It is a place of broken ambition and broken toys but when the trip is a short one there’s no need for ambition and even broken toys keep the kids busy for a while. Mostly it is a place where time has broken and flaps along like a broken wing. It takes a gear shift coming here and this is what long journeys are for. They extract us from the plastic tightness of the city and with every mile pull from us the bits that still cling stubborn and elastic and try to drag us back.
Cracker Ridge wears the forest like a hairpiece when viewed from a distance. You can’t see it from the cottage but at night you hear it breathing and in the day the direction of travel in the air is that way. It is still a fair walk to reach the outer edges of the trees and we don’t always go that way; sometimes we’re pulled with gravity down to the village and the Red Lion then rue the walk back up. On days that we trudge to the top of the ridge there’s the reward of an easy walk home.
It is not an old forest so there’s some great sadness that hangs in the air with each foot of summer growth; a sense of inevitability and impending doom. But isn’t it better to see things like this rather than pretending we’re surprised? It is a generational forest. I have made that up because it fits the best to describe how the growth lasts around thirty years, just to the point where the forest has become permanent and the shadows cast across the neighbouring fields a constant thing; time enough for a folklore to grow and a hundred generations of smaller creatures to live and die and forget the great devastation.
When I was fifteen I watched it fall and I cried with every dragging truck and biting saw at the great injustice. I watched creatures leap and bound in panic and the little pools I had known shaped by giant tyre tracks and slick with oil. And then the great silence when the men had taken what they wanted and left. It felt like some terrible crime had been committed The men laughed as they leaned on their trucks and smoked cigarettes, flicking butts into the puddles they had made.
A heavy silence like the stunned silence after a great battle, for days and weeks nothing daring to move; nothing able to move. A forgotten oak, left like a joke; an island in the carnage and crammed with refugees; a kite floating on the breeze looking to profit, the crunch of dead branches and discarded chunks of timber uselessly sliced and left.
But the path, though we had never noticed it before, raised from the rest of the forest, suddenly afforded new views across the space that had been created. Views that I had never seen before and that stretched impossibly far to the dark peaks that dipped their toes in the sea. Where the forest had been the land undulated and dropped sharply to a valley that I didn’t know was there and undiscovered streams threaded like veins. Forlorn stumps of trees, their open wound still sticky with sap and smelling sweetly of Christmas, would soon be overtaken by new life that seized its chance to breathe the free air and soak up the rays of the sun. For this underlife it is the trees who are the oppressors because there’s always another angle. The villain in the tale has his own dreams, too and doesn’t consider himself in the wrong.
But that was then. A lot has happened in the gulf between and walks in the woods on Cracker Ridge belie all of that memory. It is how memory is meant to work; we fill the vacuum with the things we want to remember the way that the milk-sodden Weetabix fills the void left by the spoon. As a man I walked in the shadows of the trees that had returned and enjoyed nervous love in little glades; as a husband I walked and made improbable plans that I knew would work out. And later still, little faces poking from pouches or perched on shoulders, little voices singing in the echoes of the trees along with mine and then walking beside me and holding my hand.
And to now. I tell them that when I was their age or thereabouts I watched as they pulled all of this down and Cracker Ridge was shorn of its hairpiece. I told them of the silence that descended for a while and how I walked with a feeling of emptiness. But they didn’t believe me, of course. It is all too permanent. It is the beauty of youth: that great belief in the permanence of all things.