Leaf V: Lone pilgrim…
Unlike most of the local creatures – who never ventured far from where they were born, throughout their lives – the Badger (at night) and the Water Rat (of a day) had both been keen explorers: the Badger knowing every copse, hedgerow, track, bump and lump, for miles around; and the Rat being acquainted with every inch of every stream, brook, source, and, of course, the River itself – the waters’ heights in every season; the currents that would catch others out; whether they were good to drink, swim or sail in; or just suitable for a good paddle!
The Mole, he felt, proudly, had been getting there gradually – not bad for someone who had spent most of his existence happily underground, before… – becoming an able navigator on land and by rowing boat; and being able to work his way back to most places from all the other ones: albeit sometimes by unexpected, but happy, diversions. The trees – should you spend long enough with them: learning their names, and their distinctive shapes; their histories… – were the most amenable guides: and he would often spend hours, resting against their trunks, between habituated, enfolding roots, reading; or lying flat beneath their summer shade, doing nothing much other than the occasional bit of thinking, or humming, or snoozing, of course; occasionally sketching the most distinctive ones – the pollarded willows, reinforcing the River’s banks; the stools of coppiced ash, just inside the Wild Wood; the stag-headed field-oaks – or just an individual leaf, twig, branch or fruit. “Not forgetting Badger’s small-leaved lime,” whispered the Mole, sadly.
Thus, they became his friends, as well as companion couriers; his protectors – from sudden rainstorms, and especially those squalls of uninvited guests: rending the boscage around his new home confounding and minatory to those who they knew would be unwelcome visitors. Thus, those few leviathans that had perished – now passed on, no longer sentient; their expansive, useful lives faded into dark, eternal sleep – happily gave up lumber and kindling to keep the Mole warm in winter, too. But he still would thank them, as he stacked their logs in the hearth; or loaded them into the stove, or onto the open fire: their spirits now free to roam; their acorns, berries, seedpods, mast, or conkers, long having given rise to the fresh, green lives of sapling successors.
Along with the River, so many, many of those trees had their lives cruelly cut short. Uprooted, then towed away, unceremoniously, through the churned mire, with none of the due respect paid to them, all that remained was contained in the Mole’s deep mind; and in his deft drawings. He closed his eyes: reliving his favourite perambulation, up, away from the the Wild Wood, and beyond the River, to the small ridge of new plantations full of young upstarts reaching for the sky through the interwoven thickets; stretching, with extended trunks, shaking each other’s branches heartily as they flourished in the cool, rising air. Recently thinned, the scrub had been replaced by yet more mud – but, at least, the large proportion of these adolescents still clung on.
It was the ancient waymarkers – “every single last one of the poor things”, sighed the Mole – which had been taken. “It wasn’t enough that all the elms had withered; but they had to grub out the thriving ash, too; the gentle birch, the rare limes, the whispering beeches; and the grand, old, statesman oaks – so much older than memory or myth,” he muttered, dabbing at his face with the edge of his dressing-gown.
He lowered his misted eyelids once more; and traced the hedgerows: plucking at the ripe, purple berries scambling over the happy, gurgling, welcome spring; appraising the varied textures, rough and smooth, of each familiar trunk, as he lingered; resting on the fallen, bent arm of the wild service tree, still attached, still alive with spotted chequers, guarding the entrance to a diminishing group of its wizened intimates – “a remnant of Badger’s ancient forest, no doubt…” – creaking amiably, as it reacquainted itself with his weight.
The wind called; the boughs responded. The birds sang, too: hidden in roost or nest. The light shone warm on his face. Across the glimmering River was home, and the Wild Wood, threaded with clearing wisps – the souls of those long gone, clinging, still, to their wonted haunts. Alone, he might be; but not lonely. Not here; not now.
A log shifted in the grate: the whiff of woodsmoke tickling the Mole’s nose, and waking him with its remembrances of reckless savagery, of brutal, unnecessary, destruction. “Blast!” he bawled, determinedly. “Blast! Blast! BLAST!”