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While I Was Away

Author: Tamsin Grainger
Year: Future

They've scythed the cow parsley and laid waste to swathes of stichwort. The swelling of green undergrowth, the gorgeous bulking of spring has been raised to the ground and with it the future.

While I was away they sawed off the overhangers – I can see the grooves made by the blade. The amputees stand bereft, blank stumps revealing their years of service. I pay attention to their wounds, counting the rings. They have removed the fallen, those which died a natural death and laid low by wind, chopped them up and left them in a log pile. They have exposed the metal, the fences and fallen wire where amblers cross to the river edges beyond.

Today, it smells of slashed stems, broken woody boughs, and the sap of nettles which lie dying by the path. The stalks have been roughly torn. Uneven, they jut painfully to the sky, their hollow insides exposed. Beside them are piles of their sisters and I find myself weeping. Long grass is strewn haphazardly along the path. Leaves lie any which way, ripped from their branches so recently they are still glossy with life.

I imagine the insects running for cover as the sickle swept past, the bees returning to absent blooms, and I see no rabbits – there is no longer anywhere to hide. Instead of being brushed and tickled by sticky boughs, the breeze grazes my skin. Unhindered, I swing my arms when only yesterday I lifted them up to avoid scratches. My shins are safe from stings.

I stand still. I turn, slowly. And my attention is drawn to the poplar rustling overhead, to the birds. Is it me or are they calling mournfully?

It was the daily burgeoning I loved. I watched the growing from the ground up, and outwards from the branch, delighted. Seedlings and saplings, spring multiplying and increasing – the future seemed to be stretching into infinity, it was full to bursting with potential.

With each loop I took – by brook, through lane – nature was expanding her repertoire. Dull at first from flooding mud, the blades and bracts began to shine. Everywhere flowers of sweet-scented hawthorn splayed half the height of the trees with exuberance. How often, attracted by insistent cawing, I looked up to the pine tops witnessing rooks, unruly, rumbustious. Amused, I would let my eye wander across the darkling sky and be calmed by the tree tops bare – silhouetted against bruised orange.

Miniscule flowers in scented white clusters flourished at knee level, umbels of petalled lace branching from slender notched stems. Leaves were wet from dew or dusted with pollen, sprinkled with blossom or splotched with poo, sticky bird substance! Black ash buds were erupting into posies, no less than six stems emerging from every end. As it warmed, serrated field elm ejected miniature offspring, four-fingered palms of maple sent out companies of tiny lime-coloured flowers, each clustered on their own pedicel. More light, more sun by the day. The ivy gleamed.

Initially it was all green to me, but then I began to recognise thick stalks from thin; juicy herbaceous from drier ligneous. I was able to identify leaves: palmate from lobate with undulations like Norwegian fjords around the coast, like oak. Some drooped and others were upstanding, hazel were velvet-textured compared to the shiny satin of their beech compatriots. Towering above me were the grand, and below hid their wood-mates, pungent ransom and bitter garlicky mustard.

Only a day before the devastation I was exclaiming over new growth: contrasting burgundy of nettle shafts with the burnished copper of dogwood. Scattered among the bushes I was quietened by the miniscule stars of jack-in-the-hedge interspersed with its companion-in-arms, sticky willy – many named, it cleaved to its neighbours and to me and sported its own, alabaster blooms.

The vista is open, empty now. There’s an atmosphere of something that used to exist and fill the air, of something that is not. I recognise this destitution – it is not the only land laid bare – over the river it is the same. And the hill lies barren too, and beyond, away in forests and on mountainsides, this devastation is rife, is purposeful, premeditated, planned. I hear myself calling out, ‘Is this my children’s future?’

And then, the answer, ‘This is death and it is nearby, it’s here all the time. It can be unexpected and sudden, you didn’t see it coming. It is death. We suffer. We all suffer.’

A thorn hooks me, hauls me back, and in my untangling I spy a scarlet leaf left over from autumn.

The voice continues,’This is part of the eternal change and transformation, part of the great continuum. Stand back, the view is clear, the air smells fresh, feel it whisper past your ear. Move the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth as saliva gathers and search for the taste of this. Be here. It is the only way, the only way to know what to do next.’


I watched winter seep into spring, I appreciated its gradual growth with joy and I learned. Then, while I was away, the world turned and I felt hopeless. I grieved what I had loved. I listened – I had no choice but to listen. And I walked on.