Elegy

Endless winter holds the countryside in a brittle embrace. I sit forlornly, watching steam rise slowly from a mess of brash where the oak had stood. Columns and curlicues of vapour, liberated from the ruined xylem of a dying god. A murder cloaked by the illusion of progress.

The people in power call them veteran trees. They plot their locations on a map and write their names on a list. They’re national treasures, they say. Jewels in our natural environment, they say. Until things change. Until they stand in the way of the new town, the quarry or the new road. It was the important new railway that did for this majestic specimen, and a natural treasure was quickly reclassified as a nuisance. Dying and dangerous, they now said. A health and safety nightmare. Think of the children. A death warrant signed in chlorophyll, so that the bigwigs can get to Slough three minutes earlier.

According to official records the oak had stood for over six hundred years, but the records tell less than half of the story. Nowhere in the record books does it describe the fragile acorn laying dormant in the subsoil, bound into the foundations of a temple to a sun god. Nor does it describe the passage of epochs to which that humble seed bore witness, trapped motionless as the temple fell to ruins and dynasties rose and fell a few meagre metres above. The relentless churn of life and death on the surface had no influence, until the day that the acorn was dragged to the surface by the erratic action of a primitive ploughshare. Awoken by sunlight and damp, new life erupted from the torpid husk, and a new chapter began.

Six hundred years is a long time. Astrophysicists will tell you differently, however they generally think on a universal scale. Not me. I think of a man of wood rooted in the same spot; six hundred years is a very long time when you can’t even go for a walk. A consequence of such a long life, however, is that the world changes around you. The tree had stood watch over the reigns of kings and queens, through uncountable changes in government, and through periods of war and piece. Religions rose and fell whilst the surrounding landscape changed beyond recognition. Urbanisation and agriculture replaced woodland and heath, marshes were drained yet the tree survived. Wind, lightning and drought all took their toll, as did pollution from the noisy new machines, but the roots stood firm. Sturdy and steadfast, until today.

The important people were right when they said that the tree was dying, and yet their definition was so lacking in nuance as to be laughable. We’re all dying, every last living thing, albeit some much more rapidly than others. To categorise an organism as dying is to ignore the glorious value of decline, and in some ways the tree had never been more alive. The term ‘tree’, a singular noun, is troublesome – a tree is host to a vast ecosystem, and a dying tree is truly comparable to a great metropolis (and is ultimately equally as unsustainable). The dying tree, with its labyrinth of damage and decay earned over many centuries, is home to unfathomable richness and diversity of life, from magpies and mosses to moths and mycelium. Each parasitic in some way to the mighty host, just as mankind clings leech-like to the natural world. On many nights I had listened to the faint chatter of roosting bats within the cracked and crooked limbs of our tree, and had closely watched the hole in the trunk where the tawny owls lived. All gone now, forever.

I ponder sadly the toll taken on our environment, and wonder when the flywheel effect of our destruction will take us past the point of sustainability. Perhaps we’re already there? I turn my face away as the rising vapour dwindles, unable to bring myself to witness the final ebb of spirit at the close of a life well lived. As I trudge slowly down the sunken lane to the village, I reach into my pocket and touch the small heap of acorns hidden within. Acorns that I plan to scatter in a small act of defiance to those that relentlessly destroy. Each a potential new veteran. Each my own minor act of treason.

Echoes

Excerpt from the diary of George Fisher, latterly of St John’s Asylum:

7th April 1971. Fosse Manor.

I write this in the hope that, someday, someone might understand…

Kitty and Dr Pullman have been whispering again. Heads together, voices low, all furrowed brows and concerned glances. They think I’m going mad. They bother and fuss, convinced that that age and the vestiges of shellshock have finally taken their toll. I’m not mad, dear reader, I promise you that.

In hindsight, it was a mistake. I thought they might believe me. I thought they might understand. Part of me even hoped that Kitty, my darling sister, might have the gift too. It seems not, and since that evening things have been altogether different. Gin-fuelled and garrulous, I laid bare my secret, and now I am undone.

What is my secret? What did I utter, so that all that hear it think me quite mad? The truth, dear reader, just the truth. I see things. I hear things. Things that once existed but are no longer there. Things that sensible folk claim never existed. They’ve always been there, always spoken to me. You probably think I’m mad as well, don’t you?

