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Posts Tagged ‘Durleston wood’

fallen beech tree

In the opening of my novel “Durelston Wood” there’s this huge beech tree that stands high on a bank, overlooking a bend in a river that runs deep through a forest. The roots are gnarled and mossy and the tree’s origins seem to hark back to a time as near the beginning of time as makes no difference. And it’s this apparent permanence in time, at least in so far as our protagonist sees it, that lends the tree the role of an existential anchor throughout the changes of his life. Whenever he feels he lacks certainty and direction, whenever it seems there’s no sure ground left to stand on, he seeks it out.

That beech tree exists. I’ve known it since I was a boy, carved my name on it in a secret place when I was ten, but unlike my protagonist, I’ve also seen how the bank has been eroding slowly over the decades, the root system more and more exposed. Some years ago, storms felled a couple of my tree’s equally mighty brethren. They’d been undermined by time and grown top heavy, so a capricious wind sent them crashing into the river. It’s a shocking thing to see, a tree of immense proportion spread out suddenly, smashed open by gravity, and I suppose it was just a matter of time before my own tree – I always think of it as my tree – succumbed in the same way.

Its prospect, sitting high on that bank grants it a certain majesty but you can also sense its vulnerability as its roots cling talon-like to an earth that is slowly vanishing beneath it. It’s five or six feet in diameter, and Professor Google says if we multiply the diameter of the tree at chest height, in inches, by six, it gives us the approximate age of the tree in years – so let’s say about four hundred years since that little beechnut first sprouted on the riverbank and crowded out all the other little beechnuts.

But one side of the root system has been getting more and more exposed, starving the tree. Sure enough, I came upon it recently to find a massive section of trunk had failed above those exposed roots. It was taken down by the storms we had in December, sent thirty feet into the river below, its irresistible arboreal tonnage smashing through a footbridge in the process.

So there’s a lesson here about impermanence, that although we all know nothing lasts for ever, at the same time it’s an axiom we seek to ignore by picking as our yardsticks something suitably long lived, like say a four hundred year old beech tree. But, in time, even the mountains are ground down and the valleys filled with their dust, and one day I’m sure to come through the forest to find this tree gone completely into the river, and a crater in the bank ripped out by the roots as it went over. And the other lesson in all of this is I’ve got to find a way of not minding any of that.

And that might even be possible, were it not also for the accompanying sense recently of an acceleration in the destruction of the known world, and the fast erosion of all certainty, like the earth that has supported my tree for four centuries being now insufficient to support the weight of our giddy times.

But perhaps in the true unwritten history of my tree, a more useful tale than its imminent demise has already been told in the beer-can someone wedged into one the boles high in the trunk, or the plastic supermarket bag trapped in its branches and just out of reach – a bag that slapped and flapped eventually to silent rags in the winds over the passage of several winters. Or the inevitable little bags of dog poo someone hung there, or the discarded sandwich wrapper and, one time, the malodorous pile of human faeces, complete with Hoover instruction booklet hastily improvised as toilet paper (well, you never know, do you?). Or indeed the ten year old boy who once carved his initials in that secret place – yes, even that, to other eyes, might have seemed a sacrilege.

All these things from time to time have come to poke fun at this illusion of the tree’s sanctity, at the idea of anything being immortal in this world, at our sentimental nature, at our propensity for hanging onto things, to people, places, even memories, long after the time has come to let them go. To one human a mighty tree and its environs are an enchanted place, a place for communing with the Faery, while to another it’s simply a convenient toilet, or somewhere to leave one’s rubbish, or make one’s mark.

In mythical terms these are the tokens of the jester, the exasperating interventions of an ever playful Mercurius, telling us to get over ourselves, that the successful alchemy of one’s life is a continuing process of coagulation and sublimation, that the falling back into ruin is as important as the rise of a transcendent vapour that follows. The remains of these trees, these icons of the most venerable life on earth, four hundred years in the making, will settle back into the earth now, and there coagulate and rot in slow-time, providing habitat for the shy creatures we do not see when we are encumbered with our yapping dogs – the creatures, like the sprites and the Faery we see only when we settle down in the forest and tune in to the deep motion of its fecund breath, and open up the eye of imagination.

