I went for a walk in the woods in the first week of the year. Down by the quiet place where I park my car there is, improbably, a scattering of giant sequoias, the spellbinding, sky-tending redwoods of the High Sierra of the Californian West.
I say improbably because this grove of trees that lay claim to being the biggest in the world, is rooted in the east of Scotland.
I was walking towards the nearest of the redwoods which, incidentally, I have known all my life.
Whenever I am in the company of great trees – and there are none greater than giant redwoods – especially when they stand close together and tower over their woodland neighbours, the image that slips into mind is that of a parliament of sages, exchanging essential truths about the world and its ways; discussing and refashioning the laws of nature.
All this conversation takes place far above the canopy of more domestic trees. The oaks and the Scots pines and the larches, the birches and the beeches, the ashes and the alders and the aspens, the rowans and the hollies, and the wind in the willows… I imagine all of these straining to catch a few syllables of such lofty conversations, discarded snippets like fallen acorns.
This is not just idle fancy. There is a school of thought, articulated by writers like the German forester Peter Wohlleben in The Hidden Life of Trees.
Just because we cannot lower a hydrophone down among the roots of the trees and listen in on their deliberations, does not mean there are no deliberations.
Vindication of a kind surfaced on a whale-watching boat in Alaska 20 years ago when half a dozen humpbacks came around the boat. The skipper cut the engine and lowered a hydrophone over the side. Then we started to hear the speech of whales.
Now, I am not saying tree communication is the same as whale communication, but it makes sense to me that all the dominant and defining species of the world can only sustain their roles by communication.
Given all of that, I was surprised to wander into this January wood and hear a very animated conversation high above my head. It was just as I reached the first of the giant redwoods – the first of three – it was as if the trees were locked in heated debate, their heads so close together, that a red squirrel might skip from tree to tree to tree, eavesdropping.
It was not hard to fathom the source of the conversation and. What I heard was a cacophonous blend of screech and scream and sundry other vocalisations.
Somewhere up there was a caterwauling posse of the bird the Gaels call screuchag-choille, screamer of the woods. I back-pedalled to put some distance between myself and the redwoods to see what happened next.
But I was not the only one watching. I had not yet seen the other party. She would have been attracted by the noise, pinpointed its source, and unfurled a long, low curving flight a yard above the ground that rose at the last moment to thread a graceful path to perch finally on an open branch on the side of the beech nearest to the redwoods, say 20 yards away.
The voices began to descend. I guessed two, maybe three voices. But then there were voices from all three trees, all descending, none of them visible.
Then the explosion. A sudden blast of wings and they burst into sunlight all at once, and they were black and white and blue and the richly-tanned brown of prime autumn. Eight jays, all sounding off, and all with the same thing on their minds. Acorns.
For they streaked towards the ground, towards a clearing beneath a huddle of oak and beech, and there they began digging.
The jay’s way is to store food in the autumn to tide it over winter, especially acorns, hiding them in secret places. These appeared to be of the burying tendency. Midwinter is when they raid their own stores. It is a process that requires concentration, and during which their characteristic wariness might falter. One of their number took off again on a low flight, a few yards, to a place that might offer richer pickings, but never made it.
Finally, that patient second watcher I mentioned cast off from the beech branch. I saw her only a second or two before the jay in flight seemed to burst apart, a silent bomb-blast of feathers. The strike was clean and suddenly the jay lay 20 yards away, sprawled among leaves and grass, and the sparrowhawk was deftly removing its head. Where there had been eight jays there were now none, but a smattering of black and white and blue and deep tan feathers in the clearing beneath a huddle of oak and beech.
The jay is ambitious prey for a sparrowhawk, but the bigger female is just about up to it, and this was as efficient a hawk-strike as I have ever seen. It was made all the more memorable for two very different reasons.
One was the involvement of the redwoods. One of my ambitions is to wander in the redwood forests of the High Sierra. But, such is my objection to long-haul aviation and what it does to the planet, that the prospects only recede.
The biggest of them are more than 300 feet, and the base of the trunk can be 100 feet in circumference. The lowest branch of the biggest was 150 feet up the tree, and that branch was six feet in diameter and 150 feet long. And that was but one in a true mountain forest of thousands.
Which brings me to the second reason. If you are wondering where this east of Scotland wood stands, it is a stone’s throw from the house where I grew up. It’s the Balgay Hill in Dundee.
If I were to contemplate all the landscapes of my wandering years, I may have to conclude that it is still the dearest place of all.
It was almost dark by the time I reclaimed my car. Over the last two or three hours of wandering and sitting and thinking and looking around me, and watching the path of the dwindling sun through the trees then the rise of the moon over the Tay, I had come close to a roe doe and heard the gruff bark of another, caught a glimpse of a fox, leant an ear to the first of the tawny owls to give voice, and watched a tree creeper explore the possibilities of six different trees. And the city went about its business as if this wonder in its midst wasn’t there.
If you are of an enquiring mind and would like to know more, have a look at the Friends of Balgay website: balgay.btck.co.uk.
And if it makes you reappraise the significance of your own place on the map, then my work is done.
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