I tried my damnedest to make Kitty understand, but I just left her ashen-faced and frightened. She insisted that Dr Pullman be sent for at once, certain I had been struck down by a sickness of the mind. Albert Pullman, a friend and confident of some 50 years, the family physician. He didn’t believe me either, and so the seeds for this sorry tale of my mental decline were sown. I wish they could see through my eyes. I wish I could make them understand.

I fear my time as a free, independent man grows short. I hear them talk of removing me from the family home and committing me to the care of the asylum, St John’s Home for the Feeble Minded. I have passed that god-forsaken place countless times, and each time thanked the lord for my freedom. Now, it seems, I am destined to view those rusted iron gates from within. I wish with every fibre of my being that it was not so.

I’ve had these experiences, these visions, since I was a child. The world around me has always spoken, yet it was only in adulthood that that I learned that my talent was special. I had always assumed that it was normal, and had been saddened to learn that others saw but half of the world that I experience. I’m different, but I don’t know why.

The manor grounds have been my home since childhood, and are alive with colour and sound. The hedgerows astride the long drive teem with the chatter of birds and wood sprites, each distinct voice as clear to me as that of my own dear Kitty. I know their names and their stories, and can recognise their distinct accents. Friend yellowhammer conversing with a hazel elf about the weather, wood mouse and tree sparrow discussing the farmer’s new hat. This is my world. Always has been.

Southwest of the manor, beyond the old ice house where the roe deer gather, is a dismantled railway line. I frequently take long walks into the fading light of evening, and the old railway line is a favoured haunt. It’s also the place where some of the most powerful visions occur. Perhaps visions is the wrong term. They’re not visions so much as living echoes, a past world viewed through a film of silver gossamer. As I walk beside the old railway I smell coal smoke, and hear the soft chunter of the small narrow-gauge puffer that once served this line. No trains have run here since 1882, and yet I see them clear as day. I tip my cap to Bill, the sooty fireman, and wave heartily at three carriages of cheery passengers as they pass. The echo fades as the engine steams out of sight, but I know that I’ll be seeing old Bill again soon enough.

Past the old railway are the ancient oakwoods, where the green man lives. I have spend many happy hours in his company, smoking my pipe and listening to his tales of times past when the trees were new. Crowds of woodland creatures would gather at his feet to listen, enchanted. I learned much of the world from hearing the green man speak. I will miss him. Happy times indeed.

These are but three of a great many experiences, however I must stop here. A black sedan is creeping slowly up the long drive, and Dr Pullman is walking to meet it. Kitty is weeping, trying and failing to cover her face so that I don’t see. I fear my time here is done, but will try to write more soon.

I am not mad. Remember me well.

Disco Badgers

I’ve seen some things you won’t believe,
Whilst jogging in the park.
I once saw a duck eat a chocolate eclair,
But the strangest things come after dark.

Last year I saw two postmen,
Who appeared to be in distress.
The first’s trousers had fallen down,
And the second seemed quite out of breath.

But the oddest thing I ever saw,
And I swear I wasn’t drunk,
Were disco-dancing badgers,
Taken over by the funk.

They’d built a dancefloor in the woods,
Just outside their sett.
One had silver hotpants on,
And a Chaka Khan cassette.

I just couldn’t believe my eyes,
I stood there quite askance.
They used a pine cone for a glitterball,
And boy, those guys could dance.

If you’ve never seen a badger strut,
And shimmy on the floor,
Think of Travolta in a stripy suit,
Crawling around on all fours.

I’ve looked in all the textbooks,
I’ve spoken to the nerds.
But all I get are funny looks,
And i’m told that it’s absurd.

But I know what I saw that night,
Don’t patronise me please.
Glamour, sequins and funky moves,
From the Badgery Bee Gees.

I rushed back there the very next day,
To see what I could find.
But all I saw was a plain old sett,
And no sign of bump, nor grind.

I felt a bit downhearted,
A sadness in my soul.
Until I saw, whilst walking away,
A silver flash from a rabbit hole.

It feels strange to tell you this,
I’ve kept it to myself.
But a pair of hotpants (badger sized),
Are sitting on my shelf.

The government will tell you,
That the badgers are no good.
But that’s a lie, I know the truth,
They’re the dancing queens of the wood.

Lay Us Down

Winter mist hangs in the air,
As we sit and plan our great escape.
Down from the village by the secret path,
To where the wooded valley waits.

Hand in hand we skirt the barley,
We climb the fences and the dry stone walls.
Beech and ash reach out to meet us.
As we enter the wood where the ring dove calls.

