Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Davies On Conservation

Hello. I am not the most computer literate of people so I can hope this works out for the best but that is about the extent of my capacity, so please bear with me. I have been asked to write a short introduction for your publication to a series of articles that I will be writing about my activities in the countryside, which will be educational. My name is Mike Davies and it is a privilege to be speaking to you today. Thank you for reading.

I am thirty-seven years old, but I can remember with startling clarity the first time I found myself in the wilds of England. It was an aching August morning, at a weekend, and I was walking in the foothills of the Chiltern hills, not far outside Abingdon. The trees rang and buzzed with the swarming songs of insects, drowning out the birds far above in the canopy. I had not prepared very well for the conditions: my shirt was clinging to my shoulders and my back, sweat soaking through into my fleece. I was listless and depleted. I was thinking of deserts. I was thinking of the Sahara at night. I was dreaming, I think, of cool sands, how they turn blue by twilight. I had seen snowdrifts like that in these same hills once, what seemed like a lifetime ago. I was dreaming of how my body would settle into the sand, how it would shift about me. The same swifts that span and shrieked, the birds that were hidden from my sight by the variegated blaze of greens that formed the roof of this furnace, those same birds would call those deserts home come winter, when I would be rising and falling in the darkness again.

Each footfall struck rich fermentation from the soil. Hops and fern roots, the sharp smell of browning beech leaves. Dry and whirling, this nightingale floor, arching up in lazy curves of clay clinging to chalk. I remember thinking, I feel like I'm walking through a tinderbox. I remember hearing myself say it. My mouth water had thickened, and when I spat it was heavy with gelatin and smeared across my front. I batted at it and shook it from my arm, but it had caught there.

The ground banked steeply to my left as I kept on through the tall trees. The floor was full of space, great stretches of unturned earth bare but for minute, light-starved copses of scrub and the curling dust-drifts of fallen leaves. What sunlight reached us down here was pale and touched lightly, but my scalp and skin were swimming in sweat just the same. There was tawn in the air, is the best way I can put it, and it was heavy stuff to breathe. It was a dune, I imagined. The way the topsoil gave and slid a little beneath every labouring trudge. If I fell here, I thought there might be an avalanche, and before I choked on cindered leaves and rushing ground I would be quite alone, and quite silent. It would be over, of course, the whole silly business, in a matter of minutes. There was not enough, I realised thinking this, there was simply not enough of the stuff loose on the bank to rush down as my morbid thoughts had demanded, not enough to do this to me, but I forgave it. I forgave it that poverty.

Occupied with thoughts of my forgiveness, a handful of steps found me startled, standing as I was on old cracked concrete in the pitiless glare of what they call direct sunlight. I feel like a sausage, I thought, looking about with wide eyes, I will burst.

I had come to one of the old roads, a Forestry Commission lane that wound through the hills, gated and locked at either end, barely metalled by any contemporary sense of the word. In front of me a tall, trapezoidal tunnel had been bulldozed through the bank and out the other side. The shadows were deep darkening quickly to black, and they drew me forward. Cooler air came forward to meet me as it will over running water. I obeyed my instincts. I had nothing left.

I sat down slowly, peeling away my fleece from tired back and drenched arms, shirt sticking to me here and there as I moved, and I laid my back against the wall of the tunnel. The air was still, here, and I unbuttoned my shirt. I knew, short legs spread well out in front of me, that I could sit here for as long as I needed for days if I needed it and not be disturbed or unsettled. The sun would set and the night would pass over and perhaps I would see the woods lit up by moonlight, or perhaps I would not. I had forgotten what time of the month it was, what the date was.

The tunnel was humming, I realised, in a low unvarying voice. Here the insectile chatter was softened, blurred, the stone channel doing to the buzzes and shrieks what the walls of a church do to the voices of a choir.

I lay out slowly, as my tired muscles tightened and began to pull, and I dragged the wet bundle of my fleece under my head, and I lay there for a while, gazing across the pale, shadowed floor. It was strewn with tiny pebbles and stones and dust and twigs and things, and some of them were sticking into me, but I didn't mind, I couldn't. After a while, I think I slept. I remember dreaming, certainly. Strange dreams, they were, with the blaze of life shot through.