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This poem is taken from PN Review 261, Volume 48 Number 1, September - October 2021.

Now... the trees Brian Morton
Now, mostly, I tend the trees. They fill a long lozenge of land, on the opposite side of the burn from the house. When we came, it was a dense thicket of dying spruce, punctuated dramatically by three large poplars. It was planted to spite a previous owner who wanted to buy back the land to build on, and was placed on the replanting plan, which requires a proportion of clear-felled hill to be restored to broadleaf. We went to the landowner, to ask if we could claim back our irredenta, a marshy field to the north of house and the little wood. He and his land agent sucked their teeth for a while and went away. Two days later a letter arrived agreeing that the land was ours as long as we remained here, but with two conditions: no building and that we take responsibility for replanting and protection of the new trees.

The old wood had seemed huge and dark and biologically dead at the centre. The only sign of life was the keyring jingle of crossbills looking for seeds in the upper storey; that, and an occasional owl pellet. As the trees came down, to be turned into firewood, we replaced them with the natives specified on the plan: oak and alder, rowan, crab apple and goat willow. I sneaked in a few beeches and tolerated an opportunistic cotoneaster sinensis, a seed dropped by a passing bird. The decision was vindicated when I went out one winter morning to find the tree covered in garrulous waxwings, small, parroty birds that irrupt during cold Scandinavian winters, looking for berries. These are the birds of John Shade’s poem in Nabokov’s Pale Fire where the waxwing is “slain / by the false azure of the window pane”. We hang a fiberglass peregrine in front of the house’s only large window, to prevent any such unpoetic fate befalling our brightest visitors.

*

The trees are mostly planted in clusters, almost all of them dedicated to absent family, friends and friends of friends. My mother’s ashes are there, under an oak. The only solitaries are the crab apples, Daniel Boones of the sylvan world, who demand space away from their own kind. Some have accused us of something similar.

*

In Scotland, a house move is called a ‘flit’ and that is how our coming felt; hasty, almost furtive, the way refugees must move. We had a deadline. The shooting estate where we had rented for nearly ten years was going on the market, broken up by divorce and ostentatiously bad business. We tried to buy the house and field, but our florid landlord, Napoleonic to the last, insisted he would only sell with a second house and a hundred acres of scrubby glen to which he would still retain the shooting rights. Hasty leaving somewhat blunted the pain of going. The urgent search for somewhere new delayed homesickness for a time.

In the event, we were sent the wrong house details but our eye was caught by mention of an oratory where normally you would expect en-suite bedrooms, modernised kitchens and double garages. We visited, on a day when the grass was dancing with orange-tip butterflies and fell in love on the rebound. We went home, sold some old books and pictures, borrowed some money from our mothers, and made the monks what to anyone else would have been an insultingly low offer. They had moved on by that stage, and were happy to accept. We moved in on a midge-ridden July night with no breeze. It was a warning that evening strolls in summer were unlikely to feature.

The house has a number of eccentricities. The oratory is a converted byre, with panelled walls and a raised platform for the altar and sanctuary. It’s a prayerful space, lit only by two dim skylights. The crucifix is mad of reclaimed timber, the corpus shaped out of fence wire. There’s a Sacred Heart, too, very different from the usual cardiology-textbook illustrations. The local priest isn’t keen to celebrate Mass there. The monks who preceded us are excommunicates now but their shadow extends backward.

*

Their place has been taken by blackbirds. It took time to realise that not only do they sing at night, but they actually seem to keep the hours of the Holy Office, singing at intervals, spending the rest of their time studiously avoiding one another, picking quietly through the leaf-litter. The song seems to change, as if there were a different melody for Matins and Terce, Vespers and Lauds. It’s the males who gather here. The brown-habited females seem to keep away, in the sister-houses that ring the wood.

*

The trees provide the most peaceful work we have. When felled, the wood was left dotted with treacherous stumps and ankle-twisting roots. Removing stumps by hand is killing work, but we happened across a method that quietly, slowly clears the ground, and affords a litt Once the noisy part is over, that is. With the chainsaw we make a couple of deep cuts through the stump, more if it is large; smaller ones look like a capital theta, larger ones a compass rose. Then we light a little fire with straw and twigs – larger pieces of wood only scorch and don’t work. As the fire is steadily fed, always with tiny sticks, the glowing embers fall down into the sawcuts and smoulder there. On a breezy day, clogging ash is blown away. On still days, we crouch and blow through little lengths of pipe until we are dizzy. After a while, the wood itself becomes its own fuel. We climb up to the house at dusk and look back at clusters of soft red glow, Israelite tents on a far plain.

In the morning, if they are not still burning, all that’s left are a few blackened cusps, like a tramp’s teeth. They’re charcoal brittle and easily kicked off. Sometimes a second fire is needed to get rid of stubborn remnants. It was while sitting by a quietly ticking stump, hypnotised by the pulsing glow of embers in a late afternoon wind, that I first caught sight of Teuchter.

