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The Great Forest






Part of: The Relapse into Barbarism
From: After London

The old men say their fathers told them that soon after the fields were
left to themselves a change began to be visible. It became green
everywhere in the first spring, after London ended, so that all the
country looked alike.

The meadows were green, and so was the rising wheat which had been sown,
but which neither had nor would receive any further care. Such arable
fields as had not been sown, but where the last stubble had been
ploughed up, were overrun with couch-grass, and where the short stubble
had not been ploughed, the weeds hid it. So that there was no place
which was not more or less green; the footpaths were the greenest of
all, for such is the nature of grass where it has once been trodden on,
and by-and-by, as the summer came on, the former roads were thinly
covered with the grass that had spread out from the margin.

In the autumn, as the meadows were not mown, the grass withered as it
stood, falling this way and that, as the wind had blown it; the seeds
dropped, and the bennets became a greyish-white, or, where the docks and
sorrel were thick, a brownish-red. The wheat, after it had ripened,
there being no one to reap it, also remained standing, and was eaten by
clouds of sparrows, rooks, and pigeons, which flocked to it and were
undisturbed, feasting at their pleasure. As the winter came on, the
crops were beaten down by the storms, soaked with rain, and trodden upon
by herds of animals.

Next summer the prostrate straw of the preceding year was concealed by
the young green wheat and barley that sprang up from the grain sown by
dropping from the ears, and by quantities of docks, thistles, oxeye
daisies, and similar plants. This matted mass grew up through the
bleached straw. Charlock, too, hid the rotting roots in the fields under
a blaze of yellow flower. The young spring meadow-grass could scarcely
push its way up through the long dead grass and bennets of the year
previous, but docks and thistles, sorrel, wild carrots, and nettles,
found no such difficulty.

Footpaths were concealed by the second year, but roads could be traced,
though as green as the sward, and were still the best for walking,
because the tangled wheat and weeds, and, in the meadows, the long
grass, caught the feet of those who tried to pass through. Year by year
the original crops of wheat, barley, oats, and beans asserted their
presence by shooting up, but in gradually diminished force, as nettles
and coarser plants, such as the wild parsnips, spread out into the
fields from the ditches and choked them.

Aquatic grasses from the furrows and water-carriers extended in the
meadows, and, with the rushes, helped to destroy or take the place of
the former sweet herbage. Meanwhile, the brambles, which grew very fast,
had pushed forward their prickly runners farther and farther from the
hedges till they had now reached ten or fifteen yards. The briars had
followed, and the hedges had widened to three or four times their first
breadth, the fields being equally contracted. Starting from all sides at
once, these brambles and briars in the course of about twenty years met
in the centre of the largest fields.

Hawthorn bushes sprang up among them, and, protected by the briars and
thorns from grazing animals, the suckers of elm-trees rose and
flourished. Sapling ashes, oaks, sycamores, and horse-chestnuts, lifted
their heads. Of old time the cattle would have eaten off the seed leaves
with the grass so soon as they were out of the ground, but now most of
the acorns that were dropped by birds, and the keys that were wafted by
the wind, twirling as they floated, took root and grew into trees. By
this time the brambles and briars had choked up and blocked the former
roads, which were as impassable as the fields.

No fields, indeed, remained, for where the ground was dry, the thorns,
briars, brambles, and saplings already mentioned filled the space, and
these thickets and the young trees had converted most part of the
country into an immense forest. Where the ground was naturally moist,
and the drains had become choked with willow roots, which, when confined
in tubes, grow into a mass like the brush of a fox, sedges and flags and
rushes covered it. Thorn bushes were there, too, but not so tall; they
were hung with lichen. Besides the flags and reeds, vast quantities of
the tallest cow-parsnips or "gicks" rose five or six feet high, and the
willow herb with its stout stem, almost as woody as a shrub, filled
every approach.

By the thirtieth year there was not one single open place, the hills
only excepted, where a man could walk, unless he followed the tracks of
wild creatures or cut himself a path. The ditches, of course, had long
since become full of leaves and dead branches, so that the water which
should have run off down them stagnated, and presently spread out into
the hollow places and by the corner of what had once been fields,
forming marshes where the horsetails, flags, and sedges hid the water.

As no care was taken with the brooks, the hatches upon them gradually
rotted, and the force of the winter rains carried away the weak timbers,
flooding the lower grounds, which became swamps of larger size. The
dams, too, were drilled by water-rats, and the streams percolating
through, slowly increased the size of these tunnels till the structure
burst, and the current swept on and added to the floods below. Mill-dams
stood longer, but, as the ponds silted up, the current flowed round and
even through the mill-houses, which, going by degrees to ruin, were in
some cases undermined till they fell.

