I’ve always loved woods and trees. When I was a child living in York we had a row of tall trees at the far end of the garden – I can’t tell you what they were, to me as a very small girl they were just tall trunks with a distant hint of green far above. But we had shrubs and bushes as well as flowers in the garden, and I remember eating the fresh green sprouts of the hawthorn leaves in the spring. We often went for walks in the Yorkshire Dales and I must have been through many of the woods nestled beneath the slopes of the hills.
However, it was after we moved to Lorton that I began to see the differences in trees and they became characters in my mind. How could it be otherwise with the mighty Mount Atlas Cedar on the front lawn, and a huge, perfectly formed, mature beech tree standing near the corner of the house? There were copses and woods all around the grounds, there were solitary horse-chestnuts out on the paddock under which the cattle gathered during hot summer days, and an orchard full of apple, pear and plum trees.
I learned their names from my father and watched them through the seasons, and I learned to climb them – beginning with a twisted old holly with hardly any leaves whose branches were almost like steps, and progressing to the fruit trees (I still love hard, crunchy, unripe pears). And though, unlike my brothers, I never achieved the top of the Mount Atlas, I did pretty well ‘for a girl!’
Looking back I’m grateful for those years – there can’t be many villages which have so many mature trees scattered through them as Lorton. Trees along the roadsides, trees in the hedgerows, trees in Park and Hall, trees along the river, and all left to grow freely into their true and natural shapes. I learned to appreciate them, enjoy them and see them as a vital part of the landscape.
So now, wherever I go, on holiday or on business, I look out for trees and greet them with pleasure, walking through woods as often as I can.
I found the forests of New Zealand and Canada particular treasure houses of new delights, the memory of which will never fade, but I had longer to walk in the woods of British Columbia and got to know them best.
I was fortunate enough to walk through old-growth forest, both in the far north of BC and on Vancouver Island. At first it was the sheer size of the cedars which overwhelmed me, their mighty trunks soaring straight up to unguessable heights, and their ranks stretching as far as the eye could see.
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But another thing I learned living in Lorton, and that was to look down and around to find the treasures at my feet. Very little escapes my eye when I’m out looking for new beauties in a strange wood, and the forests of BC are packed with wonders.
The feathery shapes of moss fronds on a fallen log, the pink and white blossoms of the starflowers floating above their leaves on thread-fine stems, and yellow wood violets lighting up the edge of the trail.
A leaf, to me, is not just a leaf, but a miracle which deserves the time and trouble I take (though it is no trouble, just a deep pleasure) to consider its shape, the patterning of its veins, and its colour. Passers-by often wondered why I was standing still gazing at an unremarkable bush with neither flowers nor fruit; and joggers, pounding past with their music thundering in their ears and a glazed and vacant look in their eyes were surprised out of their trance when they saw me on my knees studying the tiny pink bells of the Bog Rosemary, barely an inch above the ground.
A wood is full of shape, colour, pattern and texture – not to mention the strange monsters created by the fallen logs or snags of long dead trees.
(I surprised a thirty-foot stick insect crawling away through the grasses in the Lieutenant-Governor’s woods in Victoria. I know other visitors thought it was just a fallen oak, but I saw through its disguise, though if you go there now it may have vanished into some cranny of the rocky hillside where it makes its home!)
Of course the unique pattern of light and shade in every wood brings a powerful magic to its atmosphere. If I were to walk through one wood every week for a year it would never be entirely the same, for the probing beams of sunlight would show me something different in every season and at every time of day. And in a deciduous wood – whether beside the Campbell River in BC or the Cocker at the foot of Crummock Water – the growth and fall of leaves make their own ever-changing patterns of colour and light.
It’s wonderful, amazing and astonishing to discover new flowers, mosses, lichens, and berries in a wood halfway round the world, but to me the wonder is just as great when I find windflowers and violets growing beneath the trees on the shores of Bassenthwaite Lake. I cannot imagine I will ever tire of the soft, fresh green of new beech leaves in an English wood in Spring.
Now, thanks to the wonders of digital photography and the computer I can relive the joys of my woodland walks at home as often as I please. I can surpass Wordsworth’s ‘inward eye’ and to quote Professor Tolkien I can,
‘sit beside the fire and think
of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring
that I shall ever see.’
As long as I’m able to do it I’ll go out and fill my eyes, mind and heart with the wonder of woods,
‘For still there are so many things
that I have never seen:
In every wood in every spring
there is a different green.’ . . . . .and I want to see it!