To mark the publication of Robin Walter’s Living with Trees, we’re running a series of pieces on The Clearing to celebrate and examine our relationship with our arboreal neighbours. This piece is by Gill Horitz.
A sharp wailing cry wakes us, high keening notes, again and again. We lie in the dark deciphering the sound, whether animal or human, trying to interpret the meaning: pain, fear, trickery, and imagining which animal would make such a call, and if a human would cry like that, we dare not imagine the cause. The cry is coming from the woods we live on the edge of, not deep woodland but a fringe of oaks, sycamores, silver birch, sweet chestnut, holly, one of many remnants of woodland on the slopes of Colehill.
Between the trees and our house runs a road rising from Canford Bottom in the east, along the spine of Middle Hill, a bronze age route early European settlers took on the way to Badbury, the nearby Iron Age hillfort. Six bronze age round barrows are still visible in nearby woodland. During the late nineteenth century, a few grand houses were built in choice sites until, in 1887, a plot was cleared to build a terrace of four brick cottages – named Holmsley Cottages – for workers at a nearby brickworks, on land once owned by the Bankes of Kingston Lacy, until bequeathed in 1982 to the National Trust.
The wood is twelve paces from the front gate of our end-of-terrace cottage, across a road growing busier each year. But the companionship of the trees, their steady presence is why we have stayed in the house for almost forty years. From windows on the front and side, we look out at their foliage. Their greenness is the backdrop to our lives. No-one watches us come and go, the trees are our indigenous neighbours and take no notice of us. In winter from the kitchen window we watch the moon rise through the dark branches against the south-west sky. When the wind blows up, the sound in the canopies swooping with the rhythm of the air’s movement, becomes the sound of waves. When an owl calls in the night, I imagine a corridor opening from its bough to my bed and feel upheld by the buoyancy of open vowels pulsing the night air.
But this sound has very different notes.
My daughter and her husband come into our room and we stand at the window listening hard, instinctively turning our ears towards the wood as if to scoop up the sound, all the better for deciphering the source.
Something holds us back from going to look: woods as enclosures of darkness, unseen territories, hidden movements, undecipherable sounds. We speak of a trapped animal or someone wounded but how these things are possible we can’t say. We imagine worse, the jeopardy of being lured. Of being outside what is real and manageable. At the same time, we mock ourselves for such notions.
I telephone the police and hold the receiver out of the window so they hear the noise, and shout at the phone, come quickly.
The wailing comes and comes again until suddenly, almost at the same time, our brains finally recognise the human quality of the sound, and we shout at each other urgently, quick, now, now we must hurry. And we’re about to turn from the window when we hear another sound, singing, a carefree lilting song, growing louder as a young man saunters along the pavement on his way home. When he’s within earshot he stops abruptly. I can tell from the way he stands how intently he’s listening, and primed, he hurries across the road and enters the wood.
We run outside, following his path between the trees, and in a few yards come to a path alongside back gardens on the edge of the wood. The cry is louder, more insistent. We clamber through a broken fence into a back garden and in the centre of the lawn an elderly woman in a night gown lies rigidly on her back, hands clasped on her chest, head back, gaze fixed upon the night sky, calling into deep space. I watch her mouth open as out blows the animalistic sounds as though, in the process of metamorphosis, she is transitioning from one realm to the next.
The young man is kneeling, comforting the woman. We hear voices, as police and ambulance people arrive down the side of the house, and enter the garden.
We return home and sit on into the night trying to explain what held us back.
Later, I lie awake thinking about my mother and of a time and place to come, when I may find myself lost in the same forest of forgetfulness, without clues or recourse to words, when everything in the realm of human memory has become extinct.
Within our garden is an apple tree, grown from a seedling planted over eighty years ago, a school prize given to the brother of the woman from whom we bought the house. Every spring, boughs of blossom stretch out towards the first-floor windows. Every autumn, large greeny-beige apples thump onto the lawn and flower beds. Wasps enter and devour them until the pulp diminishes down into the earth. Every year, many pounds of good apples make chutney from a recipe in my mother’s Elizabeth Craig cookery book.
