In which I grieve the falling of an old friend
Some heel over at perilous angles, others split into branches almost as soon as they stop being roots, and others, fallen, prop themselves on some great limb and continue to bear leaf and mast as if nothing had happened. They suffer, too, from a curious infirmity of purpose with regard to their branches, a malady most incident to beeches and called ingrowth. Thus a tree may grow to a normal length of stem and start to branch like its neighbour, but after the limbs are three to four feet long they will reunite, become completely fused, and then after another foot or so will break away and behave perfectly naturally for the rest of their lives. It appears impossible, too, for one branch to touch another without becoming locked in an inseparable, if brief, embrace.Joan Begbie, writing of the beeches of Anses Wood in Walking in the New Forest, published 1934
Regular readers of this blog will know that I am following in the bootsteps of Joan Begbie and her two dogs (Bill, a white bull terrier, and Mr Bundy, a diminutive griffon). Joan wrote about her walks in the New Forest in her 1934 book Walking in the New Forest, a delightful read, full of her entertaining observations, knowledge, and her own lovely little sketches. All lovers of New Forest walks and history should grab themselves a copy (available second-hand from various outlets, or the library service has copies).
I’m writing in this blog about what Joan saw, and about what has changed and what remains the same in the almost a hundred years that separate our tramps through woods and across heaths.
I recently took a walk through my favourite New Forest wood – Anses Wood, near Fritham. Anses is a fragment of ancient woodland, full of oaks, hollies and, especially, beeches, where leaf litter and mast crunches underfoot and birds sing from all sides. There, in Anses, it’s possible to imagine walking backwards through time, even before the years in which Joan walked in the 1930s, back, back and further back to when the wildwood was a place of mystery and adventure, danger and solace, wilderness and home.
Anses is old and gobliny, and beautiful, too. Crab apples, hollies, oaks, and beeches grow together in rough confusion but perfect good fellowship on the slope between South Bentley and Holly Hatch.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934
It was one of those recent very hot July days and, even though it was early morning and I was beneath the relative cool of the canopy, it was already uncomfortable. I walked slowly, thinking I remembered every bend, every wayfinding tree, but still struggled to find my path. This is a tricksy wood – Joan’s gobliny wood – where trees part, shepherding you on, and then close behind you.
Joan walked through Anses Wood, too, with Bill and Mr Bundy. She came from the opposite direction to mine, heading towards what is now Cadman’s Pool (although it wasn’t there in the 1930s: find out more in an earlier blog post).
As she walked, she delighted in Anses’ beech trees, and they are indeed wonderful. Many are tall and old, their almost-smooth, grey bark subtly lighting the groves and rides; some are bent, some are fallen. They are all marvellous. There is one in particular, standing in a glade all of its own, very tall and showing ingrowth, where branches fuse and part (as Joan describes in the opening quote to this post).
On my first, wonder-struck walk through Anses, I wrote about this beautiful beech in my notebook.
Just before reaching a large fallen tree is a tall, wonderful beech. The trunk branches into at least three sections from the base. It might be an old coppice, but beech does this naturally (called ingrowth). Beautiful! A bracket fungus on the beech is velvety to touch on its underside.
I have always loved this noble tree, since we first met. It’s a friend to me on walks through Anses. The tricksy wood always lets me find it; then I know where I am, pause to say thank you and lay my hand on its strong trunk. I often find myself imagining Joan, Bill and Mr Bundy arriving from the opposite direction. Joan must have known it. I wonder if the tree remembers her.
This time, I’m getting near, but I’m disorientated. I can see the large fallen tree that has lain for many years not far beyond where my beech usually stands. But where is the beech? Have I misremembered the spot?
No. My beech – my wayfinder, my friend – has fallen. For a few moments, my head spins. I gasp. I approach it slowly, in reverence, in sorrow. I lay a hand on its sun-warmed bark, and look along the trunk to where its upper branches, always so gaspingly high, now lie in a complicated tangle along the wood’s floor. I’m feeling both wonder at being able to touch, for the first time, the beech’s crown, and compassion for this mighty tree, now prone. I’m crying.
Why has it fallen? Beeches have a shallow root system (as anyone who has tripped over a beech root will know), and that means they are more likely to tumble than many of their deeper-rooted tree cousins. Climate warming can exacerbate this: long hot summers (like this one) mean their shallow roots struggle to find water in the upper layers of soil. They are also particularly prone to parasitic attack by a fungus called Southern Bracket (Ganodermes australe). A long-lived fungus that can fruit on both living and dead trees, it grows slowly. On living beeches, by the time a fruiting body has appeared, the tree is apparently done for, its heartwood rotten.
And, of course, that velvety bottomed bracket fungus I admired before is, I’m pretty sure, Southern Bracket. From the first time I met my friend the beech, it was dying. How did I not know?
Southern Bracket on my beech tree in Anses Wood, New Forest
Fungi are wonderful in their own right, but I found no immediate comfort in that. I rested by the tree a while, leaning into its solidity. And then, looking up, I saw branches, once horizontal and now vertical, bearing leaves. Twigs, broken during what must have been a mighty fall, were still green inside. Lichens and mosses, ants and beetles – all still made the beech their home. For many years, the beech will nourish other life, provide a refuge, and return its goodness, slowly, slowly, to the wood that has nourished it for so long.
A shadowy Joan sat next to me, laid a hand on my arm, and told me that she also grieved for the tree. But, she said, it will be our refuge, too.