It is probably worth saying right at the start that writers such as Benjamin Myers and Peter Fiennes, writing about the Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd floods, are reporting on disasters that impact hugely on humans and their dependent livestock. I may have known these locations in Calderdale in the past, but I am in no position to comment on their powerful and much more up-to-date reportage. When Peter F writes “This is Yorkshire after all: the rains fall and the rivers run fast” he is not being dismissive, but moving into a critique of climate change, housing, development and farming that are having an impact on real lives and communities: I am writing about “just” a bit of Edgeland, a “wildlife corridor” some 0.5km from my front door. As Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts put it “Edgelands landscapes grow in gaps, changing as they cross a road, circle a building.”
And this is “my” (our) Edgelands. Last night for the second time in a fortnight, the trees, leggy, scrubby, largely uncared-for, roared like the forest giant Khumbaba (here as Humbaba) or like the way that the Psalmist (103/4) envisages God “walking on the wings of the wind” when “the waters stood higher than the mountains ” – and this morning we went out to see what the aftermath was. Aftermath: the field after the mowing; even here we are into metaphor, half-remembered etymologies and myths. There were trees leaning where before they had stood up, trunks shattered and blocking paths (and even from last night, new paths emerging from early runners’ feet and padding dogs), little bits of branches down and bigger ones that have bashed through the canopy, cutting the bark on smaller ones, bringing venerable ivy down with them. It’s not a disaster, but there are trees that will not recover in their present state, I guess. They have been mowed down – wantonly, rather haphazardly – by the giants, like me bashing nettles with a stick – and we live around the stalks.
“Our woods,” Farley and Symmons Roberts write, “are a complicated and sustaining myth. We yearn for traces of the original tracts of greenwood…We imagine the lone copse surrounded by arable fields or the farmer’s shelterbelt of woodland to be the last remnants of a primeval forest that once covered the land, green pools left over in the bed of a vast retreated inland sea.” It’s hard this morning not to feel that we are walking through an area where some huge vandal has been at play, and somehow I wonder if the vandal isn’t Khumbaba or the Psalmist’s vision of God, but us: the bike in the brook and the scattered crips packets suggest as much. Fiennes puts it gloomily: “The growth of everything: towns, cities, roads and runways, the population, the carrier bags and all that pointless tat and crap that no one needs and never wanted. If you spend time in the woods, it’s impossible to avoid the biggest questions of all – what’s it all for? Not just the woods but everything. What do we think we are doing? What on earth is the point? Wouldn’t it be better if none if us were here?”
And yet… and yet…
And for all this, nature is never spent, as Hopkins puts it. “Natural forests contain trees at all stages of their life cycles,” as Whitmore notes. The willow that is now leaning into the mud will – if we let it – root and shoot and keep going; the tall trees by Boundary Brook will turn to mush, home for bugs and fungi and a whole chain of creatures living their lives in the faltering and decomposing timber. Light breaks in in places it did not before, even on a grey morning.
Oh, am I back to metaphor again?