Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Another Woodland Tale.

We are a noisy species, we humans. I suppose it is because using sound is our chief form of communication. I can frame my thoughts into words and speak them to you. You hear these sounds and instead of hearing grunts and growls you discern information from my mammalian chatter. Most amazing of course is our ability to draw sounds on the page; sounds with meaning, sounds with names. You’re making sounds through your eyes right now. As you read this, a voice you hear every day is silently speaking. Try SHOUTING, go on, give it a GO. Was that louder in your head? Yet beyond the confines of the personal word within your skull, nothing was heard. Of course this is assuming that you follow the modern trend of reading quietly. Believe it or not, this only became the norm in the Middle Ages; Monastic libraries and scriptoriums must have been quite noisy places. You see watching QI does have its uses…
Interact with other species and you have to employ different forms of communication. My dog can understand a few words, his name, sit, walkies etc. But his main form of communication is smell. Messages are written and left for other dogs to read using urine.  Not having the olfactory skills (or indeed the stomach) to read his lamp-postings (see what I did there?), he talks to me with certain barks, the tilt of his ears and the look in his eyes. Yes, he really can speak to me through his eyes. Eyes are the window to the soul, or so they say, and therefore two souls can understand each other, even if they’ve never met, through their organs of sight. I have no empirical evidence for this of course, only experience...

I was in my late teens, yet again escaping into the woods seeking solitude, and wondering what I would see. This time, hearing the occasional blast of shotguns in the distance, I had climbed the slopes above our house and was in the belt of woodland between our neighbouring farm’s fields and the Steep heathlands of Bracken, Heather and Gorse that rise to the summits of the Blackdowns. I knew these woods well, had followed the hedgerow edges, the tree covered curves and promontories, knew where the big oaks and beech avenues were, the high boggy woods and the old stone pits. These were where people had once excavated stone for buildings. Now consumed, by the wild wood, they were steep sided and thicketed; not a place to stumble into, especially in the dark, but that's another story...
However on this day it was bright and sunny, during the college summer holidays, if I recall correctly. I let my feet lead me. I came to the edge of the woods – a hedge of Beech trees and a ditch carved into the red earth and rock by winter rains. It was very deep and difficult to get out of. Jumping across the ditch I followed the curve of the slope. I liked to walk the woods as quietly as I could, still do in fact, although my children who accompany me these days tend to underline my “humans are a noisy species” statement.

I slipped between branches, walked on the balls of my feet, trod as lightly as possible, as I practised my woodcraft of avoiding the snapping of twigs and a tell-tale trail showing my passage. I climbed up through a stand of Ash trees, avoiding the brambles that hung down from the lower branches; I endeavoured not to crush the thick waxy leaves of the wild Garlic now past their flowering, likewise the drooping foliage of the blue bells, their glory spent. Atop the mini summit I looked back through the light dabbling canopy, now at eye line, to see glimpses of the fields and the grazing cattle below. I heard a rustling behind me. I turned and saw her.
She came to a sudden stop, bursting through the undergrowth, four feet in front of me. Her eyes were fearful, her dark nose glistened, and her red flanks rose and fell quickly showing she had been travelling at speed. She, of course, was a Roe Deer.

We both froze, her ears twitched. We both held each other’s gaze, unblinking. I stared in wonder and I saw her fear dissipate in her eyes; I stood on two legs, yet I was not a threat to her. She knew, she saw it in my eyes. The spell was broken when we heard human voices through the timber to the right, behind her. Her ears suddenly quickly twitched back and forth, as did the flesh on her legs, her instinct to run returning. Still holding each other’s gaze, I understood her need to escape and blinked to give her answer, releasing her eyes.  Her head turned, and with a near silent bound, she disappeared into the woods to my left. I was left smiling but my smile disappeared when I heard the voices through the trees again. I had come into the woods seeking solitude and these interlopers had broken it. I don’t know why, but something inside me told me to avoid meeting whoever the voices belonged to. They were noisy and lacking in fieldcraft, or so it seemed…
I followed the deer’s path eastward a short distance and then, hearing voices behind me, struck south, up the slopes to the edge of the heathland, abandoning stealth for speed. On the edge, between wood and moor, I ran as lightly through the chest high bracken as possible, doubling back westward until I reached a long abandoned and overgrown hedge that ran up the slopes to the summit of the hills. I relaxed, on the far side of it; once  more I was alone. I looked back the way I had come and then I saw them.

Two men, both dressed in cammo. In their arms they carried broken shotguns. They were following my path through the bracken. It was then that I realised that they had been hunting the deer and had picked up my trail; following the sound of my passage through the woods and my carving of a path through the virginal bracken. Hunting deer with shotguns though? That was plain wrong.
I remembered when, two months before, the neighbouring farmer and I had gone shooting rabbits for the pot, on the edge of these same woods. We had failed in our expedition but we had come across a recently deceased deer. It had suffered terribly before it had died; its skin and flesh blasted and torn on its flank. My companion had shaken his head and muttered angrily. “Shooting a deer with a shotgun? You should use a rifle.” He had said, patting the 0.22 in his hand. “Using a shotgun on such a beast, it’s so wrong. It won’t kill ‘em outright, not unless you’re feet away. This poor bugger probably ran for miles until the shock of her wounds killed her. What a waste and a shame.”

I wondered if these hunters were the self-same culprits. Well then, I’d lead them a merry dance. Nothing on two legs knew these woods like me.
Uphill and downhill they followed me; through the deepest thickets, through the boggiest parts of the woods. You needed to know where to put your feet and which rotting logs could take your weight; otherwise you could all too easily sink into the treacherous stinking mud, in which the birches struggled to grow in without drowning.

I tired of the game eventually and headed for home through the fields, running doubled up, keeping low behind the thick hedgerows. I looked behind me, but of the hunters there was no sign, they hadn’t left the woods. I hope they enjoyed the hunt as much as I had. That ditch carved by the winter rains WAS awful deep… ;)

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