The afternoon sunlight had a quality. Here and there it shone directly on to the trunks of the trees, or through the slowly-thinning canopies of hundreds of oaks and their sporadic underlings, the rowans and the hollies.
It lit long and ragged-edged strips of forest floor and grassy clearing, and fell on the darkest bark or the blackest roots. Wherever it shone, it struck notes of bright white, notes so vitally defined that I felt I might hear them.
At any moment, the oakwood might resound to the silvery voices of vibraphones or woody wind chimes, and every note would sustain and ripple and hang in the air in layers of tremolo echoes. Their pitch would change every time a sliver of breeze lifted a holly spray so its shadow shifted against an oak trunk, beginning new notes, silencing old ones.
An animal trail half a yard wide creeps deeper into the oakwood. Its shapers include roe deer, red fox, red squirrel, badger and pine marten. Over the years, over different seasons, and in all the hours of day and night and half-light, I have seen them all there, or have seen the tell-tales of their passage just after or long after they had been and gone. It might look deserted, but that is an illusion. This trail is busy.
It winds between trunks, edges round clearings, and spawns off-shoots that skid down to the river – for all the wood’s mammals drink and most swim. I have known it for 30 or 40 years, but in that afternoon sunlight, it was as if I had never seen it before, as if I had stumbled across a new way of seeing.
There was the sunlit wood and the shadowed wood and one was bright white, the other dark ebony. Both were restless. The interweave of sun and wind achieved an image of ritualised dance.
As I was looking at this sunlit oakwood I was seeing in a kind of monochrome the essential elements that pinned it together and fastened it to its earth.
But then, by setting something free that I could not possibly name if I sat here and thought about it for a fortnight, I could allow in the canopy and the woodland floor – shades of fading green and paling yellow and darkening oak-leaf tans. All of that gathered around me in such a slow whirl of pin-sharp details that to write it down that way sounds dizzying. But its effect was the opposite.
I had slowed and slowed without thinking. Then I stopped and sat at the base of one broad and sunlit oak with my back to the trunk and my face to the sun.
I felt becalmed, at ease with the wood itself. And sometimes, that is how I go to work. If you take the trouble to win a degree of intimacy with your surroundings and your subject, then there will be moments when you see something “other” in the familiar.
An oak leaf fell on to the open page of my notebook. It was green and yellow and brown. I held it up to the light and I could see many small holes, each one haloed in sunlight. I put it back down on the page and photographed it. The result looked a bit like a satellite image of Lewis and Harris complete with their characteristic freckling of dubh-lochans.
From that moment, I have acquired the habit of looking at fallen autumn leaves as if they were islands. There is no accounting for the gifts that nature offers you when you choose to be still in its company and it treats you as part of the landscape.
Deep in the oakwood and down by the river, I encountered a broken runt of a tree I had never noticed before, but it caught my eye then because it was waving a crimson flag. In life it had been unexceptional as oak trees go, its girth was modest and it had forked at about seven feet high. What remained of the tree was the trunk, one limb hoisted from the fork at about 30 degrees, and a skinny, broken off branch where the rest must have been.
Much of the trunk was swaddled in thick moss. But the scene-stealer was not of the tree, but rather a parasite. In the moss and deadwood on the top side of the broken fork, a small cluster of rosebay willowherb stems had rooted, prospered, and now flaunted a pretty show of autumn-crimsoned leaves, conferring on the entire oak remnant a jaunty, rakish air that made me smile.
Nearby in the same wood, a much larger oak had succumbed to the previous winter’s storms. It fell sideways across the animal trail so that a new diversion navigated round the now vertically aligned mass of roots which clawed the air instead of the soil. But the tree declined to die completely.
I was still about 20 yards away when a great spotted woodpecker materialised on the very topmost claw of the upended roots. From there it dropped nimbly down on to the trunk and began to thread a tricky path through the saplings with a confidence that suggested this was not the first time it had done so.
But then, at various moments, the components of its black and white and vivid red plumage appeared hesitantly through gaps in the leaves. Other glimpses showed a bird apparently on tiptoe and craning its neck to see over the leaves. The point of the enterprise now became clearer, as it took a more open route past the saplings so I could see it pause every few steps and find food there. So not only was that fallen oak tree determinedly fostering new oak life for as long as it could, but it also teemed with invertebrate life.
The woodpecker was not about to miss out on such bounties.
There are three things this nature writer gleaned from the oak woodland day.
One: in dying as in life, there is no more endlessly resourceful living organism than an oak tree.
Two: no matter how familiar you and I might be with a creature and its everyday habitat, like a great-spotted woodpecker and an oakwood, it’s worth bearing in mind that no two days in their company are the same.
Sometimes they will take your breath away if you happen to be in the right place at the right time and paying attention.
Three: the best way to come close to nature is to go for a quiet stroll where animals are accustomed to walk and flowers to bloom and everything else in nature is at work. And then you sit down somewhere, grow still, and let it come to you.
And while you wait for the magic moments to turn up, you might notice that the autumn afternoon sunlight has a quality.