Everywhere the lower lands adjacent to the streams had become marshes,
some of them extending for miles in a winding line, and occasionally
spreading out to a mile in breadth. This was particularly the case where
brooks and streams of some volume joined the rivers, which were also
blocked and obstructed in their turn, and the two, overflowing, covered
the country around; for the rivers brought down trees and branches,
timbers floated from the shore, and all kinds of similar materials,
which grounded in the shallows or caught against snags, and formed huge
piles where there had been weirs.

Sometimes, after great rains, these piles swept away the timbers of the
weir, driven by the irresistible power of the water, and then in its
course the flood, carrying the balks before it like battering rams,
cracked and split the bridges of solid stone which the ancients had
built. These and the iron bridges likewise were overthrown, and
presently quite disappeared, for the very foundations were covered with
the sand and gravel silted up.

Thus, too, the sites of many villages and towns that anciently existed
along the rivers, or on the lower lands adjoining, were concealed by the
water and the mud it brought with it. The sedges and reeds that arose
completed the work and left nothing visible, so that the mighty
buildings of olden days were by these means utterly buried. And, as has
been proved by those who have dug for treasures, in our time the very
foundations are deep beneath the earth, and not to be got at for the
water that oozes into the shafts that they have tried to sink through
the sand and mud banks.

From an elevation, therefore, there was nothing visible but endless
forest and marsh. On the level ground and plains the view was limited to
a short distance, because of the thickets and the saplings which had now
become young trees. The downs only were still partially open, yet it was
not convenient to walk upon them except in the tracks of animals,
because of the long grass which, being no more regularly grazed upon by
sheep, as was once the case, grew thick and tangled. Furze, too, and
heath covered the slopes, and in places vast quantities of fern. There
had always been copses of fir and beech and nut-tree covers, and these
increased and spread, while bramble, briar, and hawthorn extended around
them.

By degrees the trees of the vale seemed as it were to invade and march
up the hills, and, as we see in our time, in many places the downs are
hidden altogether with a stunted kind of forest. But all the above
happened in the time of the first generation. Besides these things a
great physical change took place; but before I speak of that, it will be
best to relate what effects were produced upon animals and men.

In the first years after the fields were left to themselves, the fallen
and over-ripe corn crops became the resort of innumerable mice. They
swarmed to an incredible degree, not only devouring the grain upon the
straw that had never been cut, but clearing out every single ear in the
wheat-ricks that were standing about the country. Nothing remained in
these ricks but straw, pierced with tunnels and runs, the home and
breeding-place of mice, which thence poured forth into the fields. Such
grain as had been left in barns and granaries, in mills, and in
warehouses of the deserted towns, disappeared in the same manner.

When men tried to raise crops in small gardens and enclosures for their
sustenance, these legions of mice rushed in and destroyed the produce of
their labour. Nothing could keep them out, and if a score were killed, a
hundred more supplied their place. These mice were preyed upon by
kestrel hawks, owls, and weasels; but at first they made little or no
appreciable difference. In a few years, however, the weasels, having
such a superabundance of food, trebled in numbers, and in the same way
the hawks, owls, and foxes increased. There was then some relief, but
even now at intervals districts are invaded, and the granaries and the
standing corn suffer from these depredations.

This does not happen every year, but only at intervals, for it is
noticed that mice abound very much more in some seasons than others. The
extraordinary multiplication of these creatures was the means of
providing food for the cats that had been abandoned in the towns, and
came forth into the country in droves. Feeding on the mice, they became,
in a very short time, quite wild, and their descendants now roam the
forest.

In our houses we still have several varieties of the domestic cat, such
as the tortoise-shell, which is the most prized, but when the
above-mentioned cats became wild, after a while the several varieties
disappeared, and left but one wild kind. Those which are now so often
seen in the forest, and which do so much mischief about houses and
enclosures, are almost all greyish, some being striped, and they are
also much longer in the body than the tame. A few are jet black; their
skins are then preferred by hunters.

Though the forest cat retires from the sight of man as much as possible,
yet it is extremely fierce in defence of its young, and instances have
been known where travellers in the woods have been attacked upon
unwittingly approaching their dens. Dropping from the boughs of a tree
upon the shoulders, the creature flies at the face, inflicting deep
scratches and bites, exceedingly painful, and sometimes dangerous, from
the tendency to fester. But such cases are rare, and the reason the
forest cat is so detested is because it preys upon fowls and poultry,
mounting with ease the trees or places where they roost.

Almost worse than the mice were the rats, which came out of the old
cities in such vast numbers that the people who survived and saw them
are related to have fled in fear. This terror, however, did not last so
long as the evil of the mice, for the rats, probably not finding
sufficient food when together, scattered abroad, and were destroyed
singly by the cats and dogs, who slew them by thousands, far more than
they could afterwards eat, so that the carcases were left to decay. It
is said that, overcome with hunger, these armies of rats in some cases
fell upon each other, and fed on their own kindred. They are still
numerous, but do not appear to do the same amount of damage as is
occasionally caused by the mice, when the latter invade the cultivated
lands.

