The creation of paths is a collective act shared with those we have never met and often could not, previous contributions having been made in a different epoch. Now we may walk along a path for pleasure, but most were formed for trade, droving, war or even smuggling. Unlike the car or bike, our feet are in direct contact with the earth, with speed being secondary to experience; to tread paths is to feel the past. The environment has altered, but research and imagination can help us extrapolate what previous travellers saw and felt. In the past so much time was spent walking that observing nature was unavoidable, though in this wood many did so as an escape from reality.
Remove the entire natural landscape from around a track over four years, then put it back again. Not a forest fire . . . artillery fire.
Ploegsteert Wood on the Ypres salient once sheltered one million men. “Tommies” corrupted “unpronounceable” Belgian names, thus Ypres became Wipers, and so Plug Street Wood. I walk the track that would have been familiar to serving soldiers and future prime ministers, Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden.
Henry Williamson, mystical nature writer and author of Tarka the Otter, participated in the Christmas Eve Truce on the edge of the wood in 1914. The nineteen year old’s friendly encounter with young German soldiers in no man’s land confirmed his view that the war was driven by greed, bigotry and false patriotism.
Williamson’s experiences ignited a belief that he was at one with Nature. Existence was a link in an eternal chain that reached back into ancient history. In 1919, influenced by the writing of the19th Century English nature writer Richard Jeffries, he became convinced of the existence of a union between the eternal sunlight and the earth’s past.
”This sunlight linked me through the ages to that past consciousness. From all the ages my soul desired to take that soul-life which had flowed through them as the sunbeams had continually found on earth.”
He likened the ground to stirred Christmas cake mixture which, with rain, turned to porridge; the wood could not recover in less than fifty years. However in 1928 he returned to the Salient. Dug outs had subsided; rifle barrels, machinery, holed helmets and minenwerfer cases had rusted. He delighted in observing plants, frogs and recognised a dozen different types of bird song.
Anti-war, anti-industry, to Williamson truth and peace lay in beauty and the open air. Surprisingly he made a catastrophic misjudgement in embracing Fascism, admiring the Fuhrer, extolling the Hitler Youth, visiting Munich and becoming a Blackshirt. In 1940 he was briefly arrested for suspected spying. Post war he refused to believe that the holocaust had happened. Over eighteen years he wrote fifteen volumes of “A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight”, the early books dominated by his experiences in the trenches.
A century later, I look up at a diverse canopy of twisted oaks, round crowned hornbeams, elders with fissured bark, chestnuts, pollard willows, elms and hazel. Beneath the leaf litter lie men and vast quantities of artillery shells. The wood’s beauty belies a formidable army of biomass that is far more powerful than the products of men’s folly. Their weapon: seamless integration of decomposing fungi and bacteria, plants and animals and time. In the long term they are unstoppable. Together with their allies’ oxygen and water they will reduce ordinance into minerals, pull down bunkers, rot leather and military webbing, fill shell holes and remove the dead. Plant root hairs absorb and assimilate. No propaganda, no rhetoric, just unrelenting action. True their action is slow, but if life on earth is represented by an hour on the clock, then our existence consists of two seconds. We tend to adopt a humancentric appreciation of time.
Nineteen year old Oxford scholar Roland Leighton, the fiancé of Vera Brittain, left a lasting legacy of letters. Escaping the blue pencil and containing some unusually frank descriptions, nature notes are intertwined with horror. A short letter describes trees, primroses and bees, then abruptly mentions one of his regiment being shot in the head. In another letter he enclosed violets, followed later by a poem referring to a decomposing body he found in the wood:
Violets from Plug Street Wood,
Sweet, I send you oversea.
(It is strange they should be blue,
Blue, when his soaked blood was red,
For they grew around his head;
It is strange they should be blue.)
Violets from Plug Street Wood –
Think what they have meant to me –
Life and Hope and Love and You
(And you did not see them grow
Where his mangled body lay,
Hiding horror from the day;
Sweetest, it was better so.)
Violets from oversea,
To your dear, far, forgetting land
These I send in memory,
Knowing You will understand.