Lay us down amid the leaf-fall,
Where the fungi grow and the foxes play.
Lay us down amid the leaf-fall.
We’ll close our eyes and drift away.

We’ll take the track down to the river,
That silver stream where the dippers dwell.
Let’s clamber over mossy rocks,
And bid our urban lives farewell.

One last push will see us free,
One last climb up to the ridge.
We’re miles away from the place we left,
Far past the vale and the river bridge.

Lay us down amid the leaf-fall,
Where the fungi grow and the foxes play.
Lay us down amid the leaf-fall.
We’ll close our eyes and drift away.

Each step from here on is uncharted,
As we walk toward the setting sun.
Twin souls with a shared desire,
To melt into old Albion.

So lay us down amid the leaf-fall,
Where the fungi grow and the foxes play.
Lay us down amid the leaf-fall.
We’ll close our eyes and drift away.

Inglorious

 

The vixen lay dying in the undergrowth, wracked with searing pain where the cruel snare bit deep into flesh and sinew. She was used to being hurt, indeed her whole life had been one of pain and hardship, but she knew that her struggle was nearing an end. The hunters had found one of the places where she came to drink, and had concealed their crude wire traps in the bracken that lay along her regular path to the woodland stream. Traps with one purpose, to devastate that which had previously been so full of life and spirit.

Her final act was to drag herself into the undergrowth, as far from her natal den as her maimed leg could manage. Her kits were strong and nearly full-grown, yet their chances of surviving the winter without her were slight. She knew that her moribund form would attract attention from animal and human alike, so finding a secluded spot to wait for the inevitable end was critical. Her final act of motherhood would be to try to keep the evil fuckers as far from her younglings as possible. In seclusion lay safety, and in safety lay a chance.

The fine divide between life and death was a constant in her short life, and she herself had been the angel of death and destroyer of worlds. She was a killer, but she was different to those that were soon to take her life. She killed to live, and to ensure the survival of her offspring. She killed because she was part of nature, and nature is primal and vicious. Yet she never killed when she didn’t have to, and she never killed for pleasure. Her conquerors were different. They were not part of nature, but instead saw it as something to be owned and controlled, to assert dominion over. It’s true that their species had once killed to live, but those days were many generations past. Now they killed for sport and took pleasure from apportioning pain. They hunted for the sheer joy of taking life, self-proclaimed gods intoxicated by their own importance.

None of this mattered now, of course, as she lay still in the undergrowth. Her breathing grew laboured and shallow, her eyesight milky and dim. The fading light of day picked out the crystalline sparkle of the leaf litter, the cold air turning evening dew to the first hoar-frost of winter. She had so nearly made it. She had so nearly escaped the brutal end met by so many of her kin, and yet the hunters had won in the end. In some ways her ending was more peaceful than those meted out to others of her kind, be it by the crack of a shotgun or evisceration by the baying hounds, however the result was always the same. One more life exchanged for a fleeting moment of satisfaction, soon forgotten. One fewer scrap of beauty in the world.

She thought she could feel the sun on her back as she closed her eyes, never to open them again. The hunters never found her.

The Park

This is a piece I’ve been sitting on for a few weeks. It was written as an entry to a competition for an anthology of stories by amateur writers to raise money for PTSD victims from the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Sadly it wasn’t good enough, but hopefully you can find some pleasure in it.

The girl sat on the worn wooden bench, gazing out over the small parcel of green and brown that the council called ‘the park’. It paled in comparison to London’s other great parks, of course, but to the local community it was everything. It was Hyde Park, Green Park and Regent’s Park all rolled into one, and it was their little patch of urban wilderness. A garden for the gardenless.

She’d been coming here for as long as she could recall, but over the past five months she’d found herself drawn to the same spot almost daily. Early morning was her favourite time, when the park was empty and beads of dew glistened on the unmown grass. London was never truly silent of course, but at this hour the sounds of traffic and life were an unobtrusive hum, yet to reach the discordant crescendo that would last until nightfall. The hum of the waking city comforted her in her parkland sanctuary. It had been almost six months, and she thought about them every day.

A small number of regulars used the park at this time, and she’d come to recognise them all. The young man with the briefcase was usually first, dashing along the central footpath towards the bus stop on the main road. He never spoke, but they occasionally exchanged a friendly nod if eye contact was made. The elderly lady with the tubby beagle was an ever present, shuffling slowly through the east gate at around half past six before completing a slow lap around the small, unimpressive pond. The lady puffed, and the beagle panted, but they always made it round. She’d known of the lady for years, a local character, but they’d never spoken. Not until today.

