by Scott Russell Morris
There hath passed away a glory from the earth.
“Look out for Squirrels!” the sign on the bulletin board outside the toilets reads. The toilets are situated between trail heads: one trail zigzags up the side of Helvellyn, a mountain already popular in the days Wordsworth and Coleridge frequented it; the other trail winds through Thirlmere Forest, a reserve for the endangered red squirrel. The sign informs me that Thirlmere is “one of their last English strongholds,” and also tells me what I already knew, that the English red squirrel is endangered due to the introduction of the robust American gray squirrels. The gray squirrels were brought to England in 1876 to be part of a zoo, but they were later released, specifically by the 9th Duke of Bedford, President of the Zoological Society, who brought even more squirrels from North America that thrived on his property. But the gray squirrels breed faster than the reds; they eat the same pine cones and hazelnuts and are also able to live on the acorns in the oak forests; and they carry the squirrelpox disease, which they are immune to but which is terminal for reds.
My group was hiking Helvellyn—we were in the Lake District for a few days to study Romantic poets on a longer trip of literary sightseeing—but I decided that I was going to follow the trail to Thirlmere anyway, and would ditch my group and catch up to them later. But as soon as I got to the trail, another sign informed me that the Thirlmere trail was closed “Due to Essential Tree Felling Work,” and in the not far distance I saw a trail covered with fallen trees and tractors in their midst. It was hard to believe that the squirrels’ preservation would happen best with cutting down their habitat, but I trusted the reserve management’s judgment. I trudged up Helvellyn—trudging not because I was overly sad but because it is a rather steep climb—looking down at the patch of pine that is Thirlmere thinking about the squirrels running through the trees; squirrels unaware that they are practically the last of their kind, unaware that several societies have formed with their well-being in mind, unaware that their nemeses the gray squirrels are slowly, but definitely, encroaching.
Several days prior to the Helvellyn hike my group toured the chapel and churchyard of Ruthewell, where an old stone rood is housed, a rood decorated with the oldest known English poetry, The Dream of the Rood. The cross, dated to about 650 AD, is surrounded by a small country church, built in the 1880s. The ancient stone cross, one of several found throughout England, would originally have been outside a church, but that ancient church has long since vanished and the new one has been raised up to surround its remnants, and the layers of history are visible and tangible. Outside the church, the gravestones lean together, as though whispering. The newest ones are small, polished, and legible; the oldest are so crumbled and weather-worn that it is impossible to know whose mortal remains molder beneath. Vines cling to one headstone so thickly that only one small arch of stone is visible beneath its leafy shroud.
I read the names on the stones, trying to imagine what their lives must have been like. They were so far and distant, their names meant nothing to me, and when we left the graveyard I had already forgotten the names. What remained in my memory was the phrase “Sacred to the Memory of,” which decorated the tops of several headstones, and I wondered who still held these easily forgotten names sacred. Some of the people in the yard had died within the last fifty years, and I surmised that there were still some older people who would remember them. But I wondered at the oldest of the graves, dating to the late 1800s, and recalled that I had also seen graves in Edinburgh with the same inscription, dating back even further. To whom were these ancient memories still sacred? It seemed unlikely that these quiet, crumbling remembrances of people who lived in what has always been a small country village would mean anything to anyone anymore. They have stopped being a symbol of sacredness and have become a reminder that eventually we all become just a stranger’s name on stone.
The day after hiking Helvellyn, my group toured Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount, Wordsworth’s last two homes. Both homes are now museums, and the tour guides and plaques were careful to tell us exactly which chairs Wordsworth had actually sat in, and which were only furniture from the time period. In each museum, the thesis seemed to be no more complex than “He touched this,” an argument so weak I would never have accepted it from any of my writing students.
And yet, the argument is compelling enough for the creation of the Wordsworth Trust, for the hiring of Writers in Residence, for gift shops and memorial plaques, for the building of extra rooms to house the documents, artifacts, and memorabilia that wouldn’t fit neatly into the recreated homes. The lives of those who lived in the homes before and after become a footnote in the tour if they are of interest (De Quincy bought Dove Cottage, and Wordsworth’s own great granddaughter eventually restored Rydal Mount), but those of no connection to the Great Poet himself are entirely forgotten. As interesting as the homes were, and despite the beauty of the replicated gardens, I still couldn’t get the inscriptions on the gravestones out of my head. This man published poems we hold in esteem and so we remember everything about him, enshrining his shoe buckles and a pair of reading glasses believed to be his, and yet those who raised sheep in the country and wrote no words worth remembering have only a crumbling carving to their name.
The past impedes the future, keeps the present from going on, but there will be a time when we look back and remember. Something lasting will fill the sacred memory— the empty space —with a fixity that is measurable and certain.
Fallen castles are now their own museums. Houses that are still lived in as houses. The forests are tumbling; their inhabitants—
How do you keep 2.3 million gray squirrels at bay?
When do we give up.