The twenty or so bullocks that had lived in the field below the house all summer were gone. The soft ground was cratered by heavy hooves, and the turf was drenched silver in undisturbed dew. As I walked down the field to the woods, my boots flicked up drops of dew in front of me, like grasshoppers flinging themselves out of my way. Jackdaws, robins, blue tits and great tits, and far below, I could hear a train in the valley, and in the woods the stream’s more constant gargling. But the morning was silent despite it all. A dog fox, black nose and rusty tail, couldn’t see me where I crouched in the grass to write. He marked his territory on the tall, hollow stump in the field that the cows used to scratch themselves against. In a moment he would wander up the the house, and patrol the orchard, before heading off to the next farm, unless I stand up and disturb him. In the distance, we both heard the two-stroke alarm of a pheasant, and looked up.
I walked down into the woods at the bottom of the field. The Great Wood, as it is called on the maps, along with a hundred other similarly sized oak woods in the area. Maybe they were once a single Great Wood, now divided and dwindling. It’s only about six or seven acres, just enough to lose yourself in, but not enough to get you truly lost. There’s no fence between the field and the wood, and until lately the cows used to roam between them at will. But I don’t think they slept there, preferring the open field.
Once, there must have been a fence or a hedge enclosing the wood. Its straight edge has the watermark of artificiality about it. Nature doesn’t do right angles, and this wood has a right angled corner. The leaves had lost the golden green of summer and were darkening to olive and moss. Now they would only be reignited by the autumn sunshine, which today seems to have no notion of appearing.
I walked under the boughs, and entered another world. The grass gave way to leaves and compost, and the stream was muffled. My feet crunch and rustled like a blackbird in a hedge. A branch snapped, and I half-expected some mythical creature to appear, bow raised, to chide my carelessness. But the silence was unbroken. In the absence of wind the woods would seem silent even if a rave was going on. The stillness of so many millions of leaves is a kind of silence. The motionless trees could easily trick you into believing that time had stopped still too. The jackdaws, in their never-ending turf war with the buzzards, made a shrieking sortie into the woods, laser guns blazing, attracted by the cries of a juvenile buzzard. They circled, and were gone.
The woods were mostly oak, with hazels in the few clearings, and holly bushes threatening to swamp the underbrush in some places. The first job of the woodland manager is to thin out or remove the holly, an invasive species to the English woods, not introduced until Roman times. Archaeologists sometimes use the presence or absence of its pollen in soil samples to date remains. The oaks in this wood were all near enough the same age, if my guess was accurate. Oaks in woods don’t grow into the same shape as oaks in stately gardens, or on the back of pound coins. They aren’t low and spreading, but tall and straight. Some almost as straight as spruce. Amongst the trees were stumps, neatly topped with the clean cut of a saw. But they were old too. Their roots had rotten away, leaving them oddly detached from the earth. A little further on were the rusting remains of a planking table. The circular saw blade was now growing out of the earth like a rusty sunrise.
I walked further on until I found some very late chanterelles by a rotting hazel. I felled them with my penknife and pocketed them for an early lunch, before heading home. And I was wrong about the sun. As I left the wood, it burst into flame behind me. The low sun’s sudden warmth brought the air to life, and flies appeared from whatever nooks they sleep in, filling the air with their drone. There was the sudden smell of the wet earth, leaf mould and moss, so fresh it almost hurts your lungs to breath. I walked back up the field, following the route of the fox, whose warm, dry smell by the hollow stump forced everything else aside.