On the 400th anniversary of Walter Raleigh’s death.

Sir Walter Raleigh’s head was separated from the rest of his body on the 29th of October, 1619.

Wikipedia tells us that Raleigh is ‘well known as the populariser of tobacco’.

It also tells us that his last words, after he lay his neck upon the block, were: “Strike, man, strike!”

And that his embalmed head was given to his wife Bess, who kept it in a velvet bag until her death.

Wikipedia does not tell us what was going through Walter’s head as the blade struck.


I see the acorn falling to the ground.

I see it split. I see the kernel hurtle out.

I see the tip of something, a tiny tongue, lick out.

I see it. I see it all. Now.

This tongue, a shoot, questing. It is Nature’s business to be questing. It parts the sodden ground, probing it. It delves the earth and fastens on to it. Into it. Blind, but knowing.

The speed of it would take your breath away.

Above, another shoot hurtles upwards, a fine jet of living matter fired towards the Sun. Such exaltation! It leaps with fearless grace. A tumbler who will never fall.

The stem whips the air. It is almost too fast for itself, has not the strength to support its vaunting height. Quick, quick, quickening, it girds itself with growth, thickening into a sapling’s adolescent tremor.

All this I see.

I see the spreading of the roots, the restless subterranean colonisation.

I see the heavens wheel about. I see the Sun on its ceaseless course, a bouncing ball across the horizon. The waxing and waning of countless moons. The slow strophes of an eternal dance sped up into a frantic jig.

It all happens so quickly, I have not time to blink my eyes.

I see the sapling take on girth. The circling of the Sun warms its coarsening skin. It is lashed by downpours. Bent by winds. Pert and unbowed, it springs back, the stamp of its stalwart nature already showing. It laps up the rain.

A fountain of tendrils shoots out from the stem, lightning thrown back at the sky: the young plant’s first branches. No sooner have they waved themselves into rude existence, than a rash of green bursts over them. The leaves are lips that kiss the sky.

But the elastic vigour quickly slackens. The verdant gloss fades into a crisper beauty. Autumn’s golden cloak crackles like a benign fire over the branches.

Boughs thicken, effortlessly bearing their swaying burden. Acorns!

I see this.

I see the secret accretions building within. Each summer’s growth encircling the last. Another of Nature’s ways. The Now appropriates the Past.

The tree – yea, a tree now! – stands its ground, chests itself out like a warrior, staking its claim to a corner of the forest. But is never still. Its thrusting energy strains ever outwards and upwards. The rigid carapace of bark belies the restless pulse that stirs within the trunk. Heady and engorged with sap, it yearns to fulfil its nature. It is a mighty link in the great chain of Being.

I see the acorn falling to the ground. I see a host of acorns falling. I see forests shooting up. I see the Earth colonised by the Empire of Oak.

And then I see them come into the forests. The men.

I see men differently now. Not with kindred eyes. I am closer to the oak than I am to the men.

The men are kindred with the mites that flit in the sunshine. With the spiders that weave between the leaves. With the woodlice and maggots that scuttle and twitch in the forest’s darkest places.

They seek out the finest, grandest oak. I see them survey it with proprietary pride, abrogating its creation to their own account. It is theirs already. Its monumental steadfastness a challenge to their quicksilver wits.

They wield their axes with a sidelong swoop. The blade starts behind their back and hurtles high, falling diagonally across and down into the brittle bark. Two men planting alternate blows, digging the future out of the tree’s flesh with remorseless precision. The blows lack reverberation, empty dead clacks hushed up by the surrounding forest, as if in shame.

A pale pulpy wound deepens. The men’s shoulders grow as their work progresses, muscles flexing and thickening. Yes, I see even this. I see the sweat on their brow, the crook of their wrist as they wipe it away.

A thunderclap cracks within the stricken tree.

The men step back, their final blow a sharp nod of twin satisfaction. And this is the blow that breaks the tree’s back, the blow of men’s volition, of an iron-bladed will. The forest quakes. The leaves shiver on the outspread tremble of branches. The tree topples into timber.

A horse as big as a dromedary drags it over to the saw pit. The men fall on it like locusts. It doesn’t stand a chance against their savage rip saws and adzes. Their hearty muscular swinging of blades. Their oaths and earthy songs. Their cunning wielding of the unwieldy. I see the long flexing metal snap into shape, biting when bidden.
I see all this. Now. Without blinking once.

I see this happening all over the forest. Other men bringing low other trees. And in other forests, the same thing.

The forests are converted into open ground, piled high with massive logs. This has happened and I still haven’t blinked.

The trees, the acorns, the shoots – have hurtled towards this, towards their felling. But it is not over yet. The hurtling of the oak.

The stripped logs are rolled and loaded onto wagons. The wagons hurtle and rattle, rattle and hurtle, along country lanes.

Or they are loaded onto barges, to float in solid torrent towards a new becoming. A greater Destiny. The Empire of Oak has been conquered, enslaved, transported. Now it will serve the Empire of Man.

