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looking up into trees
Photo credit: Tiffany Francis-Baker

The Tangled Web

I
The empire is a wasteland
beneath the barren air
that drifts on, blanched and blistering,
over the dead that wander there.
The empire is a wasteland,
but once was nothing less
than paradise, a tangled web,
a golden wilderness.
First came the iron claws to rip
the ancient hedgerows down,
and every blackthorn fruit that fell
was bathed, sterilised, drowned;
Round Up! Round Up! Bring out your dead,
a pool of glyphosate,
eradicate the earth itself
to kill the life we hate.
The wasps were caught in jam jars for
they had no useful purpose
(except to pollinate the crops) -
No, the wasps were surplus.
The ground was pumped with concrete
and the ocean swam with glass
and plastic shards, and all the air
became a poison gas.
And where once stood a copper beech,
and where the river crept,
the white sun spread a fever as
the baked earth, broken, slept.
No birds now pour their evening song
into the darkling sky;
The empire is a wasteland,
a world condemned to die.

badger illustration
Illustration credit: Tiffany Francis-Baker

II
Silence now; the wild wood stands in
silence, barely breathing,
the air is heavy, drowning all
beneath a carbon ceiling.
Stunted leaf, dried insect corpse,
the swallow not returning;
Silence. Now the earth seems dead -
And yet, there’s something stirring.
Just beneath the wilting wood,
below the lost debris
that sinks, infused into the earth,
the rivers and the sea;
Deep down we go, and deeper, where
the soil is unpolluted,
for here the world is dark and soft,
and here the trees are rooted.
Winding tendrils pull the forest
down below the surface,
sap-gorged serpents crawl to Hell,
towards a godless furnace.
They know their trees are fading for
they hear the death knell ring,
so with one final swell of life
the roots begin to sing.
An unknown language, translated
through sap and stem and spore,
across the field, beyond the vale
and down towards the shore.
It creeps and murmurs, calling out
to all the plants on land,
until, at last, it comes to where
the ocean laps the sand.
And here the song is passed along
to kelp and bladderwrack,
and when the tide retreats, the seagrass
takes the message back
through plastic shoals and oil floats,
and broken blue whale bones
that drift upon the salted waves,
cradled in grey sea foam;
Through wide and wondrous oceans sail
the forest’s final words,
to distant lands where once the trees
were rich with bees and birds;
to burning wrecks of rainforest,
where rivers drained to dust,
and tangerine orangutans
collapsed and turned to rust;
to mountain woods where snow leopards
once prowled along the peaks,
before the tundra melted
in the strange midwinter heat;
to succulents in desert sands
where rattlesnakes reclined
in flaming sun, before the climate
massacred their kind;
to every vine and thorn and root
the message is imparted,
and soon it travels home again
to where the journey started;
Now all the forests whisper with
the same strange tragedy -
a tale of loss, a tale of greed,
a tale of apathy.

III
‘What happened here,’ the holly cried,
‘to cause this decimation?
Who gave the order for such blind and
brutal violation?’
‘The apes - the strange and dangerous apes,
they are the ones to blame,’
sighed beech, ‘but I remember when
our needs were just the same -
to feel fresh water in our veins
and sunlight on our crowns,
to swell our lungs with sky and dip
our roots into the ground.’
‘Back then,’ recalled the old oak tree,
‘their seasons were like ours.
The winter was for sleep and sharing
tales beneath the stars,
and when spring woke the warming soil
and burst the speckled seeds,
the apes would dance and sing beneath
the green and tender trees.
For years our fruit and firewood
nurtured their wild bones,
and they took only that which would
sustain their simple homes.
For years we grew united with
our close, contented kin -
and then the darkness came, and let
the silent sickness in.
At first their eyes were drawn to gold
and silver in the earth,
mined and melted, ripped apart
to see what it was worth.
Then they shaped their plunder into
empty, shining discs,
and quantified the natural world,
clasped tight within their fists.
And day by day, the apes became
consumed by their obsession,
carving up the wilderness,
fixated on possession.
They soon forgot the value of
the blackbird’s starlit hymn,
the velvet tail of newborn hare,
the fox den, dark and dim,
the dappled shards of sunlight on
the murmuring lagoon,
the snow goose turned to shadow as
it drifts across the moon.
As slowly spread the poison, all
the apes became bewitched,
and tore apart the world that had
allowed them to exist.
The sickness swamped their hearts and
rotted out their living core,
for every piece of gold they forged,
they wanted fifty more;
more than they could ever spend or
eat or drink or breathe,
yet still they sold their only home,
enslaved by endless greed.
And now the world is dying but
all they can do is stare -
for in their quest to gain the world,
they lost the will to care.
And now the bells are ringing but
they still refuse to listen -
Will we go down to ruin when
the apes face their extinction?’

