Country Mouse. Mary’s new phobia – my voice. By Giles Wood
'House-hunters, escaping rocketing rents in London, are targeting Wiltshire, as they seek more space for their money, as well as a better work/life balance,’ droned Mary.
She was reading aloud from the local rag, but I was absorbed in the study of Beechcombings, Richard Mabey’s view of woodlands through the exclusive lens of the beech tree, and was only half-listening.
Most of the time when I react to Mary’s voice, it turns out that she has not been talking to me at all but to someone else on the telephone, or dictating a voicemail. Normal social cues are therefore hard to ‘read’ in the echoey, lavatory-sized rooms of the cottage.
Any interruption of her verbal flow actually intended for my own ears has led to accusations of ‘heckling’.
Up until now, the interplay of conversation – or agreeable backchat – has stood us in good stead. It has been one of the compensations of marriage. Now, I am saddened to report, she has developed a phobia of my speaking at all.
So it wasn’t surprising I misinterpreted her unsolicited newscasting by flinging open the cottage window – inviting a howling wind which blew papers off the table.
‘Why have you opened the window?’
‘To look for house-hunters,’ I replied.
‘I was reading from the Gazette & Herald,’ she snapped, ‘not announcing that house-hunters are standing outside the cottage now.’
Scroll back 35 years and, peeping through that same cottage window, you would have seen two ‘yuppies’ (all incomers from London were dubbed yuppies at that time) excitedly gazing out at the barren acre abutting our cottage, thrown in with the purchase.
It was, according to my mother, ‘a dickens of a lot of land to manage’. There wasn’t a tree in sight – although a lone holly bush graced the boundary. The craze for self-sufficiency had already peaked and we were not intending to be smallholders. Consequently, in order to screen out the middle-distance monoculture of inferior wheat, fit only for cattle feed, I planted trees.
I learned that grants were available and the Tree Officer, an enlightened bloke from Kennet District Council, a champion of arboreal ‘diversity’, approved my plan, which included species from foreign climes. Acid rain, not climate change, was the eco-worry of the day.
It turned out that my American black walnut is one of the species that scores highly in a warming world, because of its ability to withstand drought.
Like most new ‘landowners’, I wanted one of everything. I modelled some of my planting schemes on the grounds of nearby Bowood House, where they have hundreds of acres, not just one.
I convinced myself that planting trees was a gentlemanly occupation, which trumped any need to attend to gainful employment. I had also been reading a fashionable tome of the time that extolled the virtue of ‘own work’, as opposed to working for someone else.
Where now are my Hungarian oak and my Turkish hazel? They lost the battle against the nettles and brambles. I foolishly introduced dogwood, a suckering menace whose roots invade the most tender of shrubs – even those of my lovely, scented Osmanthus delavayi.
And what possessed me to plant dwarf elder, which even pioneer re-wilder Gertrude Jekyll swore should never be introduced into a garden, owing to its invasive, thong-like roots, which pop up, triffid-like, to strangle choicer plants?
Thanks to these errors, I can never resist the temptation to bore any newcomers, seeking a better work/life balance, with advice about what and what not to plant.
Even if I have had no personal experience of growing it, I recommend the balsam poplar, with its intoxicating scent. A Scots pine might provide a landmark tree, as well as attracting the elusive long-eared owl.
My own efforts were well-intended but, reading historical ecologist Oliver Rackham, I wonder whether I should have simply fenced the acre off and left it. With no human intervention, in a process called ‘natural succession’, almost all land will gradually turn into woodland. Rackham warns would-be virtue-signallers against tree-planting when he writes, ‘A transplanted tree is, inevitably, a damaged tree, like a man shot in the stomach.’
Rackham believed an Englishman should plant only one species – the native black poplar, which struggles to perpetuate itself.
The next time Mary’s voice began droning, I was quick to be more alert – especially as this time it piqued my interest.
‘Wiltshire Council,’ she read from the parish magazine, ‘is set to revive the scheme whereby every village has a tree warden to keep an eye on existing trees and spot suitable locations for new ones.’
I was listening.
‘That would suit you, Giles!’ she enthused. ‘You could plead for clemency when trees you like are about to be felled to open up a view … and you could advise people not to plant copper beech.’
Sadly not. As a way of antagonising local landowners, the role might suit a troublemaker, but certainly not a timid fellow like me.