But first, the hurtle into the sawmill. The oak is eager for its reformation.

I see the fine, unrelenting teeth of enormous saws. I see the paradox in what powers the saws. Not men with giant hands and giant arms now. But that most yielding and fluid of elements, water. Water turns the wheel that drives the gang saw, a swinging chisel-toothed pendulum that measures the tree’s end and the ship’s beginning. It is somehow appropriate that water powers this transition.

I see the saw’s teeth sink into the timber. The sawdust fills my eyes, but still I do not blink.

Sawing and hewing and rasping and shaping. A focused bustle of activity. The hurtling continues, though the wood is immobilised now, fixed in massive vices, as if its innate buoyancy is a force that must be held in check.

The men throw themselves at it, all hands to the latent decks.

I see the swift, smooth glide of the plane, as rough logs are tamed. And with dextrous skill, the men peel off planks and beams and masts, the timbers of a preordained fleet.

Fleet! One word expresses the hastening destiny of the oak.

The raw wood hurtles on, to the shipyards now.

Here I see the timbers bent and beckoned into shape. The workmen stand sweating over pits of humid ash. Steam seeps into the grain, loosening the fibres of the wood, making malleable that unyielding matter. It is slow, aching, patient work. But to my eyes, it happens in an instant. The great wood beams curl like furled paper.

And now the hefting and the hammering begins. The shaped timbers offered up and butted, joints mallet-slammed together. A skeleton of oak surrounds a vast heart. I see it form. I see the boards fly onto it, as fast as the ruffling of a hawk’s feathers. I see the nails fly into the boards, the neat carvel hull complete in the unblinking of my eyes. This is not industry, it is conjuring. The wood of 600 trees flies together to form one ship.

Miles of rigging, the ropes from Muscovy, the cordage wound and bound into dense bundles, all are hauled on board and stowed. The folded sails are borne with reverence and ceremony, sacraments on a vast scale.

I see the towering masts rise up. And hear the cheer that rises with them. I smell the tar that caulks the keel.

The quarters are subdivided and fitted, before the mainmast for the men, behind the mainmast for the gentlemen and officers. Chisels snout out details. I see the abrasive blocks as they work away the wood’s last coarseness, their fine-sanded texture presaging future landfalls. Under the master carpenter’s overseeing eye, beneath the touch of his fine, critical fingers, a perfect surface emerges. He blows away the flecks that mar it.

And now a carnival, a riotous assembly. Exultant colour splashes onto primed and burnished ornamenting. The brushes dance in the artisans’ hands. But the music that accompanies this is a solemn death march. The sonorous, heavy rumble of the guns manoeuvred into place.

This is what it has all been about, so far, the placing of the guns. For what is this vessel but a courier of cannon fire? The cargo it will trade in, Death.

The ovens are built, deep in the ship’s belly. In a universe of wood, the fire must be held in brick prisons.

I see the barrels of supplies, the salted meat and fish, the hard tack, the casks of pickled and dried produce, the butts of drinking water, beer and brandy. And the livestock too. The capons and chickens. The goats. Sustenance for the men who will set the course, steer the ship, climb the rigging, swab the decks, for those who will drink and swear and brawl, who will man the watch, who will sicken and die, who will live to tell the tale. But above all, for the men who will load and aim and fire the cannon, for that is what they are all about.

I see them now, the crew, filing on. They bring with them a couple of cats and a dog, platters and tankards and backgammon boards, playing cards, knives – for cutting food, whittling wood and settling arguments – fiddles, whistles, bass viol and drum, even a portative organ for the captain’s company of musicians. One or two may bring a Bible or some other, more dangerous tract.

I see them teem over the decks, a flood of life, raucous and unruly. There is a whetted edge to them, a whetted, killing edge. They have that glint in their eyes, that was once familiar to me from the looking glass. A keen hunger: they are avid for movement and action and plunder. They see the prize already, those eyes. They look into the empty hold and see the expected cargo: the plate, the coins, the gold.

I have looked through eyes like theirs. But now I see things differently.

And now I see the moment come. I see the floodgates open. I see the inundation. The dry dock is no more. The ship at last is in her element.

Another cheer, as the men feel the kick of buoyancy enter their legs, the sudden, giddy instability that can reduce even the saltiest dog to sickness. They know there is no going back. The water will bear them to their destiny.

The onrush of oak.

The first commands go out. The sails are raised. The cries of the men are lusty and eager. They are pulling together, with a common purpose. The river widens into estuary. The tide, the wind, the gulls concur. The Ocean opens up before them.

But it is not just this one ship I see. I see others too. Setting sail from other shipyards. On other days. (The links of time have been unchained for me now. The minutes, hours and days do not connect. It is one of the ways I see things differently.)

A great hurtling from the forest to the sea.

The energy and intent of the acorn.

All this I see.

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