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5 December 2018

Time travel on a winter’s woodland walk

A winter wood reveals the bones of the landscape it grows upon, the geographical contours of slopes, gullies and hollows. 

By Helen Macdonald

I try to walk in a wood for a few hours before nightfall on every New Year’s Day. I’ve walked woods in low sun, deep snow, rain, and in dank mist that clings to the skin and seems more water than air. I’ve walked blocks of scruffy adolescent pines, ancient lowland forests, beechwoods, farm copses, made my way down muddy paths through stands of alder and birch. Sometimes I’m with family or friends. Most often I’m on my own. I’m not sure exactly when my New Year walks began, but over the years they’ve become as familiar a winter tradition as overcooking the turkey or spending too much money on my Christmas tree.

There’s a special phenomenology to walking in woods in winter. On windless days there’s a deep hush that makes the sound of a stick breaking underfoot resemble a pistol shot. It’s a quietness that fosters an acute sensitivity to small sounds that earlier in the year would be buried under a riot of birdsong. The rustle of a vole in dead bracken at my feet, the dry scratches of a blackbird turning over dead leaves in search of spiders.

Now the trees are leafless, wildlife is more visible, but so am I. I’m often met by the alarm calls of jays, nuthatches, robins, grey squirrels; harsh noises designed to inform me that they know I am there. Being sworn at by woodland creatures is disquieting, but at the same time oddly comforting. Modern cultures of nature appreciation so often assume the natural world lives apart from us, is something to watch and observe merely, as if through thick plate glass. These alarm calls remind me that we have consequential presence, that animals we like to watch are also creatures with their own needs, desires, emotions, lives.

A winter wood reveals the bones of the landscape it grows upon, the geographical contours of slopes, gullies and hollows. Its trees become exercises in pattern recognition, each species possessing its own texture of bark, its own angles and arrangements of branches and twigs. After the leaves have fallen, winter lets light and weather into the wood, and low trunks newly exposed to sunlight turn green with algae as winter days lengthen towards spring.

Because life is less obvious in a winter wood, where it does subsist – as bright stars of moss, or fungal fruiting bodies enduring winter frosts with antifreeze-packed cells – it demands attention. One year, I was held spellbound for a long moment by a cloud of winter flies in a patch of weak sun in the middle of a woodland ride, intensely aware of their fragility, their momentary purchase on this world.

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The lack of obvious life in winter inevitably reminds me of the limits of my perception. Most of the life here is either too small for me to see, or exists underground. Beneath my feet, an intricate network of mycorrhizal fungal threads link plant roots to each other and the soil. They not only grant trees access to crucial nutrients, but give them a means of communicating with each other.

It’s easy for us to think of trees as immutable, venerable presences against which we can measure the span of our lives, our own small histories. But trees grow, leaves fall, winters grip the ground. That woods are places of constant change was something that took a long time for me to understand. As a child I assumed that the woods near my home would stay the same forever. Today, many of the paths I used to walk are blocked with thickets of birch trees, though my memories of those routes live on.

Summer forests give me little sense of time past or times to come, for they’re a buzzing, glittering, shifting profusion of life. Everything seems manifested; there’s no clear sense of potentiality. But forests in winter are very different. To me they evoke time with sometimes astonishing force. Winter days always move fast towards darkness, and when the wind is bitter I’m always thinking of what it will be like in an hour or so, in the warm back at home. Above me are last year’s bird nests, built to hold long-fledged broods, and around me signs of life obscured in summer by dense growths of ground vegetation: deer-nibbled saplings, fox earths, tufts of badger hair on bare, low thorns. And always, while my feet are treading on last year’s leaves, those of next spring are already furled in buds on the tips of winter twigs.

After a light covering of snow, the prints of woodland mammals and birds are things you can read to rewind time. Pheasant tracks end with an imprint of wings, each indent of a primary feather furred with frost, recording the moment the bird took off from the ground the previous evening to fly to roost. In a Wiltshire wood that seemed utterly devoid of animal life, I once followed the prints of a brown hare right across the snow to a pool of dark water, saw the place where it drank, and from the spacing of the prints of each padded foot, saw how fast or slow it had travelled on its way.

So often we think of mindfulness, of existing purely in the present moment, as a spiritual goal. But winter woods teach me something else: the importance of thinking about the passage of time, and about different senses of scale. They can show you the last five hours, the last five days, the last five centuries, all at once. They’re wood and soil and rotting leaves, but they are also places where different time frames coexist. In them, potentiality crackles in the winter air. And that is the deepest reason why I’m drawn to them on the first day of each new year. It’s a day to think about the passing of time and one’s place in the world, and there is no better place to do it than a wood in winter.

Helen Macdonald is the author of “H is for Hawk” (Vintage)

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special