Walk with me. Here the forest is young, full of quick-growing pine, sharply regimented and as industrial as a wilderness can be. Yes, it’s dark between the trees, and nothing grows beneath them. This forest is quiet, and little ever scurries through the drifting needles on the forest floor. But the way is straight and wide, well-worn, and we’ll make good time.
Further on, over the newly-mended stile, the forest changes. Here we see autumn, crisp underfoot, or more likely sodden and slippery, but bright gold and burnished bronze all the same. Sycamore, seeds spiralling. Beech, leaves round and ruffled. Here and there a Scots pine, ragged and tenacious. Horse chestnut, the spiky shells of its seed turning brown, conkers long gone, long forgotten in coat pockets, waiting to be turned out in the search for that other glove (the glove we find cheerfully placed on a nearby fence post, waving as we pass).
It’s here we find the old twisted oak, magnificent ruin, with branches reaching towards us, pleading, coaxing. The path winds round it, just beyond the grasp of those dark branches, flirting, daring.
A winter storm, two years gone, has torn one branch down, and it rests on the ground, beckoning, bleeding. But it is autumn, and though the leaves are brown, enough remain that we can see how full and bright even that branch was in summer. In summer, oak was the forest’s king, and he only reaches for us now to keep us from seeing autumn’s queens, the bold and brassy interlopers, rhododendrons that were lush enough with flowers in his green shadow, and remain unrepentantly succulent despite the morning frosts.
This is not an old forest, and the path is made for meandering. Birds sing, squirrels chatter, leaves drift lazily from a dozen different trees. You catch one, rich, red maple – another interloper – and smile.
The path winds on, and the forest changes again. Those big, steadfast beeches and the old oak’s striving sons fall away, and in their place grow silver birch trees, tender and slim. A week ago, maybe two, they still held their leaves, but a wild autumn wind has stripped them, and the ground is strewn with little golden hearts.
Its work done, the wind has fled, and the forest here is still and silent. This forest is old, though the trees are young, no taller than three tall men and slender as a girl. The path is narrow, no more than the passing of a deer. Turn to watch as one last leaf falls, turn back, and the path is gone.
The path is gone, but the silver birch grows thin and straight, two paces between each. You did not fear the old twisted oak, what harm can the silver birch do? Turn again, turn, and suddenly you wish for the old twisted oak whose branches point you towards home, not the silent silver birch who points only to heaven.
No taller than three tall men, and yet their roots grow much deeper.
The ground is strewn with little golden hearts, and one rich, red –