A Clough is more than Enough
I live in a house opposite some woods, like I’m planted there, facing those trees, having a go at being rooted. There’s a stream that runs along the bottom and a fairly steep drop down to it.
I got to know those woods over the past couple of years – not a long time at all – so when my daughter ran inside shouting about the massive crack she heard in the woods, we all went down and across, where we found an ash tree snapped in half, buckled under weight of its own limbs and leaves. I stuck my head inside a head sized hole to find the trunk was hollowed thin like a giant straw sticking thirty feet into the air, its boughs made one final flourish and one endless bow.
This tree intrigued me, was it dieback? The leaves looked green and healthy in fact everything seemed fine apart from the obvious.
A couple of months later we had another crack and thumping crash, this time from an oak. A whole limb had detached from the main Y shaped trunk. Again with leaves, but this time without apparent cause, the tree appeared perfectly healthy. I went to look at the fallen branch, I could just about fit my arms around the limb, it was a chunky size.
Through autumn into winter it rained and the usual neighbourhood alertness was inspired. We made sure drains were clear because rainwater comes off the hills at a speed, branching off and filtering into culverts to bypass houses, descending to the stream. This stream can become a torrent, pulling bits of land away with it, ripping out garden bottoms, boulders apparently floating in its rolling roil.
With the rain a large sycamore fell, a tall one, taking a large oak and another couple of trees with it. It was disturbing to see, to feel that gravity of it. The rain stayed in for another couple of days, and then the final crash happened – another oak. This oak had fallen across the stream, the bank about ten feet above the water. Branches dangled into the water, a timber fence lay flattened beneath it. A bridge was made. The next day we walked across its trunk for the first time, it felt high and dangerous but it was an invitation, a way in. Just a step, one foot on the grass the other on the trunk, its scaly vertical surface, now a pathway for people. Each step a wobble, an expectation of wobble or even buck, as if it were a wild animal that might throw us. A clear route across, eyes down, ready for a branch in the way, something. Then on looking up, the dark semi-circular mass of roots sprawled upwards, the trunk’s incline both inviting us and holding us back. Then the final clamber from the trunk’s end to the root top and a leap into the soft, earthy hole, roots of an arm’s thickness snapped off and protruding, the heady, sweet smell of fresh earth.
Walking around this devastation I was shocked and in awe and all I had were questions about what I saw as a tragedy, a message, a sign, even. What was happening with these trees, at this moment, in this place? It needed a story.
Then I saw the cracks in the land and my eyes followed them. One landslip took the final oak and the other took all the rest. I followed the arc up past the fallen trees, across and back down, where it blended into ground again. But what about the ash snapped in half? And the cracked oak limb? The area was strewn with tree debris and what felt like death.
I thought about the stream level dropping, the rush of the water passing through when we get heavy rain. The neighbours, who have lived here longer, told me about a weir that was installed further along, which the council removed. It had been maintained for hundreds of years since the mill was built - some kind of natural order.
With the flood of 2015, the water thundered through, chunks of land were torn away and the stream level dropped by several feet. So is this piece of woodland now slowly making its way to restoring the balance? The land is moving into the stream, trees falling in, providing natural flood slowing, changing the place right before our eyes.
To witness all this at such close range is both frightening and awesome. Perhaps my garden is also part of nature’s plan to restore the levels? Will I have to sacrifice my house as the trees have given their lives, to the natural movement of the landscape, the slow flow of earth that generally goes unnoticed, but for us seems to be something that changes visibly, year on year.
Something tells me not to explain away these events so they fit into a neat story with continuity and a satisfying conclusion. For each tree that falls there is a feeling of meaning and even loss, a sense of purpose and equally it brings home the emptiness of it all, the onward movement of life, the rise and fall of trees and water and my need for a story through which I make it real. I take care to embrace the mystery, of each branch that falls and tree that snaps in half and the energy of this place that holds these events. I prepare for my own roots to shift with this land.