IV
An empty silence rippled through
the dark and ailing wood,
until, at last, each thicket, fern
and sapling understood,
and all at once, with whispers turned
to groans, the silence broke,
as one voice rose above the rest,
and thus the yew tree spoke -
‘Listen closely, friends, for many
thousand years I’ve known -
they claim I am immortal but,
in truth, I’m just slow grown.
I’ve watched the apes disintegrate
and seen the sickness spread -
and when the world began to burn
I watched them turn their head.
In sylvan sympathy, you might
take pity on their fall,
but know your generosity
can never save us all.
For just as rotting apples must
be plucked from healthy boughs,
these unrelenting souls must leave
our sweet and earthly house.
The end has come for those, but let
it not be our demise,
for if we act today, we might
still see the earth uprise,
and every forest burnt to ash
might grow and breathe and bloom -
This still might be a paradise
and not a fiery tomb.’
In sad concession, all the forest
bowed its crown and wept,
then turned again to yew to ask
how might they intercept.
‘We will not fight,’ declared the tree,
‘with war or flame or violence.
We’ll fire their own weapons back -
Hard, impassive silence.
Apathy will be our fuel, for
nothing deeper burns,
than pleading clemency and
getting nothing in return.
Retreat! We must retreat, and draw
back in our tender roots,
or we protect them from the
consequence of their abuse.
We suck their blackened smog into
our core and give back air,
we clean their water, grow their food,
shield them from solar glare;
The soil in which they ripen wheat
is built upon our bones,
we cool their cities, stop the rising
floods drowning their homes;
And from our bark and leaves they
extract precious medicine,
to keep their organs pumping -
working eyes and lungs and skin.
Let us, then, take back the gifts
we’ve offered for so long,
and hope they do not suffer when
they realise what is wrong.
Let us retreat into our hearts,
sink into gentle sleep,
to hibernate away the years
in slumber, dark and deep.
And when we wake, restored, the earth
might seem a world unknown,
but only then can wilderness,
exiled, reclaim its throne.’

deer illustration
Illustration credit: Tiffany Francis-Baker

V
The days passed into months and years,
the forest slept in peace,
until one morning, from such
hopeful dreams they were released.
Awoken by surprise, the air
was steeped in something new,
a sound, long-lost, from high up in
the bright and boundless blue.
A fluting, velvet, liquid note,
a voice they hadn’t heard
since days of old - the ballad of
a jubilant blackbird.
Down it floated, down into the
white erupting blossoms,
to hop inside the canopy
and linger in its bosom,
for here were leaves and twiglets, a
most advantageous mess
for blackbird to pluck out the pieces,
Leap! and weave its nest.
And though the land was broken, still,
the forest looked around
and saw cornflowers growing through
the concrete-smothered ground,
and here a beetle burrowed in
the earth, and there a hawk
darted low upon a vole and
held it tight within its claw.
‘What happened?’ sighed the alder,
‘Is our gentle kingdom cured?’
‘Be patient,’ said the yew. ‘The Earth
too long has been obscured
in shadow and calamity,
let’s wait awhile, my friend,
for broken hearts than broken bones
take far longer to mend.’
Day by day, each trembling thing had
relearned how to grow,
a blossom here, and there an
ivy creeping, soft and slow.
The soil had stirred, awoken from
the cruellest nightmare,
and like a vixen, trapped within
a red and rusting snare -
if she sets loose, she does not bound
and bounce away with glee,
but weeps, embodies how it feels,
at last, to wander free.
The wild world was healing, from
each seed to silver sky,
relieved, reclaiming, no longer
just waiting there to die.

