The Wood and the Heath

by Carl Ewald

1

There was once a beautiful wood, filled with thousands of slender trunks and with singing and whispering in her dark tree-tops.

She was surrounded by field and meadow; and there the farmer had built his house. And field and meadow were good and green; and the farmer was hard-working and grateful for the crops which he brought home. But the wood stood like a lady of the manor, high above them all.

In the winter-time the fields lay flat and miserable, the meadow was merely one great lake with ice upon it and the farmer sat huddled in the chimney-corner; but the wood just stood straight and placid with her bare branches and let the weather storm and snow as it pleased. In the spring, both meadow and field turned green and the farmer came out and began to plough and sow. But the wood burst forth into so great a splendour that no one could hope to describe it: there were flowers at her feet and sunshine in her green tree-tops; the song of the birds echoed in even the smallest bush; and perfume and bright colours and gaiety reigned here and there and everywhere.

Now it happened, one summer's day, while the wood stood waving her branches, that she set eyes upon a funny brown thing which was spreading itself over the hills towards the west and which she had never seen before:

"What sort of fellow are you?" asked the wood.

"I am the heath," said the brown thing.

"I don't know you," said the wood, "and I don't like you: you are so ugly and black, you don't look like the field or the meadow or anything that I know. Can you bud into leaf? Can you blossom? Can you sing?"

"Indeed I can," said the heath. "In August, when your leaves begin to look dark and tired, my flowers will come out. Then I am purple, purple from end to end, and more beautiful than anything you have ever seen."

"You're a braggart!" said the wood; and the conversation dropped.

2

Next year, the heath had crept a little way down the hill, towards the wood. The wood saw this, but said nothing. She thought it beneath her dignity to talk to such an ugly fellow; but, in her heart of hearts, she was afraid. Then she made herself greener and prettier and looked as if there were nothing the matter.

But, every year, the heath came nearer. He had now covered all the hills and lay just outside the fence of the wood.

"Be off!" said the wood. "You annoy me. Take care you don't touch my fence!"

"I'm coming over your fence," said the heath. "I'm coming into you, to eat you up and destroy you."

Then the wood laughed till all her leaves quivered:

"So that's what you mean to do, is it?" she said. "If only you can manage it! I'm afraid that you will find me too big a mouthful. I daresay you think I'm a bit of a field or meadow, which one can walk over in a couple of strides. But I'm the most powerful and important person in the neighbourhood, you may as well know. I shall soon sing my song to you; then perhaps you will change your ways of thinking."

Then the wood began to sing. All the birds sang; and the flowers raised their heads and sang too. The smallest leaf hummed with the rest, the fox stopped in the middle of eating a fat chicken and beat time with his brush, the wind blew through the branches and played an organ accompaniment to the song of the wood:

"Merrier meeting was never yet
Than the festal wood discloses,
When wood-ruff nestles by violet
In a cluster of sweet wild roses.

"Small birds in the brake fly up and down
Nor ever a bird flies single
And the woodman twines for his lass a crown
Where berries and beech commingle.

"Roe, fox and hare hold revel all,
Thro' flowerage the wee worm glances;
There great and small a-dancing fall
And the sun up in Heaven dances."

"What do you say to that?" asked the wood.

The heath said nothing. But, next year, he came over the fence.

"Are you mad?" screamed the wood. "Why, I forbade you to cross the fence!"

"You are not my mistress," said the heath. "I am doing as I said I would."

Then the wood called the red fox and shook her branches so that a quantity of beech-mast fell upon him and remained hanging in his skin:

"Run across to the heath, Foxie, and scatter the beech-mast out there!" said the wood.

"Right you are!" said the fox and jogged away.

And the hare did the same and the marten and the mouse. And the crow lent a hand, for old acquaintance' sake, and the wind took hold and blew and shook the branches till the mast flew far out into the heath.

"That's it!" said the wood. "Now let's see what comes of that."

"Yes, let us!" said the heath.

