Today, I have returned to Highland Water, where, in the car park, the Forestry Commission reminds me I must not barbecue, nor stay overnight. That’s okay. Neither is on my agenda today. I am here only to listen.
Descending on a steep, winding track through the coniferous wood, I centre myself into a reverential silence, ready for such voices as will come. Soon, I emerge into the sunlight and step down onto a gravelled road that traces a wide curve off into the trees. Once again, I am filled with wonder at the undiluted glory that lies all around me. It is so commonplace, so ubiquitous, so easy to ignore; and yet it contains all the energy of heaven, bellowing gloriously onto the Earth. From the lowest of the grasses and ferns, up to the greatest of the oaks; all harmonise the same song: the power of spirit strewn lavishly into the incarnation of which we are a part.
But these are managed woodlands and soon, I happen upon a hillside that has been felled to an unsightly, barren desolation. The sight is like grit in the eye. Instinctively, I turn away, finding it more comfortable to gaze on the joy of fruitfulness that lies all about this ugly gash. Then I stop, because, in the instant awareness that Spirit brings, I see the lesson that I am here to learn today.
I ask myself how many barren hillsides I see when I gaze back over my own life path; unsightly scars that I would prefer to forget, where lush, vibrant growth has been unexpectedly felled. So many times, I have sown seeds; watched them take root, spring up and reach towards the sky, until some have grown into great, high oaks that wave gloriously aloft in the world. Some of them have seduced me into thinking that this is it, my life’s work, my edifice, the legacy from which posterity will remember me – until, without warning, they have been unceremoniously felled and carted away. Then I have wandered among the silent, desolate stumps and I have cried out in my anguish, “Why? Why has this happened to me? And why now? Surely this is random. Surely this is purposeless. Do I not deserve better than all this devastation? This is failure. Why am I treated thus?”
Sometimes, I have withdrawn into near-hibernation, for the pain has been inexpressible. Harder yet, has been the deluge of silence, raining down from the heavens, leaving my anguished aphorisms unanswered. Unanswered, that is, until I have stopped nursing my resentment for long enough to remember that the woodland is under management. Because once you see that, the answers become so obvious as to make the question melt away.
The barren New Forest hillside I see before me this morning is no random accident of meaningless destruction. What I am looking upon is an intentional harvesting. That which has taken away has purpose. That which is left behind lies fallow, awaiting its time to bear growth once again.
I smile as I realise that I am standing, dictating this in front of a pile of logs marked and labelled for their future purpose. The logs don’t know where they are going. They know nothing of which future edifice of they will form a part. Those who planted them decades and lifetimes ago knew nothing of the building project for which they were destined. They felt no need to know. All they knew was their own part in the planting, the nurturing, the watching over of the young trees as they grew. All they knew was that, in due time, the Forest Manager would surely come to harvest the growth and carry it forward to the construction for which it is destined.
Furthermore, removal of these trees has not harmed the forest. All it has done is expose the hillside to the sunlight and the rain and the wind; the wind which blows where it chooses, such that you can hear it, but cannot tell from where it comes nor to where it goes. For such are all who are born of the Spirit.
That same wind is blowing now about me, rustling the leaves in an orchestrated symphony of creation, wafting the pollen, reinvigorating the ground with new life. Who am I to question how long it takes to seed, to overwinter, to reach the point where the nurtured growth roars out the old, old song into the concert of summer? The forests that I see, both without and within, have been managed across lifetimes in vision and strategy that reaches beyond my horizon of years. I turn away in awe, truth imbibed, lesson learned. The bare hillside behind me has not been discarded. It does not lie wasted and useless in the crooked undulations of the land. It simply waits fallow until the time of the next planting comes; the time of which only the Forest Manager knows.