There is no tragedy here, only a falling back into the alembic of my days, a further cycle of coagulation and a separating out the unnecessary from my thoughts, while we await the sublimation of some new mode of spirit, a fresh way of thinking and seeing and being.

Or at least I hope so.

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throstle's nest

So, today I went back to Marsden, setting for my novel Durleston Wood, also the place I was born. There’s a walk here I’ve been doing since childhood -woodland, meadow and riverside. I used to walk it in company with the Faery. Don’t believe in the Faery? Doesn’t matter; they don’t live here any more.

It’s impossible to overlook the changes that have taken place, the suburbanisation, the population increase, and its effect on the quiet places. Durleston is tattered around the edges now, and worse, it has been labelled by the council as amenity,…. as uggh,… country park. Meanwhile the spread of neighbouring Middleton drifts south year on year, its developments an artist’s impression, cast upon the blighted green; another meadow gone, and then another, until we reach the bounding Saracens – waste bins overflowing with bags of dog waste. Little wonder then the Faery have fled, gone gagging for cleaner air.

There was a time when Durleston meant something. Entering the wood from the hurly burly of the world you could feel the silence. It slowed the pulse, slowed the pace, drew you into the gentle currents of its ancient spirit ways. And there were voices, whisperings of imagination, of ghosts and sometimes you would hear the song of the Faery.

durleston wood cover smallBut to know Durleston, even as I knew it in the 60’s, was to know it in its dog days. Its intimacy was a comfort through the trials of childhood, its Faery song a familiar refrain, but a song also in part a lament, foretelling the subsequent decades of decline, of insult and injury. And my grief for its loss I have long carried like a thorn in my heart, long before it was lost, but lately I feel something else, too, something hostile, as if Durleston itself is rejecting me. It feels now like a former lover possessed by an unfamiliar and disturbing spirit. Her emissaries are the troll, the gnome, and their minion – the yapping dog.

Of which:

Descending into the wood today, I am accosted by a dog. It runs loose, aggressive, teeth bared, yapping. And ambling along the path comes the gnome. He is a corpulent youth, sweating in shorts and tee shirt, supermarket-bag of junk to hand. The gnome speaks:

“Better watch him mate,” he says, “or he’ll obliterate you.”

He seems a pleasant enough simpleton, sees no need to control his dog, thinks perhaps if it bites, it is my fault – not his concern. He does not think ahead, or through the consequences. Notwithstanding his odd and pointedly literate use of the word “obliterate”, his ignorance is his bliss.

My canine assailant is not a fighting dog, not a Pit Bull. Thank heavens then for small mercies. No, this is just a small yappy dog of indeterminate breed, daft as a brush, and domesticated only in the most token sense of the word. But even such dogs as this can draw blood, and draw it quick. I risk a nicked vein, torn flesh, and a trip to casualty. Some dogs too have a penchant for the buttocks. Perhaps the gnome would laugh at that.

“Got you there, didn’t he, mate?”

None of this is inconsequential, but neither is it the dog’s fault. The dog is being a dog, runner and rabble rouser in a pack of ignorance.

man strolling in a wooded landscape - detail - A A MillsIn quieter times, before the spread of Middleton, before words like “amenity” were dreamed, I have meditated for hours in the dappled, shady quiet of Durleston, times when the wood revealed its hidden treasures: the nuthatch, kingfisher, water-vole, all the shy creatures, and sometimes the perception would broaden further to reveal the Faery.

Now the paths are torn open, deep wounds oozing mud, cut by the passage of muscular men in fetish gear, on bicycles. You cannot meditate for hours in the silence of Durleston any more. A minute is your lot between the passage of town folk in their careless packs, yapping as loud as their dogs.