It was the dog that stopped first, coming to a wheezing halt on the path in front of her. “Lazy sod” the old lady remarked cheerfully, gently lowering herself onto the bench beside the girl. They exchanged pleasantries, passing comment on the weather as all Londoners are duty bound to do. A brief lull in the nascent conversation followed, only ended with an excited whoop from the old lady. “Orange tip!” she cried, startling the girl and making her jump. The old lady’s eyes shone with delight. She seemed to be watching something, but the girl couldn’t see what.

The source of the excitement soon became obvious, as a small white butterfly took to the wing from a nearby mess of nettle and bramble and floated lazily over the concrete path past the bench. “Just look at that. Beautiful”. The girl had never paid any attention to the myriad of bugs and beasties that shared the park before but, enthused by the old lady, she looked at the butterfly. What had originally appeared to be a floppy white smudge was revealed as anything but. As it’s name suggested, the butterfly had vivid orange tips at the end of each wing, as if carefully dipped in paint by a skilled craftsman. The underside of the wings were equally beautiful, etched with a calligraphy of rich greens and yellows. The butterfly was a masterpiece, and the girl felt a knot of excitement in her stomach. It had been months since she last had that feeling.

“They’re common, you know. One of the first signs of spring”. The girl confessed that she had never noticed butterflies in the park before, in fact she’d never noticed anything beyond the ubiquitous pigeons that covered every inch of the city. Sensing that the girl was interested, the old lady began to talk. Clutching the girl’s arm she told of the wildlife that inhabited the park. Their park. She spoke of hedgehogs and house sparrows, of bees and blackbirds, of peregrines and parakeets. She described the old dog fox, a mange-eaten shadow that slunk around the park at dusk. She even described the trees, giving names to the vegetation that surrounded them. Faceless forms became oak, sycamore and rowan. The untidy hedge became hawthorn, masses of white buds preparing to burst into flower. Sensing that the old lady was in storytelling mode, the beagle lay spreadeagled and began to snore softly.

She had lived in the same part of London all of her life, born in the mid 1930s less than three miles from where they sat. The borough has been very different back then, of course, with factories and terraces occupying that land that the high-rises would later colonise. The war would change the landscape irreparably, and she described the sounds and smells of the blitz as remembered from the bedroom that she shared with a younger brother. The blitz had devastated the area, whole streets flattened in the blink of an eye, but she seemed to remember this period with an unexpected fondness. “We were like a family, everyone helping everyone else. There we no squabbles or divides, just a sense of togetherness”. She explained that it was during the years after the war that her life-long love of wildlife had taken hold. “The plants soon started to grow on the bomb sites you see, fireweed and poppy turning the ground mauve and crimson. Then the plants brought the insects and the birds back. They’ve been here all my life”.

A ring-necked parakeet, one of London’s newest and most beautiful arrivals, shot overhead like a noisy green firework as the lady got slowly to her feet. The beagle barked excitedly at the prospect of returning home for second breakfast, getting tangled in his lead as they bid the girl farewell. “It’s nice to have someone to share this place with. Nature has been a friend to me all my life, through bad times and good”. After a few steps she hesitated, turning back to look at the girl, still sat on the bench. “Things will be alright”.

The girl sat thinking, long after the old lady had gone. The old lady’s spirit was infectious, and her unexpected introduction to the healing power of nature filled her with an excited glow. The community would always remember, but she knew that they would heal in time. Old and young, black and white, united by a shared experience. She resolved to spend more time in the park, observing and enjoying, and she knew she would bring her friends here too. Love and nature would be her constants, just as they had been for the old lady.

A robin sang joyously from the top of a dog bin, and the girl felt happy.

Dirty Old Town

There are parts of the city where the remnants of heavy industry remain, relics of a bygone age when factories outnumbered offices. It wasn’t long ago that these areas bustled with activity, but many are now little more than urban wastelands, a stark reminder of how quickly ‘progress’ can render things obsolete. These places were collateral damage as the industrial revolution gave way to the digital revolution. Ghosts of a vanished world.

There’s a bleak beauty about these places (as opposed to Black Beauty, who was a horse). One of my favourite spots sits in the shadow of two giant gas towers, painted in claret and blue in honour of the local football team. These cast-iron monoliths, scheduled to be pulled down at any time as part of decommissioning of the long-abandoned gas works, are a familiar and much-loved part of the city skyline, and will be fondly remembered by many. Extending away from these towers in every direction is a desolate landscape that shows the influence of the hand of man at every turn, including the infamous monstrosity known as ‘Spaghetti Junction’ (or the Gravelly Hill Interchange to give it it’s correct moniker).

