One From The Archives: Death in the Wood

Originally posted: APRIL 29, 2016 

Death and new life go hand in hand, although it is not often seen this way in our ordered and linear view of the world. With our human concepts of beginnings and endings, it is easy to forget the bridging of the gap, to miss the subtle completion of the circle. Until that is, nature reveals herself in tooth and claw and pretty petals, in a woodland in spring.

In an undisclosed location on the South Downs in Sussex, I followed a guide through the sunlit woodland, our boots sinking deeply into mats of copper leaves and beech mast to slide on loose gravel. Primroses beamed up at the sun, violets too, slender-necked cowslips and acid green swathes of dogs mercury.

Where the pathways of water or wind or feet had scraped this wood-litter aside, stark white chalk jutted through, barely covered by a thin grey-brown soil. Here and there the calcium compounds of the chalk took another form; empty snail shells, and bones. Lost, well away from the trackways and pleasure-seeking eyes, in the wild heart of the woodland, undisturbed, the wooden planks of a long forgotten shooting high-seat quietly rot. This is what my guide was keen to show me. From a distance it blends surprisingly effectively with the rest of the woodland; the planks are nothing more than wood themselves anyway, and the scaffold poles have taken on the same greys and rusts of the surrounding beech trunks, claimed by the trees as one of their own. Claimed too by the buzzards.
Evidence of their feasting is strewn on the decaying planks and below on the woodland floor in the shape of many bones and a few bedraggled feathers. I pick up a bone and balance it across the palm of my hand, surprised to find it is as light as a feather. Snapping another into two reveals a hollow inner structure, these are bird bones. Birds eating birds. Nature in tooth and claw indeed. The plucking table is a macabre sight yet intrinsically part of this place; part of the tree, the sun-glare, the tapestry of the woodland floor. A passing unfocused eye may not immediately separate bone from chalk or sun-bleached stick. But look closer and they tell a story; not just of what has been and what has gone, but the promise of what is and will be; one bird dies another lives, nutrients returned to the soil, nothing lost, balance maintained.

We leave the bone-strewn place behind and venture further up the hill through the woodland, but long after the structure itself has melted into the trees, the essence of it stays with me, in the contrast with the innocence and softness of the spring flowers and their pretty petals, and in the mewling of the pair of buzzards that filled the skies above.

An ancient drover’s track sinks its way down along the woodland edge, partially obscured by layers of time and vegetation. The thin slice of sky visible above me forms a fissure, a crack through which I peer upward into the Buzzard’s world, growing dizzy as I try to follow their soaring circles.

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