On a map of the University of Reading’s campus the Wilderness is a small sliver of tangled trees, grown up out of long abandoned formal parkland. Scattered follies and the foundations of various outbuildings give away the heritage of these woods, as do several towering redwoods and a grand row of yews that’s still going strong some 500 years after it was first planted.
Much of the Wilderness I know well. I pass through it every day. I search tree trunks for invertebrates at night, listen to birds singing in the morning, hope that a trace of darting movement through ivy will resolve into a firecrest. In the midst of it all there’s a clearing, a space that’s secretive, magical yet easy to find. Just beyond the clearing is an island in the woods; a small, precious oval of leaf litter surrounded by mud from which everything looks different.
Though they only span half a mile or so from end to end, the northeasternmost parts of the woods are comparatively strange to me. Seeking to know them better, I walked until the woods became unfamiliar. As the path led on the ubiquitous rhododendron and laurel thinned out, holly and hazel flourishing in their absence. Where the ground was damper the understory petered out altogether, clearing the view straight up to a graceful canopy of oak and beech, a vaulted cathedral ceiling for a sacred space.
I admired two standing trees, themselves long dead but now enjoying a second life: peeling back a small section of the bark revealed the mines and exit holes of myriad industrious beetles. Nearby, against the Wilderness Road fence, spindly elms with corky trunks were keeping spring under wraps in their tiny black buds. Small parties of redwings and blackbirds were picking at holly berries, eyeing me warily between gulps.
Almost at the wood’s edge I stumbled on to a scene of destruction: a large tree recently felled for reasons unknown. This and the assortment of tarmac and buildings at Earley Gate eventually broke my Wilderness reverie, but I’ll soon be back.