better, different footing. I will return tomorrow.
Ben Eagle is from Essex and blogs over at www.thinkingcountry.com . He is a regular contributor to Country Squire Magazine and has previously written for The Guardian, Sustainable Food Trust, Earth Island Journal and others. He produces and presents the Meet the Farmers podcast, available on iTunes or through thinkingcountry.com .