The dogs, of course, like the cats, were forced by starvation into the
fields, where they perished in incredible numbers. Of many species of
dogs which are stated to have been plentiful among the ancients, we have
now nothing but the name. The poodle is extinct, the Maltese terrier,
the Pomeranian, the Italian greyhound, and, it is believed, great
numbers of crosses and mongrels have utterly disappeared. There was none
to feed them, and they could not find food for themselves, nor could
they stand the rigour of the winter when exposed to the frost in the
open air.

Some kinds, more hardy and fitted by nature for the chase, became wild,
and their descendants are now found in the woods. Of these, there are
three sorts which keep apart from each other, and are thought not to
interbreed. The most numerous are the black. The black wood-dog is short
and stoutly made, with shaggy hair, sometimes marked with white patches.

There can be no doubt that it is the descendant of the ancient
sheep-dog, for it is known that the sheep-dog was of that character, and
it is said that those who used to keep sheep soon found their dogs
abandon the fold, and join the wild troops that fell upon the sheep. The
black wood-dogs hunt in packs of ten or more (as many as forty have been
counted), and are the pest of the farmer, for, unless his flocks are
protected at night within stockades or enclosures, they are certain to
be attacked. Not satisfied with killing enough to satisfy hunger, these
dogs tear and mangle for sheer delight of blood, and will destroy twenty
times as many as they can eat, leaving the miserably torn carcases on
the field. Nor are the sheep always safe by day if the wood-dogs happen
to be hungry. The shepherd is, therefore, usually accompanied by two or
three mastiffs, of whose great size and strength the others stand in
awe. At night, and when in large packs, starving in the snow, not even
the mastiffs can check them.

No wood-dog, of any kind, has ever been known to attack man, and the
hunter in the forest hears their bark in every direction without fear.
It is, nevertheless, best to retire out of their way when charging sheep
in packs, for they then seem seized with a blind fury, and some who have
endeavoured to fight them have been thrown down and seriously mauled.
But this has been in the blindness of their rush; no instance has ever
been known of their purposely attacking man.

These black wood-dogs will also chase and finally pull down cattle, if
they can get within the enclosures, and even horses have fallen victims
to their untiring thirst for blood. Not even the wild cattle can always
escape, despite their strength, and they have been known to run down
stags, though not their usual quarry.

The next kind of wild wood-dog is the yellow, a smaller animal, with
smooth hair inclining to a yellow colour, which lives principally upon
game, chasing all, from the hare to the stag. It is as swift, or nearly
as swift, as the greyhound, and possesses greater endurance. In coursing
the hare, it not uncommonly happens that these dogs start from the brake
and take the hare, when nearly exhausted, from the hunter's hounds. They
will in the same way follow a stag, which has been almost run down by
the hunters, and bring him to bay, though in this case they lose their
booty, dispersing through fear of man, when the hunters come up in a
body.

But such is their love of the chase, that they are known to assemble
from their lairs at the distant sound of the horn, and, as the hunters
ride through the woods, they often see the yellow dogs flitting along
side by side with them through bush and fern. These animals sometimes
hunt singly, sometimes in couples, and as the season advances, and
winter approaches, in packs of eight or twelve. They never attack sheep
or cattle, and avoid man, except when they perceive he is engaged in the
chase. There is little doubt that they are the descendants of the dogs
which the ancients called lurchers, crossed, perhaps, with the
greyhound, and possibly other breeds. When the various species of dogs
were thrown on their own resources, those only withstood the exposure
and hardships which were naturally hardy, and possessed natural aptitude
for the chase.

The third species of wood-dog is the white. They are low on the legs, of
a dingy white colour, and much smaller than the other two. They neither
attack cattle nor game, though fond of hunting rabbits. This dog is, in
fact, a scavenger, living upon the carcases of dead sheep and animals,
which are found picked clean in the night. For this purpose it haunts
the neighbourhood of habitations, and prowls in the evening over heaps
of refuse, scampering away at the least alarm, for it is extremely
timid.

It is perfectly harmless, for even the poultry do not dread it, and it
will not face a tame cat, if by chance the two meet. It is rarely met
with far from habitations, though it will accompany an army on the
march. It may be said to remain in one district. The black and yellow
dogs, on the contrary, roam about the forest without apparent home. One
day the hunter sees signs of their presence, and perhaps may, for a
month afterwards, not so much as hear a bark.

This uncertainty in the case of the black dog is the bane of the
shepherds; for, not seeing or hearing anything of the enemy for months
altogether, in spite of former experience their vigilance relaxes, and
suddenly, while they sleep, their flocks are scattered. We still have,
among tame dogs, the mastiff, terrier, spaniel, deerhound, and
greyhound, all of which are as faithful to man as ever.





Next: Wild Animals

Previous: Get Out Of Our Skies!



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