He died the day before he was due home on leave on the 27th August 1915. Vera, who also lost her brother, served as a VAD nurse and then returned to Oxford, where she became a feminist and pacifist, writing the influential anti-war book “Testament of Youth”. She married in 1925. Her daughter Shirley Williams became Labour Minister for Education and a founder of the Social Democratic Party (SDP).
By 1918 the artillery had reduced parts of the wood to scenes such as those painted by Paul Nash in his depiction of the nearby “Menin Road”.
Roland Leighton wrote his poem in the spring 1915 but my July walk was devoid of flowering violets. Instead rose-pink Red Campion watched the Lords and Ladies dance with orange berries in their gradual progression to toxic signal red.
But my eyes were fixed on one of nature’s sirens, one that cast me back to childhood and a mother’s warning: Witches Gloves, Fairy’s Glove, Gloves of Our Lady, Bloody Finger, Virgin’s Glove, Fairy Thimbles. Today we know it as the foxglove.
Glove, obvious, but fox? Richard Mabey dismisses the idea that it is a corruption of folksglove, a name recorded in England in the 12th Century, referring to folk or fairies which inhabit the woods, though I don’t find convincing his suggestion that it is because they are found in “foxy” places. True, I didn’t spot any fairies … perhaps the wrong time of year.
I sat against a slanted horse chestnut, the bark coated in an emulsion of translucent pleurococcus chased by ivy. The sinister deep green leaves concentrated with chlorophyll compensate for shady living. Above the algae, glade light reveals the bark’s reptilian blue scales, gulches flecked with cinnamon. Between mature trees saplings jostle and fight their way to the sun like stretching nestlings.
The drone announces the twelve thousand beats per minute motor. Did Roland watch this bumble’s ancestor? It enters one of the lowest of the foxgloves bells.
But this is not Wildean aesthetics. This is business, the commerce of nature; the oldest air transport firm has arrived for the latest transaction in a one hundred million year trade agreement. Air freights of pollen receive instant payment.
A single spike lifts the foxglove cluster skywards, tapered purple bells open with curled lips. Inside the tangerine anthers await. Smudged white ovals with purple spots strew the corollas floor. Why should such natural architecture have such imperfections – blurred spots in such a random pattern? Perception is the key.
I see the “imperfections” because in the eye of this beholder, light is received by three types of receptors or cones. Sensitive to red, green or blue. Combinations of which are stimulated -result- I see purple foxgloves. Bees also have three types but substitute ultraviolet for red. Our purple is their blue. When we see white, our apine counterpart perceives blue green. So important is UV light that if artificially deprived of it the bees refuse to forage.
Patterns of ultraviolet light emanating from the corolla are processed by the on board computer and act as a ground control for the incoming pollinator to negotiate the landing strip to reach its payload and reward.
In flight wings build up static electricity on the hairs of their gaudy hymenopteran jumpers which act like magnets causing pollen to leap aboard. Marking each tube visited with scent ensures co-workers do not visit them.
Grazers beware . . . all parts are toxic. In 1785 William Withering employed digitalis to treat congestive heart failure. It has a dangerous reputation amongst doctors, the margin of error between medicinal and lethal being narrow.
I Visited Williamson’s fallen colleagues in Rifle House Cemetery, before exiting the woods via “Mud Corner”. Even here when setting up a gun emplacement, Lieutenant R.B.Talbot Kelly had one eye on nature
“My section had a forward gun on the edge of the wood near Mud Lane. The pit lay in a verdant thicket of little willows and blackberry bushes.”
I realised I had not encountered another being in the wood. Ancient sunlight, fairies, witches gloves . . . the real magic of the wood lies in nature’s power of regeneration. From the farm track I looked back at mixed ranks of beech, oak and sycamore sentinels – they had regained their domain.
“I saw that bare country before me … the miles and miles of torn earth, the barbed wire, the litter, the dead trees. But the country would come back to life, the grass would grow again, the wild flowers return, and trees where now there were only splintered skeleton stumps. They would lie still and at peace below the singing larks, beside the serenely flowing rivers.”
Capt. J Campbell 1918