In less than twelve hours I encountered the word “spinney” in a story by Peter Taylor (“The Old Forest”) and another by Guy Davenport (“The Owl of Minerva”). Of course, now I see it everywhere. It’s a curious word, pleasant to say, a noun that sounds like an adjective meaning “spine-covered,” which isn’t far off. It’s from the Latin spina, “thorn,” but since Shakespeare’s time has come to mean a small wood dense with undergrowth, an overgrown copse. I picture poplars, lindens or black locusts with dense thickets of blackberry beneath them. William Cowper, author of “The Poplar-Field,” writes in a March 19, 1785, letter to his friend and hymn-writing colleague the Rev. John Newton:
“One of our most favourite walks is spoiled. The spinney is cut down to the stumps: even the lilacs and syringas, to the stumps [the repetition is plangent and vaguely comic, a Cowper trademark]. Little did I think, (though indeed I might have thought it,) that the trees which skreened [sic] me from the sun last summer would this winter be employed in roasting potatoes and boiling tea-kettles for the poor of Olney. But so it has proved: and we ourselves have, at this moment, more than two waggon [sic] loads of them in our wood-loft.”
Though I found “spinney” in stories written by two Americans in the last thirty years or so, I sense the word is more typically used by English writers and probably is fading from the language. The most recent citation in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from late in the nineteenth century, and its first definition, “a thorn hedge,” is described as “Obs. rare.” The second is “a small wood or copse, esp. one planted or preserved for sheltering game-birds; a small clump or plantation of trees.” A spinney might be wild or cultivated, it seems, or a bit of each, and is most often marginal, which fits the usage of Taylor and Davenport. John Clare writes with longing of a spinney, in “The Fens”:
“Ah, could I see a spinney nigh,
A puddock riding in the sky
Above the oaks with easy sail
On stilly wings and forked tail,
Or meet a heath of furze in flower,
I might enjoy a quiet hour,
Sit down at rest, and walk at ease,
And find a many things to please.”
Now that I’ve thought about the word I’ve come to associate it with a ragged collection of trees and shrubs growing on the south side of Central Avenue in Colonie, N.Y., next to the southbound entrance to I-87, the Northway. I spent a morning there about twenty years ago with a field biologist, cataloging its plants, animals and human refuse. The floor of the concrete-bordered island was fifteen feet below street level, so treetops were even with the sidewalk. I was writing a story for my newspaper about the persistence of nature in urban and suburban settings. I still think of that spinney – ten degrees cooler than the street above (a true micro-climate), with traffic sounds muffled by earth and summer foliage – as a homely little paradise where birds and humans could cool off and feel secure.
In 1984, the Welsh poet-priest R.S. Thomas contributed the essay “A Thicket in Lleyn” to a volume titled Britain: A World by Itself. Thomas describes an extraordinary, Ovidian encounter with a flock of migrating goldcrests:
“The air purred with their small wings. To look up was to see the twigs re-leafed with their bodies. Everywhere their needle-sharp cries stitched at the silence. Was I invisible? Their seed-bright eyes regarded me from three feet off. Had I put forth an arm, they might have perched on it. I became a tree, part of that bare spinney where silently the light was splintered, and for a timeless moment the birds thronged me, filigreeing me with shadow, moving to an immemorial rhythm on their way south.”
I envy Thomas, though he was more at home, more kindly and receptive, among birds and trees than fellow humans.