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wistman's wood

Names, science, history... not even the most adamantly down-to-earth botanist thinks of species and ecologies when he or she first stands at Wistman's Wood. It is too strange for that. The normal full-grown height of the common oak is thirty to forty metres. Here the very largest, and even though they are centuries old, rarely top five metres. They are just coming into leaf, long after their lowland kin, in every shade from yellow-green to bronze. Their dark branches grow to an extraordinary extent laterally; are endlessly angled, twisted, raked, interlocked, and reach quite as much downward as upwards. These trees are inconceivably different from the normal habit of their species, far more like specimens from a natural bonzai nursery. They seem, even though the day is windless, to be writhing, convulsed, each its own Laocoön, caught and frozen in some fanatically private struggle for existence.


The clitter of granite boulders, bare on the windswept moors, here provides a tumbling and chaotic floor of moss-covered mounds and humps, which add both to the impression of frozen movement and to that of an astounding internal fertility, since they seem to stain the upward air with their vivid green. This floor like a tilted emerald sea, the contorted trunks, the interlacing branches with their luxuriant secondary aerial gardens... there is only one true epithet to convey the first sight of Wistman's Wood, even today. It is fairy-like.


But it is the silence, the waitingness of the place, that is so haunting; a quality all woods will have on occasion, but which is overwhelming here - a drama, but of a time-span humanity cannot conceive. A pastness, a presentness, a skill with tenses the writer in me knows he will never know; partly out of his own inadequacies, partly because there are tenses human language has yet to invent.

- John Fowles, 'The Tree' (1979)

In his novella-length essay 'The Tree' John Fowles explores his relationship with nature, wilderness, and above all trees and woods, which he called "the last green churches and chapels outside the walled civilization and culture we have made with our tools."

Its climax is his evocative description of a visit to the Dartmoor high altitude oakwood copse Wistman's Wood, whose name perhaps derived from the old Devon 'wisht', meaning haunted.

Here is an impression of Wistman's Wood today, the trees just coming into leaf...

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the undercliff

There runs, between Lyme Regis and Axmouth six miles to the west, one of the strangest coastal landscapes in Southern England. From the air it is not very striking; one notes merely that whereas elsewhere on the coast the fields run to th… Read the full post »

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