Along the ancient Roman road, which arrows its way across the ridge facing the Highland Line towards the River Tay, are the fallen. Tangles of limbs are scattered amongst the standing dead, piles of the fallen are stacked high along the road. Like heads left above ground by a careless gravedigger, bald glistening stumps pockmark the ground. Last summer, you could go for miles along this road and see only green walls of sitka and a stripe of blue-white sky. Now, there are open views across the strath towards the hill-fort-scattered ridges to the south, and the snow-streaked corries to the north.
The saw of time has come to our little glen, too. Accessible only from the south-east, with a small pass to the north-west, it is surrounded on three sides by ridges. These rise to a crescendo in the south-west. All along the ridges are trees. In the north, tall lanky larch followed by squat spreading oaks and ashes. On the southern ridge, tangled white-and-brown birch with an odd oak for diversity, followed by dense spruce and sitka. To the north-west unstable gean, old birch and a few more oaks. To the south-west tall larch, into its first flush of adolescence but already strappingly tall.
Those larch filled the window of my office, crowning the hills with a soft yellow in spring, dense green in summer, red and gold in autumn and khaki in winter. No longer. Like waves of advancing soldiers struggling to get to the enemy’s trench, the khaki larches were cut down. Now a sloping gap has opened up in the ring of trees around the glen, exactly where, at this time of the year, the sun sets. In the late afternoon it casts its beams of stark light into our little world, unhindered by any tree. The defences have been breached.
A few larches have survived, clinging on to steep rockfaces, too precarious for any harvester, or even for a chainsaw-wielding man. I walked up the other day, to see the carnage for myself. I nearly lost my boot in the mud that the harvester had churned up. I counted rings: 45. For a tree that can live up to 250 years, not much. They are my contemporaries these trees, growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. I have outlived them.
Shortages of timber supplies across Britain have made prices go up and trees come down. I feel a hypocrite walking amongst the fallen, mourning them. I have cut down more than one tree myself, revelling in the sounds of the revving saw struggling to chew the wood, of the creaking tree which finally gives up the ghost in a swoosh of branches and crunching of timber. Firewood makes me greedy, cold, blind to the death of a tree. It was the smell that brought me out of my hypocrisy, the smell of larch resin, pungently puncturing the winter air. I love the smell. It must be an extremely deep-rooted, very ancient response in our brains. Few do not love the smell of pine resin. It murmurs ‘forest’, ‘heat’, ‘here there may be food’.
Where the trees have been felled, there will be a riot of flowers and plants in the next few years. Depending on what will be planted, this could continue for some time; clear felled land is loved by flowering plants like foxglove. In amongst the larch and sitka there have emerged birch and the ghosts of oaks, lingering remnants of other woodland cultures that thrived before the conifers. These, too, will flourish.
Above all, the lack of large blocks of massive trees opens my eyes to the small. This is the time of year for the small. White-capped waves of snowdrops wash from underneath hedges and from the borders of the garden into the withered grass. Mosses and liverworts thrive in the wetness and cold, miniature forests of green, green-grey and yellow. Tentatively, almost by mistake, a few primroses are peering into 2018 and the heads of daffodils are pushing aside the grass to ready themselves to ring in Easter with yellow bells.
Wandering amongst the debris of the larches, I rediscovered the forests that grow on the trees. Lichens of all shapes and sizes, some huge, dangle from branches and twigs that have come down to earth as the trees were felled. Again, the smallness of winter, an exquisite smallness that is as fully alive as a whole forest. Life in the hills in winter is often like a huddled old man, wrapped in tattered clothes, wishing he was elsewhere. But only look, and amongst the wreckage of winter and the death of a woodland, life is shouting for joy.