'We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea'.
A scrubland full of ghosts, and memories of happier times...
February 1984, Dunton Hills, Essex:
I first see it as a deformity, a thing not belonging, an object interfering with the mind's perception of what the undergrowth should look like. Brittle shards of blackthorn peck at my skin as I squeeze through deep, dank foliage; the ravages of Winter leave their mark, the leafmould clinging to my shoes, the morose silence of the scrubby woodlands broken by the occasional flight of alarmed woodpigeons from the forlorn arboreal canopy, my own laboured breathing clouding the chill air.
When first my eyes alight upon the shack, I halt and stare, not fully comprehending. In this close, wild scrubland, a small and decrepit building jars at the sensibilities. This should be a human thing, a sign of mankind's one-time presence, a symbol of arcadian endeavour... but it seems unworldly, unnatural, as though it has sprung from the soil itself, a tree in twisted form, as though nature - having reclaimed the efforts of Man to impose a rustic lifestyle - is now mocking those efforts through mimcry. This is a vista Puck would have enjoyed, the remnant of a lost village looming through the trees.
The shack leans at an awkward angle as its lower courses gradually rot through damp. Blind, sightless windows, long denuded of glass, stare blankly at views long since obscured. A skewed rectangle of space proves the past existence of a door. Privacy has forgotten this small building. Nature has claimed it, ridiculed it, allowed it to stand as a testament to the vanity and precociousness of the human mind. I glance over my shoulder but my perspective is limited by the swathes of tangled haw and blackthorn I have just struggled through. The path I left several minutes ago is completely obscured, part of a different world, a dimension where human creation still holds sway.
The shack beckons, tempts, mocks. Through the creaking doorway, into a single room, traces of colour on the walls, a dappled mixture of curling paint, mildew and lichen. The floor is soft, mulched paper, twisted and rotted slivers of wood that once passed as furniture. Years have lapsed since this place was a holiday home, a sylvan retreat from the oppressiveness of the Smoke, a place to which its owners would flee on a Friday evening, tearing along the railway line from London to this portion of South Essex. Yet they are not quite departed. Their wraiths remain, so long as the shack remains. The human touch, faded and forsaken, dabs at this small space that nature has reclaimed,
Bones. Mixed with the shattered scatter of wood are damp, dull bones, mummified skin still stretched over the joints. What has happened here? Why is there the remains of a pet, a family dog, buried under this detritus? Another mystery, a chill enigma, a historic riddle that will never be answered. A few years from now the shack will be gone, foundations and a few charred remnants as its memorial, static on the leafy woodland floor while each passing season renders it an archaeological curiosity for the future, and the woods will be a popular Nature Reserve.
Yet nothing is really reserved about Nature. Defy it, attack it, scorn it, and as soon as your back is turned it will creep up and reclaim its dominion. The brief, half-century lifespan of the shack will be a blip in the history of the woods, but Nature is eternal.
'The turf crawled and the fungus crept,
And the little sorrel, while all men slept,
Unwrought the work of men' GK Chesterton