In for a big surprise Posted on December 10, 2011

To Wales for a walk in our woods, on a day as clear and glowing as only winter can offer. Summer is just a distraction in this wild upland country; in winter you see the real thing, the flesh and bones of the countryside painted in its deepest, warmest, most varied colours.

As a forester I try to look at the woods from a business point of view. This block of trees (black, in this low light, gothic, jagged and aggressive) is due to be felled next year. How much will it fetch? The price of timber is right down (this is the right stuff; what they use for homes – only they’re not building any). The trees will safely grow on for a couple of years, but perhaps the euro will die, and then who’ll build houses?

My natural interest, though, is what the view will be when they’re gone. Cader Idris is straight ahead, and over to the right shall we just catch a glimpse of Cardigan Bay? There will be a dreadful mess for a couple of years, then new plants will start to give it a pattern; timid lines of green. I hope to see at least a low cover of new trees in my lifetime: but then what?

This is the nearest a forester comes to a gardener’s perspective: weighing the impact of the different possibilities on the fallow landscape. One is to leave it fallow, or at least parts of it, and watch the first-year foxgloves and the gradual return of the heather and bilberry, and gorse and brambles and bracken, the inevitable birch and rowan seedlings, volunteer spruce and larch, and hopefully a smattering of oak. Leave it two hundred years and, theoretically, oak will be the climax vegetation – at least in sheltered spots and gullies where soil has accumulated over the ungiving granite.

I have planted a lot of oak. It struggles. Local Welsh oak has no sense of direction: mostly it goes sideways, with a nudge of course from sheep. In autumn its patchwork of colours is wonderfully wayward: one tree is copper, one gold, its neighbour jade and the next as dark as an Amsterdam front door.

Larch I love; its pale seedlings brighten the woods as fast, even, as birch. But there is a threat hanging over it: the same Phytophthera ramorum that threatens our oaks. It has reached South Wales, apparently travelling north. No one is planting it around here any more. Our tall stands of larch, planted in the 1960s and now seventy feet high, straight poles to a thin canopy, are the most graceful parts of the woodland, and their pale spring green and autumn gold two of its principal delights. If we see trees browning in summer we have to call the authorities, and they will say fell. I remember the elm disease, thirty five years ago, and I tremble.

But now, in the short days with long shadows, I can spend time on the details, see the work that nature puts into arranging heather and rock and bilberry, gorse and bracken and long-jumping brambles; none of them, not even the brambles, quite destroying the magical equilibrium. I can prod little freshets into new courses, promote them to streams, yank a ponticum from a path, play the gardener on a domestic scale within the implacable macrocosm of the forest.

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