A sweet, wild victory, preserved

Down at the foot of the slope, the rush-hour traffic surges - and surges.

Sound-wise, it is, I suppose, our urban equivalent of the restless tides that continuously fill the ears of people who live near the ocean. We hear it at all times of day and night in our garden up on Hamilton Avenue, this unceasing, tire-on-tarmac, gas-powered background music. Even recent oil crises failed to silence this combustive murmuration.

In the wild bit between us and the traffic, the noise becomes something to contend with. I have to shout above it for the dog, suddenly on the trail of some electrifying scent, charging into the growing shadows under the willows. She pretends she can't hear me anyway. Someone told me dogs can only concentrate on one thing at a time - literally. I'd say that's true.

We - about 100 locals - used this traffic noise, a few years ago, as one of our arguments against the speculative house-building company wanting to grab a small parcel of this precious wild ground. Who, we suggested, would want to live virtually on top of such a racket?

Regardless, the company proposed 14 luxury homes. All we could propose was that our wild bit - which is variously known as Ringwood or The Cunyon - would be best left to its own splendidly unkempt devices.

A long story involving protest meetings and a public inquiry ensued. At one point, all interested parties were invited to an on-site inspection. Some of the more voluble protesters raised their voices loudly above the traffic as we all strode through the long grass and the gorse and the brambles.

There were civil servants, conservationists, legal people, representatives of the building trade - and we locals arguing protection for rare species of bog-grass and orchid, traditional toboggan runs, bats, foxes, dog-walking facilities, and anciently established rights of way. Anything we could think of.

It was all to no avail. Where we saw that ever-threatened commodity called wildness, they saw mere waste space. Where we saw prized nature, they saw profit.

At the end, what probably had been a foregone conclusion was concluded. Permissions were granted, and the bulldozers barged their way in. The woodland was cleared. The houses started to rise.

Out of a welter of mud, structures - in three basic designs - appeared. Concrete foundations, damp-proof courses, bricks and mortar, window frames and door frames, glass and tiles, flues and chimneys. Lawns were rolled out.

A new road, with speed bumps, was laid down. At its outset, two vulgar brick columns were put up and topped with small concrete balls (stone being far too expensive). Gardens were divided off, and the entire site was hemmed in by cheap wooden fencing. Oh, of course! It was a reservation!

Where the bats had once flitted at dusk and the foxes had sheltered in the birchy undergrowth, a preened and suavely attired young lady now sat behind a shiny desk. She welcomed prospective clients to the Show House with a skillfully lipstuck smile, hoping for converts to this tame little cult of high-class residential living.

IN late summer, there used to be an excessive pink blaze, a fiery field of willow herb. Not a sign of this former glory remains now. Today there are fairly neat and sadly uninteresting gardens with children's slides and plastic tubs of lobelia and concrete-slab patios.

Then they began the extension to the motorway. For some reason, this - apart from the spaghetti complex of roads and bridges and underpasses itself - involved extensive churning-up of the rest of The Cunyon. The rooting up of trees, the smothering of grass and orchids with thick clay-clogged plasterings of oil-black mud, the setting out of public cycle paths, the erection of high wire-mesh fences, drainage, and then a sporadic, brutal furrowing of the ground.

Admittedly, this last disruption was for new plantings of sapling trees. But this World-War-l-style trenching now made it well nigh impossible to walk through the grass up the steep bank....

One small concession the house builders had been required to make was a path between the houses for local walkers. The result is that in order to reach The Cunyon, the dogs of the area and their owners all traipse through this little private-seeming estate. Although some shrubs and small trees are now beginning to clothe things a little, the estate still has the theatrical and artificial feel of a bad architectural watercolor in a realtor's office.

But immediately outside the peripheral fencing, the wild is reasserting itself admirably. In just a few seasons, new self-seeded willows and scrubby oaks have grown large and close-knit. Orchids and bog-grass have reappeared. At dusk, bats once more flit after insects. The gorse at the other end is flourishing more than ever.

And then there are the brambles. In 20 years, I haven't known a crop of wild blackberries remotely as good as this autumn's. Great thorny complexes, colonizing, arching, spreading root and branch over and under themselves. They seem to me a symbol, however commonplace, of wildness triumphant. Blackberries will grow anywhere: urban, suburban, remotest countryside. They know no fences.

Indeed, they love recently disrupted ground. Motorway and railway banks are bramble paradise.

I've been staining my fingers with the juice of them for several weeks now. Picking blackberries, communally or alone, is surely one of life's more absorbing pleasures.

And now, for breakfast, as well as marmalade, we have a choice of homemade bramble jam or blackberry-and-apply jelly. Mmm. Small glass jars full of a dark sweetness. Of a wild victory.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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