Two of the city’s many rivers flow through this dystopian dreamworld, both of which having been straightened and forced through concrete box sections and culverts to fit around the roads and factories. The canalised rivers sit directly alongside actual canals, constructed to transport goods in the days before road and rail. In the industrial heyday of the early to mid 20th century these watercourses would have shown a resplendent array of colours and odours resulting from the reaction of myriad heavy metals and chemicals discharged from sundry businesses (incidentally the term ‘heavy metal’ was coined to describe the music that was born in these industrial areas, the pounding rhythms a facsimile of the noise from presses and forges that would operate around the clock). Thankfully environmental standards are much higher now, and many of these urban waterways are rich in wildlife, including the charismatic kingfisher. They remain the lifeblood of the area, vibrant green and blue corridors through a desert of concrete and steel.

The concrete desert is surprisingly diverse. A small number of active businesses still remain, survivors of a dying age, but these are vastly outnumbered by a mosaic of factories closed and factories gone, vast tracts of urban waste in their stead. The term urban waste has a negative connotation, but it’s something of a misnomer. It describes an endlessly fascinating range of land uses, the most interesting of which are those areas where nature has begun to gain a toehold once again, having been kept at bay for so long. A proper ecologist would never use the term urban waste, of course. Us nerdy types prefer descriptions such as ‘early pioneer successional vegetation’ or ‘open mosaic habitat on previously developed land’, both rather dry descriptions of what planning policy refers to as brownfield land (to distinguish it from the green belt, you see). The plants and animals that thrive in these areas are an intriguing and hardy bunch, forming a unique community type that is rare outside of these anthropogenic zones. Characteristic species include ragwort, rosebay, mugwort and nettle, all things that are the bane of gardeners but provide a superb nectar source for pollinating insects. The loose, friable substrate of many demolished sites also provides nesting opportunities for a broad range of invertebrates, including solitary bees and wasps. Coupled with the omnipresent butterfly-bush, the value of these areas to insects is obvious, and where things are valuable to insects they tend to support a host of additional species further up the food chain. One such species is the black redstart, a beautiful bird about the size of a robin, which is amongst the rarest of breeding species in the country. This bird has a curious habitat niche, favouring those remnant industrial landscapes (often near water) that provide a rich selection of potential nest sites and abundant invertebrate prey. Traditional heartlands for this species have included the London docklands and cities including Birmingham and Sheffield, although it remains scarce and elusive to this day.

Our half-demolished industrial landscapes have long inspired artists of all descriptions, from the classic to the modern. One of my favourites is Eliot Hodgkin, perhaps most known for his depictions of WWII bomb sites after the blitz. These sites are often strikingly similar to the brownfield land that I describe above, and in Rus In Urbe (1946) he captures a host of familiar pioneer plant species with a backdrop of wartime London beyond. These species: rosebay, dock, dandelion and nettle, are all common sights on a walk through the urban wasteland. His work has a simple beauty, and I urge you to seek it out.

Sadly, many of the landscapes similar to those painted by Eliot Hodgkin are disappearing, lost to urban regeneration. It’s entirely understandable; to most these sites are inherently unattractive when compared to ‘green’ sites, and often occur in areas where investment in new infrastructure is desperately needed. One could argue that the tendency to develop these areas as cinema complexes or retail parks with the same five shops and restaurants isn’t the best use of the land, but that’s a discussion for another day. What is very clear is that the loss of these wonderful urban biodiversity sinks is as regrettable as it is inevitable.

Sometimes the ugliest things can be the most special, or at least that’s what I was told frequently as a child. These brownfield mosaic habitats are a true national treasure, but are destined never to be valued as such.

First Light

I’m often out before the world awakes,
Earning my keep as the folk slumber on.
Studying old Albion before first light breaks,
Observing the changes that come with the dawn.

Night into day is a gradual progression,
Ephemeral twilight whilst the two overlap.
The sun brings relief from night’s sombre oppression,
Brightening the sky and banishing the black.

The colours of daybreak are subtle and strange,
Showing shades of rich indigo and burgundy red.
The new sky signals time for a natural shift change,
As songbirds serenade the night beasts to bed.

Dawn is the place where old magic still dwells,
The air thick with traces of enchantments and spells.