Today I want to share with you my review of my book choice for Penguin’s Read The Year Challenge. The topic for May was use a book to get closer to nature. I chose to read The Wood – The Life and Times of Cockshutt Wood. This book was a perfect choice for me because I’ve been wanting to branch out into reading more non fiction.
The novel, told in diary format by John Lewis-Stempel, focuses on his final year of working at Cockshutt Wood and tending to the three and a half acres of woodland. After four years, Stempel coppiced the trees, raised cows and pigs who roamed there. He knows the land like the back of his hand, it is a part of him. It’s a blissful sanctuary.
“Cockshutt was a sanctuary for me too; a place of ceaseless seasonal wonder where I withdrew into tranquility. No one comes looking for you in a wood.”
What’s it all about?
Following the last twelve months, we see Cockshutt Wood change through the seasons. The novel starts in December where we read vivid descriptions of the robin singing, the trees standing naked and the snow gently falling. It’s picturesque, peaceful, beautiful. Man and nature becoming one.
“There is always the sense of the unexpected in a wood, a constant feeling that, around the next bend in the path, behind the bole of the next tree, there will be a surprise.”
As a reader, we are invited into Stempel’s life during December’s chapter. We learn about his background in this profession, stemming from his grandfather, the farm animals they had and how traditions have continued, such as holly. Yet, what I have never given thought to before is how on the surface, winter seems to signal the end. It’s a time when plants wither, the weather drops and it becomes a chore to be outside. Nevertheless, nature is working hard behind the scenes to look after us. Mother Nature is waiting for a sign just like we do, for that moment when we all wake up ready to face the world; to start again.
“Oddly aware, walking through the wood this afternoon, that it is dormant rather than dead. How the seeds, the trees and hibernating animals…are locked in a safe sleep against the cold and wet.”
January’s entries provide something I get quite excited about: snowdrops. The description of the weather is still cold, crisp and glittered with snow. The songs of robins sing through the wood. I personally always admire the snowdrop. I feel a thrill of excitement whenever I see them. Every year I look for them, for the sign. They are so delicate and beautiful, yet the survive the harshest of conditions in winter. They represent that spring will come, we’ve nearly made it.
“If snowdrops are appearing, then the earth must be wakening. Of all our wild flowers the white bells are the purest, the most ethereal, the most chaste… Whatever; the snowdrop says that winter is not forever.”
Spring has sprung in the wood and we hear the songs of the birds and the plants are all starting to wake. Spring also provides a sense of renewal in Stempel as he feels he has a spring in his step. The wood continues to create a sense of awe and amazement. References to different poems by John Clare, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning and Edward Thomas embody this sense of new life that spring brings. This lyrical way of writing means that the wood appears to be magical. For Stempel, it enables him to feel like he is a child again. I completely relate to this, being outside in the lush greenery makes me feel quite at peace. There’s a feeling that absolutely nobody can get to you.
“…the possibility of adventure in its secluded spaces. I’m still that boy. I cannot walk through a wood without a sense of wonder. And there is a relaxing privacy to a wood… A wood is an escape.”
Now we are in May, we have beautiful flowers, birdsong in abundance and longer, lighter evenings. It is the same for the wood. There’s a ‘blizzard of blossom’ and everything is growing at an enormous rate, a rate which Stempel (and every gardener too) only just about manages to keep a hold on. The new animals are appearing and finding their feet. It’s the best time of year and this lyrical narrative made me so excited and blissfully happy. If you close your eyes, you can imagine it, with the whole of your being.
“Dawn chorus II: starts with robin, then blackbird, song thrush, chiffchaff, willow warbler, wood warbler. They merge into a stream of song; I cannot distinguish their individual voices. They sing as one.”
Time rolls by and the summer months are passing like the gentle breeze being described. Trees are standing proud and tall, providing a home for a variety of insects and birds. The bees are working hard to provide for their own hive as well as us humans. Their buzz hums in the air. The does walk around the walk, their home with calm ease. Yet there is a sense of time passing, of seasons changing. The apples are swelling, nearly ready for picking. The fox cubs are sent into the wild to fend and find the way for themselves. Autumn is approaching.
“Colour change escalation, for the worse; most trees have lost vibrant hues in favour of a muddy brown mixed by a toddler let loose on a paintbox of watercolours.”
The novel ends by going full circle. We see the trees loose their leaves, squirrels nut collecting ready for hibernation, animals fighting one another for the berries on the bushes. It is inevitable; time moves on and seasons work together to change and nurture. This also means the end of Stempel’s time at Cockshutt Wood. During his four years here, he has become at one with the wood and the wood is at one with him.
“I thought the trees and the birds belonged to me. But now I realize that I belonged to them.”
This book is beautiful in its purest form. It’s lyrical, it oozes soul and it was a massive surprise for me. I am the first to admit I am not a great lover of non fiction. However, this has changed me. I went on a three mile walk with my dad and this book was all I could think about. It provides descriptions, poetry, recipes and tales of the inhabitants of the wood. It’s profound and I felt genuinely moved. I recommend it to anyone who wants to feel closer to nature, to have a moment of peace and tranquility. I’m off to find more of Stempel’s books.
If anyone has any suggestions for the next few months, please let me know! Topics can be found here.
Big love all! Enjoy the last day of May. Summer is approaching. Xx