When words were no longer on the tip of my mother’s tongue one of the first to go was ‘tree’. Sitting in the lounge of the rest home, watching the wind rollicking in the branches outside, she cried out, ‘Look at those green swaying things!’, and we were struck by the eloquence of that phrase, with its deeper sense of looking than the mere coining of ‘tree’.
Not long after the great storm of October 1987, I walked with my mother down the beech avenue near Wimborne, beside the trees skittled by the wind and she cried, seeing the gristle of roots and chalk white blood thickening at the stumps. We stood in the tree’s crown in a labyrinth of new wood and split the buds with our nails and found inside a green visceral shine of something dying.
So like her filigree
thoughts, rummaged without reason,
And all that matters alive
Many studies outline the health benefits of living near trees and conclusions indicate fewer cardio-metabolic conditions, apart from a general sense of feeling healthier. A study in Toronto found that planting ten or more trees in a city block resulted in health benefits comparable to an “increase in annual income of $10,000, moving to a neighbourhood with $10,000 higher median income or being 7 years younger,”
NHS Forest (growing forests for health) reports research showing patient recovery rates improve with views of trees from their hospital window. 
To live alongside the woods and be aware of the trees’ steady lives, not only the yearly calendar of seasonal changes but the enduring process of growth over centuries, the fall and uprising of the trees, the wood’s replenishment, nurtures our indwelling sense of optimism instilled by the natural world.
Environmental writer, Barry Lopez, in his classic ‘Arctic Dreams’, a paean to the wilderness of the arctic, describes the land as ‘an animal that contains all other animals’ and ‘is vigorous and alive’.
I rejoice that we look onto trees and not onto the bricks of human habitation. Even though the woods have been curtailed by people and run through with paths and roads in the last century and a half, still the trees persist. Recently, local volunteers have been helping with a new programme of woodland management, copying natural processes, letting light onto the woodland floor, encouraging germination of seeds. Perhaps this is what Lopez refers to as ‘reciprocity’, when we should resist our preference for human devising and have with the land instead a sense ‘of reciprocity’.
What Lies in the Winter Wood
End of day, end of year – and she’s thinking what’s next,
head against the pane and the wind slamming the gate.
When she looks up, the trees are moving through the half-light
towards her, through snow piled over the vanished road.
Not a single thought holds her back.
All the meanings held by the trees she remembers,
and how their barks can unroll and be written upon.
No ordinary wood moves like this, and time is short.
Through the holly tunnels she sings a low song to the owl
and the night leans down, savouring her wintry breath.
What will I take from this? she thinks, looking back
as the moon hurries her along. To believe just once
that such a place exists, the imaginary heart
where everything worth moving towards lies.
Today I took a walk in the wood. Five minutes would be time enough to cross from one side to the other. I sauntered, and when the path turned or met another I paused before randomly taking any direction on whim. I went on further and further into different areas of the wood; even after ten minutes I was still meandering without coming again to the same path. Never quite out of earshot of intermittent cars, I saw how sunlight speckled across the distant paths.
I remembered my young son’s imaginary bears, Robert and Andrew, who once lived in this wood with their family. And by the pond, with his mates when my son was older, they spent the night around a small fire, with food taken from their homes. My granddaughter, when she was young, loved walking with us in the wood, telling and enacting imaginary happenings with arboreal people or creatures.
In the tradition of storytelling, woods challenge and entice and we are willingly led: the memory of the path, the unfolding stories over a lifetime, the atmosphere created in the telling are human seeds we plant in ourselves.
‘What matters in these places is not just topography or ecological significance,’ naturalist, Mark Coker writes, ‘but human emotion.’
Then I tried not to think, not to remember but rather to acknowledge to myself each moment of seeing, of feeling, of assuming the surrounding mantle of the wood, the presence of trees, shadows, sunlight, a breeze, flitting insects, rustles and bird sounds, fallen branches, moss, and the beneficence of deadwood.
Gill Horitz lives near Wimborne, Dorset. She has worked in the Arts for many years, and has a particular interest in developing new tellings of local stories, using archives, theatre and sense of place. Her writing has been published in magazines and anthologies, including Mslexia, Smiths Knoll, Frogmore Papers, Tears in the Fence, and anthologies. Her pamphlet, All The Different Darknesses, was recently published by Cinnamon Press. She also works with State of Play Arts and Wimborne Community Theatre.
Photographs in this piece are by the author.