Calloused as an Old Oak Burr
Walking in the forests of a wide valley
Rimmed by cliffs above us, rolling mist
Over the slopes out across the blue vastness
The vultures glided across the blue sky from
One side to the other, while kites and kestrels
Worked the fields where the woods were
Cut when first men walked within the walls.
We stood under the canopy of branches
In the shade of old oaks, ages growing
Slowly seeking their sunlight, ever taller,
Thicker boles, holding aloft leaves and,
Even when those died, in winter, green
Epiphytes; a host of other lives, for centuries,
Saying to all in the forest: “Behold, I am here.”
Feeding feast for insects and birds that eat them;
Showering grazed ground with acorns for boar;
Robins following rootings, under those, creating
Holes where night-time animals hide yet.
One had recently fallen, after perhaps half a
Millennium spreading seeds and supporting
Epiphytic ferns: now hanging upside down
From the bough that held them high so easy
Over which we climbed on the clean bark.
And I thought of those who carried an axe
Into these woods to gather firewood,
To create charcoal from the oaks:
Brought perhaps as soon as they could walk
And pick up a twig to help their father,
And kept at it until they could walk no more:
Years of seasons spent sweating and freezing alternatively
Snacking on dark bread and forest berries,
Bring back home a snared rabbit if one was had.
How many injuries did they accumulate,
Inflicted by such occupations? A series of
Splinters, cuts, bruises and bones broken;
But shrugged off and shouldered on
Until calloused, like the knots and burrs
Of the trunks we touch: the pollarded boughs
Wounded, but budding forth once more for fifty years,
Until the axe of those weathered workers eventually fell again.
For even great oaks are eventually tumbled,
Even if only by time. And those ferns and lichens
That thought they clung to a solid structure are thrown
Over, to cling and seek the sun as best they can.
We sat upon the curved bough and ate our own victuals,
Thinking of those workers who listened to the same scene
Of songbirds and wind, and wondered of what life was
Like outside these woods, these walls of valley wide
Yet long and uneasily walked out of, and wished
For more, for escape, easiness, for freedom from their destiny,
But accepted, their lives would be lived, alongside these trees.
Then the telephone took my attention for a time:
A thread landing in my lap with a crack-like impact of
A snapping branch upon me,
And I sat upon a stump and sipped water to keep down the lump
In my throat at this long twitter list of lads and lassies
Of a too young age who’d taken their own lives, the last option:
Locked in the loss that seems so extensive in these times
Of lockdown, long as a valley apparently without exit;
The looking out at a world that looks so perfect, looking back;
The pressure like storm clouds gathered above the cliffs,
Building until smooth wood cracks and saplings snap.
If only they could have come to this forest, felt the breathing branches,
The soft sunspots, the birdsong rest upon them.
If only they could have stuck around long enough, to resist
Instead of rejecting the pain, the splintered spirit, the bruised soul.
If only they’d stayed a little longer, told another their wishes:
Shouted, screamed, even to a pillow, “I am here and I exist!
“I have a life that is well lived, and will be lived if given
The chance; a hand, a hug, a kiss.”
For even those who never had to lift a stick or chop a log, can
Build up burrs, callouses, train themselves to toughness,
Over the course of a century or half, from the finer grain
Of slow winter growth gaining perspective to appreciate this:
‘Tis only at the end we can reminisce.
Looking back, we can count up mistakes, regrets,
See the setbacks we withstood, taking bad with good,
Standing tall till Nature takes us, rather than the blade,
If only because we owe it to the saplings stretching in our shade.
Though only the beasts and bugs it gave life to
Knew of its presence, tall as it was, and only those, who
Were touched by its life will note its fall,
And all the rest of us are ignorant of what it meant to them,
For a tree, that is perhaps enough;
And if we could but be as wise, it would
Too, be sufficient for us.
For those who have fallen too soon….
I was in the Basque speaking area of Navarra last weekend, up in the hills.
We went to visit a museum made by a very interesting guy called Iñaki Perurena, whose famous in the region for having Guinness World Records for lifting stones, among other things.
He has some amazing sculptures and lots of interesting paintings of characters from Basque Mythology on huge rocks dotted through the woods.
The Basques have a lot of strange characters that live in the woods. A much richer diversity than the simple fairy and leprechauns of Ireland, to be honest.
They have a type of Faun, mermaids, goblins, their own Santa Claus character, a cyclops, giants…
And…. another creature who you might bump into while walking the woods in such remote areas where houses are separated by large tracts of land, and visiting your neighbour involves a trek up a mountain.
Gizotso, is werewolf in Basque, and is said to be an extremely strong savage beast that lives in the woods and is made by sexual intercourse between humans and wild animals.
I’ve a long-held interest in werewolves, of course, and my kids speak Basque in school, but I’d not heard of this particular thread of the great tapestry of werewolf tales.
It’s fascinating how many different versions there are of this story. One of the things that unite all human societies are the similarities in our fireside tales of others who live just outside the light spread by our hearths. And the werewolf is perhaps the most ubiquitous of all, more than even the dragon.
At the same time, it’s disturbing how easily every society can alienate others and reduce them to the status of “savage animals.”
Perhaps it not so difficult to see how such stories of werewolves can spring forth in our imagination from simple ingredients such as deep woods, woodland dwellers, people we don’t like, and people we desire.
Of course, nowadays, nobody believes in werewolves.