The morning after storm Corrie passed through, my neighbour went out for a run to examine the impact. Her verdict? Carnage.
She’d used a similarly potent word after storm Arwen but on my usual walks after that weather event, I’d only been slightly hampered by occasionally having to clamber over or duck under a fallen tree. I thought she might have been exaggerating. How wrong I was!
I should, perhaps, have been forewarned. The morning after Corrie, I donned a headtorch and wandered down my garden, heading for the sports centre where I do my t’ai chi practice. Reaching the gate, my path was barred – one of my trees, a Norwegian spruce, had fallen into the neighbouring park, crushing the fence and blocking the way. Turning back, I saw that one of my alders had snapped – it too was in the park. I was surrounded by the debris of fractured branches, but soon after I was questioning my neighbour’s appraisal!
A few days later I set out on one of my regular walks through the woods and saw that the damage was indeed severe. However, being somewhat stubborn, I began climbing over the trunks littering the path, more-or-less following the normal route. Gradually, it became more like an assault course. I persisted until, eventually, I realised I had no real idea where I was.
It wasn’t that I was lost – the slope of the local hill rose to my left and I knew that, although not visible, the golf course was to my right. There would be a loch about a mile ahead and the village was somewhere behind. In time, I’d arrive at one of these features. However, surrounded by – yes – the carnage of so many shattered and uprooted trees, I wasn’t precisely sure of my position within that space. Everything was unfamiliar. It was disorientating.
I deduced that I must have crossed the usual path and trended up the slope, funnelled by the lines of fallen trees, all lying with their crowns pointing south east. I decided to make a concerted effort to reach the golf course – and when I finally spotted a known landmark, I was surprised how little distance I’d travelled. In 40 minutes, I’d reached a point that was usually a 10-minute walk.
Scrambling amongst the trees, I recalled the poem ‘Lost’ by David Wagoner. It begins:
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here…
The poem invites us to know the forest and be known by it, and to be confident that we can return to ‘Here’. However, in my local woods, ‘Here’ was utterly changed. ‘Here’ itself was lost.
I felt such great sorrow in the confusion of horizontal trunks and splintered limbs. A jumble of prone trees criss-crossed deer paths and no longer offered high-rise refuge for red squirrels or pine martens. The environment had been upended and redefined. And while the wildlife of the woods will quickly adapt, we humans will be unable to wander in it until it’s somewhat restored.
More generally, the sequence of storms that have ravaged the UK landscape in recent months seem almost biblical in scale, leaving behind terrain that is visually and viscerally altered. When our senses are confronted in such an obvious way, we know we have to make changes: we have to clear up the damage, restore or repair what can be salvaged, and find new paths through what remains.
However, when the changes to our environment are nuanced and/or less apparent, they’re more readily overlooked. It’s then tempting to rush to reclaim the familiar, to re-establish what is known. I’ve written on this theme before** and make no apology for returning to it because, as the conspicuous carnage of the pandemic appears to be abating, there’s a risk we’re disregarding more fundamental changes in our landscape. It might serve us to ask: how is the post-pandemic world different to what went before?
Wagoner’s poem ends with an invitation to be known again by ‘Here’:
…Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
I’m wondering how to be found ‘Here’, when ‘Here’ itself has changed?
- Emerging (perhaps) from the pandemic, how is the world viscerally changed for you, both personally and at work? What do you need to attend to in terms of clearing away what is broken and restoring or repairing what can be salvaged?
- How will you find new paths through what remains?