‘Sylva’

It is natural for a man to feel an aweful and religious terror when placed in the centre of a thick wood.

John Evelyn (1664)

We point at the stand of trees that soar into the waterside air. Arranged in tribal rows, they are branchless for five metres before spreading spare spindly arms to the sky.

We speculate. Birch? Larch? Aspen?

I open the Woodland Trust app and we try to identify the trees from their only distinguishing feature: the bark, striated with fissures running deep in a sort of triangular fusion.

‘Twigs are amber or slightly pink – no – and hairless – maybe.’
‘Can you see any woody knobs?’
‘This one’s a hermaphrodite.’

It’s an entertaining game, but a lot like trying to guess someone’s Christian name from their birthmarks.

A man walks by on the path.
‘Excuse me, you don’t know what these trees are, do you?’
Without breaking stride: ‘Poplars, int they?’

Whence comes this easy knowledge?

The juice of poplar leaves, dropp’d into the ears, asswages the pain; and the buds contus’d, and mix’d with honey, is a good collyrium for the eyes; as the unguent to refrigerate and cause sleep.