Dalkeith Country Park is located at the south east edge of Edinburgh. I went there yesterday to walk in an ancient oak wood, hunkered down between the meeting of the North and South Esk Rivers. Weather and rain had undone the wood; it was resting, bare, and the mud underfoot was glorious. Even suitably booted, as the three of us were, the best way through was around, skirting pools of churned mud whipped to a thick batter by others having tramped through before us, wet day after wet day. This day was dry though, the sky bright, the shadows long and as we came through a thicket of high, smooth, bare beeches, a loft of pigeons lifted as one chanting a chorus of a carol. Had we startled them as much as they had started us? I deviated often from the muddy path, once finding a crunch of leaves underfoot scattered with the crisp, furred husks of beechnuts. At first, I was disappointed to find we were walking directly under Edinburgh airport’s flight path – planes flying so low I could pick out the name of every carrier. It was an odd juxtaposition, the heave and hurry set against the tranquility of nature. Yet, somehow, as I let the overhead hum merge with the underfoot squelch, the speed of what was happening in the air became tempered by centuries of slow growth on the earth around me. The old and the new merged perfectly.
A clearing of slender birch trees creaked as they swayed, a high-pitched squeal that the tiny white breasted treecreepers ignored while shimmying up and down the rocking trunks. The other walkers, I remember only by their dogs: one Springer Spaniel, one tartan-coated West Highland Terrier (who looked like his undercarriage had been dipped in chocolate), one cold-eyed Rhodesian Ridgeback (that I am certain could smell my fear), and one Doberman whom I did not give the change to clock my terror as I called ahead to the owner asking him to click on the lead. A steep, slippery verge took us up to the meeting of the waters, the point where the two rivers converge, and there, held between the North and South Esk are hundreds of ancient oaks balanced – as we all are – between that state of living and dying. We came across one that appeared to have five trunks fused together; either that or it had split and grown into a gnarly candelabra. Arms stretched, the three of us couldn’t get anywhere close to being able to encircle its girth. And here, at the foot of the five fingered oak, began the first lesson of the day. ‘The difference between a pedunculated oak and sessile oak,’ said A., lifting from the ground an empty acorn cup and a fallen leaf, ‘is that in the case of pedunculated oaks, acorns are attached to the twig by a long stalk, whereas with the sessile oak they are short and attached directly to the branch. These are pedunculated.’ She held up the acorn cup that looked like miniature clay pipe while K. and I repeated the ridiculously sounding word, ‘pedunculated’, with delight. Lesson two came from one of the groundsmen, who, when we asked about the age of the oaks, told us that some were thought to be 1,000 years old. ‘There were monks here 800 years ago,’ he told us, ‘they planted most of the oaks and used the bark for tanning.’ Our quintuplet oak, he was able to tell us, was a famous one, the result of saplings planted by the monks that hadn’t been thinned, and so they had grown into each other, over eight centuries, into a mass of conjoined strength.
Weather and rain is constantly undoing this old oak wood, but it will still be there, living and dying, long after I have gone.
The Way Through the Woods, by Rudyard Kipling
They shut the road through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.
It is underneath the coppice and heath,
And the thin anemones.
Only the keeper sees
That, where the ring-dove broods,
And the badgers roll at ease,
There was once a road through the woods
Yet, if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late,
When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed pools
Where the otter whistles his mate,
(They fear not men in the woods,
Because they see so few.)
You will hear the beat of a horse’s feet,
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes,
As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods.
But there is no road through the woods.