Rachel Carson wrote a book called Silent Spring in the 1960s. It was about the impact of pesticides on the natural world. She was the first person to question them and to say she was vilified by the agro-chemical industry and scientists of the time is an understatement. Fifty years later and her work is heralded as ground-breaking. I have found my thoughts turning to her tonight after a day spent working in the woods.
I feel at home in woods. The trees call to something ancient in the soul. Today, the sun shone brightly and the sky was blue, chased across with white powder puff clouds that raced high up in the air pretending to be harbingers of summer. A pair of Red Kites twisted and sliced above us, acrobatic adept dancers of the sky, while below Kingfishers called from the depths of the wood, secretively hidden among ditches filled with water. But despite the brave show the air remained cold, suggesting that Winter hasn't done with us yet.
Trees were felled today. They came down as part of an attempt to create clearings in the wood and I'm not sure why. I don't understand what the benefit of a clearing in a wood is. Woodland rides, yes, I get those. They can be corridors for wildlife, they can be helpful for butterflies and bees and other inverts and they allow light in that helps ancient woodland indicator plants blossom. But woodland clearings? A hole in the middle of a wood? I am struggling with that.
In younger, less considered days I felt a thrill at the sound of a chainsaw welling up throatily from the silence of a wood, but not any more. Now I shudder at the intrusiveness and instinctively mourn the passing of the tree whose life is being ended. The splitting sound of a trunk breaking, the tearing of fibres and sinews reverberates through me and makes me wince and feel sad. I don't like the finality of a tree falling to earth, of that deep contact with its roots being permanently severed.
Once, many years ago, I cared for a young racehorse. She was four, and she had won more or less every race she had entered. She was destined for greatness and I had her for one summer when I was twenty one before she went back into training.
It was a dry, rainless summer that year and by August the earth was hard packed and unforgiving. I turned her out one afternoon after riding her, putting her in the paddock with her friends and they all took off as young horses will, racing each other across the parched earth, joyful in the fluidity of their youth and the freedom of their speed and movement. As they reached the bottom of the paddock she turned sharply with the herd and I saw her slip and fall.
I heard the crack of her shoulder as she hit the ground, and even as I was running as hard as I could down the field to reach her I knew that she wouldn't survive it.
One of the worst things I have ever had to do in my life was force that mare, under the urgings of the head groom, to limp back up that field to the stables. She groaned at every step, an uncomfortably close to human pain sound, she shook, she dripped with sweat and her shoulder stood out inches from where it should have been with the inflammation. The vet, when he came, dithered for far too long, because the mare was a worth a fortune and she wasn't insured. Her shoulder was smashed in eight places and when they eventually decided to put her to sleep the head groom sent me away, down the field, but even so the crack of the shot when it came went straight through me. Sometimes you block out the recollection of difficult things, but I have a very clear memory of standing in the middle of that field when the gun went off with tears pouring down my face. I didn't want to not remember, because she mattered to me.
Seeing trees fall reminds me of that - all that nobility and grace felled in one, swift, permanent moment. Big things shouldn't fall down and not get up again.
It isn't just the tree I feel for: I am also indignant on behalf of all the small things that call it home and find themselves cast out as a result. I feel the same way, increasingly, about being asked to cut back vegetation, especially at this time of the year when inverts have almost made it through the winter and their shelter is suddenly, arbitrarily and brutally removed, leaving them stranded and vulnerable. At home we make a deliberate choice not to cut back dead plants until April has more or less ended, when most of the inverts who have been sheltering in the stalks will have woken up/ e-closed and come alive again.
It's not a popular view in ecology circles, leaving cutting back till April. Traditionally, the months between October and March are prime time to cut hedges/ trees/ vegetation. But what I am thinking tonight is that established wisdom only works for as long as no one challenges it or proves that it is wrong. Rachel Carson demonstrated that. Science, like any other discipline, moves and evolves over time according to the thoughts and experiences of the people working within it. Sometimes you have to question established wisdom if only to check that it is still right.