A certain time passed and the wood grew green and withered and the heath spread more and more and they did not talk to each other. But, one fine spring day, tiny little new-born beeches and oaks peeped up from the ground round about in the heather.

"What do you say now?" asked the wood, triumphantly. "My trees shall grow year after year, till they become tall and strong. Then they shall close their tops over you: no sun shall shine, no rain shall fall upon you; and you shall die, as a punishment for your presumption."

But the heath shook his black twigs earnestly:

"You don't know me," he said. "I am stronger than you think. Your trees will never turn green in me. I have bound the earth under me as firm as iron and your roots can't go through it. Just wait till next year! Then the little fellows you are so pleased with will all be dead."

"You're lying," said the wood.

But she was frightened.

3

Next year, it happened as the heath had said. The little oaks and beeches died as one tree. And now a terrible time came for the wood. The heath spread more and more; on every side there was heather instead of violets and anemones. None of the young trees grew up, the bushes withered, the old trees began to die in their tops, and it was a general calamity.

"It's no longer at all pleasant in the wood," said the nightingale. "I think I shall build somewhere else."

"Why, there's hardly a decent tree left to live in!" said the crow.

"The ground has become so hard that it's no longer possible to dig one's self a proper hole and burrow," said the fox.

The wood was at her wits' end. The beech stretched his branches to the sky in an appeal for help and the oak wrung his in silent despair.

"Sing your song once more!" said the heath.

"I have forgotten it," replied the wood, gloomily. "And my flowers are withered and my birds have flown away."

"Then I will sing," said the heath.

And he sang:

"A goodly song round the moorland goes
When the sun in the east leaps clearer;
And like blood or fire the heather glows
As to autumn the woods draw nearer.

"All day on the moor will the cotton-grass
Weave its white, long bands together;
And softly the snake and the adder pass
Through the stems of the tufted heather.

"On swinging tussock the lapwing leaps,
Lark's note above plover's swelling,
As the crook-backed cotter in silence creeps
From his lonely moorland dwelling."

4

Gradually, as the years passed, things looked worse and worse for the wood. The heath spread farther and farther, until it reached the other end of the wood. The great trees died and toppled down as soon as the storm took a fair hold of them: then they lay and rotted and the heather grew over them. There were now only half a score of the oldest and strongest trees left; but they were altogether hollow and had quite thin tops.

"My time is over, I must die," said the wood.

"Well, I told you so beforehand," replied the heath.

But then the men and women began to grow very frightened at the way the heather was using the wood:

"Where am I to get timber for my workshop?" cried the joiner.

"Where am I to get sticks to put under my pot?" screamed the goodwife.

"Where, oh where, are we to get fuel in the winter?" sighed the old man.

"Where am I to stroll with my sweetheart in the spring?" asked the young one.

Then, when they had looked at the poor old trees for a bit, to see if there was anything to be done with them, they took their spades and mattocks and ran up the hills to where the heath began.

"You may as well save yourselves the trouble," said the heath. "I am not to be dug into."

"Alas, no!" sighed the wood; but she was so weak now that no one could hear what she said.

But they did not mind about that. They hewed and hewed right down through the hard shell. Then they carted earth into the holes and manured it; and then they planted some small trees. They tended them and put their faith in them and screened them against the east wind as well as they could.

And, year after year, the small trees grew. They stood like light, green spots in the middle of the black heather; and, when this had gone on for some time, a little bird came and built a nest in one of them.

"Hurrah!" shouted the men. "Now we've got a wood once more."

"No one can hold his own against men," said the heath. "The thing can't be helped. So we'll move on."

But of the old wood there still remained one tree, who had only one green twig in his top. Here a little bird settled and told of the new wood that was growing up on the hill yonder.

"Thank Heaven!" said the old wood. "What one can't do one's self one must leave to the children. If only they're good for something! They look so thin!"

"I daresay you were thin yourself once," said the bird.

The old wood said nothing to this, for at that very moment she was finished; and so, of course, my story is finished too.