It’s a glorious day in England and the late spring is rushing along as fast as it can go. I keep looking up at the sky to see if I can see a great cloud of volcanic ash heading this way but all I see are white clouds scudding along like frisky sheep.
I walk, fast enough to keep warm, because the wind is still cold, blowing in from the north east and bringing the smell of the sea long before I reach it. Sometimes I stop and talk with other dogwalkers; we admire each other’s animals and talk dogtalk. There’s a great camaraderie among dogwalkers and it’s probably a measure of my slightly sick mind that it occurs to me that using the cover of dogwalking might be a great disguise for a serial killer. We greet someone who we don’t know like a long lost relative simply because of their canine companion.
The beach is bracing, the wind whipping the waves into fine spume that makes you wet if you walk too near the shoreline. I feel sand seep into my trainers. Back up and head towards the wood again as I run out of beach. The nudist beach is no more, as much a result of coastal erosion as it was of county council statutes; but few naturists felt the narrow stretch of rough shingle was worth the pains of visiting any more.
I return via another belt of ancient woodland, taking a short cut across a vast meadow and then back into tree cover again. I love trees. The dog trails behind me, following her nose where it leads and when she does that I stand and wait for her to catch up and feel the sun and the breeze on what little skin I have bared. It feels good. Back into a grove of trees, I remember my days as a warden on a nature reserve, working as education officer and I take a sneaky look around to see if I am watched before pressing my right ear to the nearest tree. A distant hint of moving liquid sounds inside the trunk, faint but distinct. This one is too big. I try a sapling and the sound is thin and thready, like the pulse of a dying bird.
Moving on I reach the final open space of the walk and a parade of trees greets me, spaced out across grass studded with wildflowers making up for lost time. These, like Goldilock’s porridge, are just right. Not too big and not too small. I lean my face against the first, feeling the bristle of lichen like kissing a man unshaven on Sundays. The trunk is warm from the sun and the lichen crackles and shifts as my ear finds the sweet spot. Like a river, the heartbeat of the tree thunders away and the tree seems to lean against me as the wind catches it, like a Shire horse will lean on the farrier as it is being shod. It feels strange, a great affectionate gesture from a loving stranger who has become a friend in the space between one heartbeat and the next. I stand, my cheek against this tree before moving to the next and repeating the experience. Four trees later and I have moss and lichen in my hair, making me look like a slightly stout dryad, if dryads are allowed to wear combat trousers and National Geographic Buffs.
I cut down the field and back into the first belt of woodland, and stop amid the grove of chesnuts, where the bats inhabit a hole in one trunk and woodpeckers rear a nestfull of chicks every year in the hole below it and here, I stop for a moment and listen to the sound beyond the song of birds and the wind in the trees and further beyond the traffic on the A12 a few dozen yards away now.
So distant that I may well be imagining it, I hear another heartbeat: the earth’s. It might be my own magnified by my melancholy and sensitivity, but it doesn’t matter. Just as the trees leaning into me like horses comforted me, so too does this notion or perception. The earth is herself alive, and sentient and that comforts me beyond anything. Humanity may be doomed but the earth will recover.
I go home, feeling tired and a little sad but not despairing. That’s as much as you can hope for some days.