*

She – it never occurred to me that she was anything but she – came out of the bracken a hundred feet away, just a head and then shoulders and then the long, low body and massive tail. She was intensely alert, knowing I was there, but somewhat mollified by my immobility and maybe reassured by the mixed scents, smoke and human, that must have been circulating. She stood for a very long time, looking as it were past me, while I affected to look at some point above her. We stayed like that for some time. In the end, I didn’t see her go. One second, she was there; the next, the bracken had swallowed her.

Wild cats in Scotland were never common, in human times at least, but as populations have shrunk and breeding distances grown larger, individuals have been forced ever closer to human habitation and thus ever closer to domestic cats. Where once they remained distinct, they now certainly interbreed, yielding feral populations of strikingly mixed appearance. Teuchter had all the marks of a classic wildcat, flattened head with small, tucked ears, short legs relative to the body, and the giveaway tail, but, more than that, some essence of, there’s no other word, pure wildness came off her. I’m not a wishful wildlife watcher. My first instinct, on seeing a possible rarity, is denial. Last summer, I shook my head dolefully as we watched a harrier quarter the field in late afternoon light. It seemed to have some of the marks of a Montagu’s – rare here, rare enough anywhere to have once been a whole Archers storyline – rather than the somewhat more common hen harrier that still has a stronghold around us, where there are few persecuting gamekeepers. I watched for half an hour, unconvinced that the rusty splotches on the underwings were anything more than an artefact of light, muttering ‘Nah… nope… can’t be’ and leaving the bird unticked on the home list. A week later, a Montagu’s was spotted and photographed a mile down the road. Still, it’s a less disillusioning cast of mind than assuming that every brown blob in a hedge is a Siberian rarity.

With Teuchter, I kept an open mind. The name is a kind of cultural slur, meaning ‘northern, untamed, illiterate’, less commonly used now than its opposite, that music-hall favourite ‘Sassenach’. But it seemed to fit. I read around the subject and found myself deep in the complexities of introgressive hybridization, dominant and subordinate gene pools. Instinct suggested she might be wild. I’d grown up elsewhere in the county, where wild cats were known to breed on the high boggy tops that never seemed to attract walkers or campers. Once you’ve seen one, there is probably no mistaking.

A fortnight later, she crossed the road in front of my wife’s car. I’m not a wishful watcher, but also not a solitary one. Like the hole in one at golf when no one in watching, an unconfirmed and unphotographed sighting of anything is always subject to doubt, even self-doubt. She crossed the road low and fast and melted into the verge. I leapt out and caught her on the far side, just as she was about to disappear among the stunted alders. She turned for a moment, glared and then again dematerialised.

*

The following spring I was checking tree guards and posts on the far side of the plantation where a brown tsunami of bracken yearly threatens to swamp the area but yet manages to stay unbroken at a certain distance, frozen like a Hokusai print. I was crouching, absorbed, when I became aware of tiny sounds, a short but somehow sharp mewling from deep in the bracken. It was unmistakably the cry of hungry kittens. I stood irresolute for a while, certain I could find the spot, but unwilling to wade in, not so much afraid of an encounter with a hissing mother as unable to take the disappointment of little black or ginger or tortoiseshell faces. Days later, the postman reported a biggish cat carrying something in its mouth at the hairpin turn, but he’s as vague on zoological detail as he is on addresses. We routinely pass on bills and birthday cards to neighbours down the glen, while they sheepishly hand us back long-dated missives from HMRC and DWP which we’ve stoutly – and truly – denied ever receiving. None of the local farmers has reported a wildcat, though old John remembers them from past years. We’ve never seen Teuchter again.

*

I made a vow when we moved here. Not that I would never move again. I had tried that once and watched it crumble. This time, I promised I would sow or plant something every day of the year. It’s a tiny gesture of faith, but easy enough to keep up. The winter months are taken up with tree planting, or rather, pushing bare-root twigs – oak, goat willow, crab apple, alder – into muddy slits cut with a spade. I work at them like a boxer’s cornerman, dabbing away the red ooze, pinching the earth closed and tight, rubbing Vaseline onto the stem to deter nibbling voles, finishing with a sprinkle of wood ash. Some fail to take or are trampled by deer. Some dislike the wet and grow at a creeping pace. Others inexplicably rise above their environment and put on brave growth in spring, before ducking down again to gather strength through another winter.

A sapling oak snapped at head height, weakened by a too-vigorous burst of growth. I planned to grub it up and replace it but never got round to it and the following spring it threw out exuberant arms and now grows on, still short and stubby but with branches that will thicken and sag over time. The stub of its original trunk is a favourite early evening spot for the tawny owl, who sits there peacefully, a still extension of the wood but for the fierce eyes. The ground around is littered with his pellets, turd-shaped, musty cylinders of compressed hair that we pull apart to reveal entire vole skulls, impressing and appalling visiting children. The owl has a disconcerting habit of flying low and silently overhead. It feels like your own personal Fuseli nightmare.
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