So,…

I’m thinking I should say something to this man, ask him to put his dog on a lead, but he has a plump child in tow and might be inclined to yap assertively in order not to lose face, and his dog might take his tone then as permission to engage. I say nothing, feel instead my magnanimity ebb, my greeting smile fade to stone. The dog stands its ground. I have seen a dog, like this one, attempt to bite a passing lorry, so I do not suppose myself immune. Nor am I confident I could dispatch my assailant as efficiently .

A child was recently mauled by a dog running loose like this amid Durleston’s amenity. There were many dogs loose that day. The owner melted into the crowds and did not come forward to claim the child’s blood as his responsibility. But children are small, men are big. It is a doggish thing, and natural to take down the easier game.

That I do not threaten its pack permits the dog’s attention to wander. It loses interest, shoots away into the wood. What larks! I am saved, and move quietly on, but have lost my train of thought now, my ease, my meditative stride. Where was I? Believer in Faery, indeed! Where are the buggers when you need them!

The route is busy today, more packs of careless, flat-footed folk with loose dogs at every turn. I find it tiresome, negotiating safe passage in a kingdom to which I once had free reign. A springer bounds towards me – not aggressive this time, so I an not afraid. It leaps playfully, splats a dash of drool upon my pants, slaps there also its filthy paws then bounds away. It is with a fixed grin I ready myself to accept an apology from the lady owner, but none is forthcoming. Perhaps she is embarrassed. Perhaps she feels I am the strange one here, a man alone, walking without a dog.

I abandon the route, come up instead by the Throstle’s Nest, a less trodden way. In the long ago, the meadows here were a steaming tip. The plough still brings up fresh shards of pot and glass with each pass, so that in the early spring, when the sun hits right and the crop is low, the way is all a glitter. The plough also breaks the shards into a fresh, keen sharpness, so I would not like to lose my footing for the ground is seeded here with teeth. It ensures I am little troubled by dogs though.

rye3I concede the loss of Durleston, conceded it even before it was lost. I got a novel out of it, so I count my blessings – parting gift of the Faery perhaps. There is town and country, and their ways are not alike. The country that abuts the town will always suffer the town’s corruption. Unlikewise, the town is never healed, never cleansed by its proximity to the shady dell.

The Faery shake their heads, bewildered. They move on at the sound of our footfall, and at the yapping of our dogs who seem more often our delinquent masters. I understand I too must move on, that this lament for a lost Arcadia is part of the human condition, something welling eternal from the soul of the world. Indeed I have moved on, moved away, feel it now on the in-breath as this antagonism in the spirit of Durleston, as on the out I still grieve its loss, feel myself floundering and in search of something I was surely nearer grasping as a child than I am now.

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Big day today!  I’ve just put this one up on Lulu.com and look forward to seeing how it does. If my other stories are anything to go by, I can probably expect around a 100 downloads a month. Durleston Wood is a project I’ve been working on for years, working through the delicate psychology of it and trying to figure out just who these characters are. As usual I’ve grown very fond of them and it’s hard to finally put the book down and say: that’s it.

As with all my stuff on Lulu, there’s a print copy available for which Lulu will charge you £6.24 plus postage. However, the down load is in PDF format and  free. This is not a taster or a sample or a teaser or any other kind of sleazy gimmick – it’s a full length novel of 353 pages and you can get it by clicking here. If I can tempt you into downloading it, I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.

**Updated Oct 2012**

As with all my work now, I’ve moved away from paper and focus entirely on the ebook market, so those Lulu links above won’t take you anywhere. I have no problem with Lulu, and I think what they’re doing is still great, but I personally believe the future for the serious indy author is in ebooks – and getting your work on the iPhones and “droid” smartphones of ordinary people all over the world. In Durleston Wood  is therefore exclusively available on Feedbooks here, for free. Download to your Kindle, iPhone Smartphone or whatever. Thanks very much to all my readers for their comments. I delight in all your mails, and shall always endeavour to answer each of them personally.  I initially write these stories for myself, but it’s all the more satisfying to know others enjoy them as well.

This is what indy publishing  is all about!

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