A Winter’s Tale.

Cold, oh so very cold… my feet feel like lumps of concrete and my numb fingers keep hitting the wrong letters on the keyboard: winter has truly hit the South Downs. The landscape glistens with frost and the glitter of ice is mesmerizingly beautiful, the trees remaining defiant and standing proudly despite the freezing temperature. I powered through December cheerfully and repeatedly telling colleagues, ‘I can’t believe how mild the weather is in the South of England, Scotland is so cold’. Well Scotland might be colder but I have now learnt that down here in the South winter still packs quite the chilly punch. Matters are not made easier by working from a metal portacabin and relying on the water in the nearby portaloo not freezing overnight!

This is my first winter season with the Forestry Commission and although the big drop in temperature has made my work much more challenging it nonetheless remains enjoyable and instructive. I am currently working on various contracts, OSAs (Operational Site Assessments – involving planning out upcoming work on a site and involving a great deal of research, mapping work, site visits and intensive assessment of every aspect of the site in question), reports for last year’s Christmas tree sales at Queen Elizabeth Country Park (see my previous blog post for more information) and all the many and varied other things that crop up throughout the working week. Just this morning I was out with colleagues assessing the recreation areas at two of our popular visitor sites, as we discussed what items needed updating. Then of course my research into different forestry practises continues and I try to spend a few hours every week reading about different forestry methods or finding out more about a species of bird, plant or tree that I have come upon in the woods. The latter project in particular is most necessary for although I try very hard (I have various books on the subject, if ever lacking knowledge about anything buying a book on the subject is my default solution) I still make the odd gaff when trying to identify the different tree species… But then no-one is perfect, even Emperor Augustus had his flaws (though marrying Livia was very much not one of them, that cleverly promoted paragon of Roman womanhood) and no doubt I will wake up one glorious morning to find that I can spot every tree species instinctively!

But of course this time of year is of special importance to we Scots for the end of January means Burns night! Oh the glories of haggis, neeps and tatties, served piped in by a kilted bag-piper and eaten following the Selkirk Grace for those seeking something short, or Address to a Haggis for those wishing to do it properly (it is rather thrilling when done properly as the proclaimer brandishes a huge knife and slashes it through the air at certain crucial moments). Then whisky and wonderful declaiming of Burns’ best poetry. Sadly I am missing out on the celebration this year as though I did try and source a haggis in the South of England I failed to uncover one (though I rather expect my Southampton friends were more relieved than sad at missing out on such a delicacy). My very favourite Burns work is without a doubt his masterpiece Tam O’Shanter. It perfectly conjures up the increasing speed and terror of Tam’s ride home from market late one night after spotting witches cavorting in a church. The church in question (‘Alloway’s auld haunted kirk’) is in the town of Ayr where I went to school many years ago, and the real life Tam on whom the poem is based lived just along the coast from where I grew up. But even without the local connection I still adore the way Burns conjured images from the verse and so beautifully captured characters, landscapes, devils and of course the great chase Tam endured. Tam O’Shanter is a great long storytelling epic and one day I intend to master it and recite it from memory, a feat my father impresses me from time to time by so doing.

The most beautiful verse is awfully fitting right now as the frost crunches underfoot, the cold wind lashes against the door, but the fleeting nature of the season reminds one spring is (mercifully!) just around the corner.

‘But pleasures are like poppies spread,

You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;

Or like the snow falls in the river,

A moment white – then melts for ever;

Or like the borealis race,

That flit ere you can point their place;

Or like the rainbow’s lovely form

Evanishing amid the storm.

Nae man can tether time or tide;

The hour approaches Tam maun ride’

Just as Tam could put off his ride no longer so I must now leave my, if not warm then at least sheltered, portacabin and stride out into the forest once more. I must dash as my van waits patiently outside ready to whisk me away to visit one of our active sites. As is necessitated by all active sites I have my Hi-Vis ready to go, my hard hat poised to ruin my hair and my very heavy steel toe-capped boots set to leave the messy van and get muddy – once more into the forest!

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