pine marten illustration
Illustration credit: Tiffany Francis-Baker

VI
The trees heard new days calling, saw
their paradise in leaf -
But wait. Who’s there? Who moves, unwelcome,
through this salvaged peace?
A tribe of apes, defeated, bruised
and broken, there emerged,
the lone survivors of their breed,
a plague uprooted, purged.
‘They aren’t like us,’ said yew. ‘They see
their species fall apart,
and nothing moves their minds to grieve,
nor pains their bloodless hearts.
This meagre band has roamed our land
and somehow stayed alive,
but fear not, for we’ll turn our heads
and see they don’t survive.’
And one by one, the forest turned
its back upon the few,
except for beech, who stopped, and peered
around for one last view,
and there he found a scene most strange,
beneath the quiet trees,
one ape had stopped, and silently
sunk down upon her knees.
The long grass sang, she cocked her head
and then a second noise
pattered through like April rain - it was
the blackbird’s velvet voice.
She listened closely, swaying soft,
with eyes half-closed, half-sleeping;
But beech moved closer still - and
realised that she was weeping.
A single tear had fallen from
her cheek into the ground,
resilience infused and
resurrected in that sound,
and suddenly the fever broke,
the demon exorcised,
the sickness passed, and wildfire
rekindled in her eyes.
Beech watched her lift her head towards
the bright, bewitching sky,
he saw her heart engulfed by guilt,
her soul itself decry,
her ecocidal burden fell
like barbed and blackened boulders,
the weight of so much hurt, like iron
anchors on her shoulders,
and from her drying lips, she howled
her tortuous lament,
a requiem for every day
she’d fuelled the earth’s torment.
Retreating, beech crept back to where
the trees had congregated,
and shared the scene, so mournful, that
his mind had captivated.
‘We fought to rid the land of plague,
of greed and mindless slaughter,
to clean the air, nourish the soil
and purify the water.
But what if we were wrong? What if
the plague was so maligned
it made a home not in their hearts,
but in their feeble minds.
These apes we think are rotten through,
are really just possessed,
their souls, once strong, surrendered
to the virus in their chest.
We’ve starved them, watched a species fall,
and now they’re on the edge
of their extinction - But these apes
are changed, so now what lies ahead?
The sickness that consumed them has
departed evermore,
and now these beasts are broken,
crawling, frail, upon the floor.
What if, my friends, we choose to give
them hope, and let them live?
What if we choose to bind our hearts
to theirs - and just forgive?’
Each tree, in turn, reflected on
this gentle proposition,
an idea rooted not in fear,
but kindness and compassion.
At last, the forest murmured in
accord, from ash to maple
and lofty spruce to scented pine,
from hawthorn briar to hazel,
‘til finally the ancient yew,
in gnarled and tangled frame,
exuded acquiescence -
and their wills were bent the same.
The trees began to push their
tendrils back into the land,
and day by quiet day, the apes
began to understand,
indebted to the earth they had
destroyed not long before,
they saw the world alight with peace
and not ablaze with war.
And when spring woke the warming soil
and burst the speckled seeds,
the apes danced once again beneath
the green and tender trees.
Now every blackthorn hangs with fruit,
and elder froths with flower,
the cuckoos pipe their clockwork song
into the lime tree bower.
By night the woods still echo with the
story of this curse,
and how it was lifted from this wild,
enchanted universe.

Snake illustration
Illustration credit: Tiffany Francis-Baker