The heart-rending crack of an oak breaking

The heart-rending crack of an oak breaking

A late, wet walk in the woods, rain falling in bursts, the last of the light slanting topaz from the west. Mud splats up from the dogs’ paws as we thread the upward path towards Bury Castle hillfort. Below us, just visible through the trees, the apple-dumpling thatched cottages on Selworthy Green begin to twinkle with a tea-time glow.

Cottages on Selworthy green in Somerset
Apple-dumpling cottages at Selworthy in Somerset.

Suddenly, the cosy scene is disturbed by a loud crackle of gunfire. Who is shooting here at this time of day? A second volley echoes in the combe – is it guns or fireworks? A pause – silence – then a heaving crash and the hillside is roiling and bouncing, the earth reverberating, the woodland collapsing on top of us.

It stops, and we are unharmed. There’s a gap above showing grey sky, and below on the track is a confused heap of broken branches. An oak has split and toppled, smashing through the undergrowth, bringing down part of a laurel thicket knotted with skeins of bramble.

The dogs dash about in wild excitement while I stand still. More rain falls. I should turn back, but I am curious. Has a whole tree come down or only part? Why did it happen now, when there is no wind? Did the roots slip in the saturated earth?

Cautiously, I walk forward. It’s difficult to see much because the base of the trunk is hidden in the understorey – I am not going to plunge in and thrash around for clues. I notice that some of the broken limbs are mossed and leafless, with ferns growing out of the bark. It’s likely that the tree was suffering from oak decline, a combination of pests and diseases that weakens and eventually kills. The “shots” I heard must have been the sound of heartwood cracking before the main body gave way.

A couple of weeks later, I return to find the fallen timber has been cleared from the path. Gales have swept through since my last visit and the ground is pasted with wet autumn leaves and finger-size fragments of blackened twig. High above the new clearing, a stand of beeches flares red-gold in the sun, and a hidden jay screams news of acorns.

First published in The Guardian Country Diary, 7 December 2023.

Sara Hudston