So this morning, once again, I take the road from Emery Down to Bolderwood and park at Milyford bridge. But this time I walk up to the Portuguese fireplace with the intention of following the path down to the New Forest reptiliary, before circling back through Wooson’s Hill Inclosure. A plaque used to stand next to the Portuguese Fireplace, explaining that it is all that remains of a hutted camp, occupied by a Portuguese army unit during the first World War, retained as a memorial to the men who lived here more than a hundred years ago, helping with wartime timber production. But the plaque has gone, perhaps removed by a souvenir hunter. Our gratitude, it seems, is even shorter-lived than our memory.
Entering Holidays Hill Inclosure, I encounter swathes of early foxgloves, before happening upon more felled trees. But the scene here is different from the devastated hillside that confronted me last week in Highland Water (and on this, see my blog post of 30th May 2020, ‘On Barren Hillsides’ at michaelforester.co.uk/blog). For what lie silently before me here, are great Scots pines, selected for individual harvesting, while about them, their brethren still stretch up forty metres, waving into a cloudless sky.
I find myself wondering how the Forest Manager has determined which trees will fall, designated for the building of future edifices, and which will be left soaring into the blue until their own time comes. Those that remain are more numerous than the felled, for the Forest Manager is selective in his choice of building materials and always most careful to ensure he does not damage the remaining forest. And so, I come to question, ‘What must it feel like to be a tree left standing, while others have been taken?’ Are they glad to see the end of those that lie below them? Do they regard themselves as, somehow, superior to their fallen brothers, as do so many of the competitive men and women that I have known over the years? I think not.
There is no arrogance in their sway. Those trees that still stand and reach upward, do not seem look down disdainfully upon those that lie silent below them. For their nature is only to reach to the light; their motive merely to sway in the wind, each preoccupied with an urgency to be the best they possibly can, yet ever conscious they that are part of the wider forest about them. That they have been left to grow while others have fallen, has left them with no sense of superiority. Perhaps they consider that the taken ones are further ahead on their journey and closer to fulfilling their purpose. Maybe they even consider their felled brethren to have been the greatest among them, revered for their glory, taken first.
But they will not mourn the passing of the taken. For, even if they do not know that the time has come for the felled ones to move on to their next stage of service, always they trust the Forest Manager and his purposes, greater than a single tree can know. Neither do they forget. Their awareness of those taken lives on in the memory of the forest’s root system. Those which remain, esteem their departed companions. They do not disdain them with discarded instant barbeques and purloined memorial plaques.
I think to move on, but there is yet more for me to learn here. As I pause in silence, I cannot help but identify with these felled giants. For I, too, have felt the axe laid to my roots at a time when I had expectations to grow yet higher. How much more understanding are these simple, powerful creatures than men, who take delight in the destruction of others they regard as competitors. Delight that melts away when they, themselves, finally learn that we, too, are a forest, and they merely trees who, in their turn, will be harvested.
Arriving at the reptiliary, I am confronted by a number of net-covered pools, containing sand lizards, green frogs and natterjack toads. I spot a frog or two, but the lizards and toads are elusive creatures. You can hear them, but they do not show themselves. Nor, I am relieved to note, do the lesser-spotted New Forest tourists. They prefer the nearby Bolderwood ornamental drive and the observation platform where, from a distance, you can easily spot the deer. I have to concede that they (the deer, not the tourists) are indisputably prettier than the toads at the reptiliary. Bolderwood also offers the sanctuary of a well-maintained car park, where you can expend sizeable sums upon the sweet delight of an ice cream cone or three.
I prefer to forgo such exquisite joys in favour of the solitude promised by Wooson’s Hill Inclosure. My own reptilian curiosity partially satisfied, I re-commence my walk, by way of a less manicured path. Under my feet the forest track is strewn with pinecones. The trees cannot help but fruit and pour their life into the next generation. Quite suddenly, perhaps thirty metres in front of me on the path, there appears a solitary Fallow deer – a young buck. I stand statue-still, so as not to frighten him away. But these creatures exercise great instinctive caution. He deems me a potential predator and in a moment is gone, leaving me with the lingering joy of sighting. For this I am more than happy to have forgone the unwelcome artificial sweeteners of ice cream cones at Bolderwood.
From the Inclosure, I emerge onto a sunlit path, which offers me an honour guard of young Silver Birch to my left and pines to my right. The road winds uphill yet again, (yes, right to the very end), through fox gloves and rhododendron groves, interweaving their brash colour with the forest’s mellow hues.
Finally, I find myself back at the Portuguese Fireplace. Approaching from this angle, I can see that some earlier visitors have chosen to embellish it with the less-than-delightful adornment of a burned-out instant barbeque. Later, I will regret my own neglect in failing to think to remove it.
I head for home on the Emery Down to Bolderwood road, but pull over to take a closer look at a sight I have wanted to examine since first noticing it, some days ago. Here, by the roadside, lies a long-dead and very large tree. I am no expert, but I think it was probably a great oak. Its visible roots, torn from the ground, attest to the fact that this was no planned harvesting. A large part of the tree has evidently been removed, presumably because it fell across the road. The rest of it has lain here for many years, perhaps since the great storm of 1987, which uprooted many enormous trees. I study it closely. It looks to me as though it had been diseased, making it susceptible a storm which many, apparently lesser, trees had survived.
As I gaze upon it in wonder, the full impact of today’s learning finally strikes me. How preferable it is to be felled whilst still reaching for the sky, than to cling on beyond your time, expiring slowly as you waste away inside.