Daniel Greenwood

The river is all I can hear

Cairnsmore of Fleet

Cairnsmore of Fleet, Galloway, Scotland, February 2014

A wading bird bursts from the bog. I watch its sharp wings cut into the wall of mist and descending treeline. I put my binoculars to my eyes and the bird is lost. The world has been reduced. All terrestrial life but for water, a few lichens, heather and wintry moor grasses has escaped. I have left behind oak woods overcome by rhododendron and cherry laurel, and Cairnsmore Burn choked by the former, its water crashing from the shadows. It was not right. Snowdrops still managed to create small rugs of white flowers and winter green leaves. Bluebells peeked through the leaf litter amongst them. Behold the denizens of Galloway’s oldest woods. Up here those are images in the mind. The life in the lap of the Cree estuary – the buses, postman, trees and gentle flowering plants are mere memory. The cover of Glenure Forest’s regimental spruce is the last notion of protection. It’s now up to willpower, my body and clothing. The path leads clear from 20 metres, visibility coming and going with cloud.

Snowdrops

I climb over a wooden ladder and the landscape ascends suddenly from 400m towards the 711 that marks Cairnsmore of Fleet’s summit. I have not seen a single person since snowdrops. Why would anyone want to be here? I come for the brutal solitude, even if I wanted to see another person I couldn’t. I come because I know that people once had no choice but to walk this path, a path that zigzags and climbs, an uncomfortable choice of jutting rock or slippery grasses. I attempt to find a rhythm on stone. The path curves east and the winds propel me on. I see boulders and mistake them for cairns – this is not the summit. My thighs are soaked, woollen gloves, too. I took my jumper off some miles back and now need it. It’s sodden and looped around the strap of my bag. The winds are harder, colder and the rain splatters against me. What the guidebook called a nice introduction to Galloway’s hiker’s paradise has the makings of a minor ordeal. Water streams down the rocky path as I step up and through it. The music of the running water cuts through the wind, it’s almost all I hear, but for my own mutterings. I can say what I want now, no one can hear me. There will be no repercussions. I cherish that.

Cree estuary

The false sense of the summit has given me energy. I’m so hungry. I begin to see my breakfast as vital, I value it differently, as something I was fortunate to have. I see the first cairn of the summit approach and slump down behind it onto wet stone, moss and crustose lichens, barely protected from the gelid gusts. I push some cheese into a crusty bread roll and swallow it. I feel the onset, the flickering of panic. The wind and rain has thrashed me, and I didn’t realise it had or that it might. Visibility is now down to 10m, I put my gloves back on, the cold hammering without, almost burning. I think of real mountains and feel stupid. Hills aren’t to be taken for granted, either. My glasses are blotted by rain on both sides, I recall my friend’s maxim that the descent is worse than the climb. There is no notion of friendship here. The supposedly fine views of the estuary are not on my mind just now. I tread blindly back the way I came, finally removing my glasses. The path of rock, the fog, the bog, it’s all clear. There is no need for detail. I tread in hope and long to see the cloud drift and for the undetectable sound of the wind dropping. The spruce trees appear again, black and warming, even a glimpse of the Cree. From the bog two grouse explode into the air and I leap in surprise. It’s the start of a world I can live with.

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Gull

Farthing Downs, London, January 2014

From the hawthorn trees comes the sparkling sound of thrush and finch chatter. All around the landscape is weighed down by weeks of rain, the sodden grey and blackness, but this conversation lightens the scene. A flock of goldfinch burst into the sky, skipping through the air in their piecemeal flock. Their yellow wingbars flash against black feathers like miniature human warning signs. I train my binoculars on the thorns and see a redwing sat in the branches, contributing to the bird discussion. As I step towards them it ends instantly and so I turn and take a path to leave them.

The stumps of ash trees glow resinous on the hillside, the felled trunks lie supine beside them, the bark darkened by rain, the green and blue lichens thrive without a care for the tree’s demise. The brash has been piled and burned in elevated corrugated iron beds, and to many people this would seem like a careless act of deforestation. But it’s not. Farthing Downs sits on a bed of chalk and is home to a vast array of wildlflowers which are disappearing from the English countryside. The City of London Corporation are here engaging in a battle of restoration. Further along the path a black-headed gull skates low over the lane – I’ve not seen them so close to the grasslands here – propelling itself up and into the wind. Its relationship to winds so cold and blustery seem uneasy, and against this vista of meadows and woods, all the more unique.

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A layer of snow

Carrbridge, The Cairngorms, Scotland, October 2013

Arriving in the fields, the lichen frosted pinewood in our wake, I admire an old alder tree coppiced and growing by a brook. The landscape unfolds, the Cairngorms rising in the east, fringed in all corners by the yellow of birch leaves. We look to the hill where we had observed this scene only two hours ago, from a spot where a sheep skull hung from a piece of standing wood. We follow the River Dulnain as it runs east, the sound of traffic returning along the A-road. A buzzard floats over a line of trees, calling out, the sound severing the reminder of motor vehicles. We egg it on – ‘go on, my son!’ – and approaching a small farmstead we find a rabbit freshly mutilated, its neck bone protruding, eyes gone. Was this the buzzard’s work, or perhaps a mustelid. We cross a tributary of the Dulnain and a goosander bursts from underneath the footbridge. This saw-billed creature is one I had never seen before now. It steers itself upstream into the dusky light reflected by the water. We continue past a dilapidated cottage and fiery beech tree, watching as sheep leap and bounce away from a row of cabbages they had been eating in a neighbouring field. We meet the main road and wait patiently for our chance. Having crossed, we train our binoculars on the summit of Cairn Gorm, the restaurant and funicular railway car scratched into its slopes. All is dressed in a layer of snow.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014
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Glen Einach

Glen Einach, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland, October 2013

Lying on the grass where the road forks up and into the wind I watch the redwing and fieldfare slip across the grey sky. Down below us the River Am Beanaidh flows with great force. My friend has finished in his attempts to separate map from wind and joins me on the gravelly soil, rolling himself a cigarette. A few minutes ago we watched redwing appearing from the heather like particles drawn, magnetised to the scots pine. Some remained in the heather for a time, before using the air and their wings to join with the trees. My smug little siesta is embellished further by a reward received a few minutes earlier: the sight of a crested tit mixing with its coal tit cousins and picking at the sticks and lichens. I have felt the tiredness and tenseness that comes from a lack of proper rest since summer’s end but this landscape reinvigorates me like no other that I have set foot upon. Listening to the quickening wind dashing through the medium of pine needles, my friend calls an end to our pause.

We head up over the top path, the wind bursting through. It’s much cooler, a hint of ice. I automatically reach into my coat pockets seeking woollen gloves. It’s reported to feel like -11 on the peaks today and here blows the clue as we climb to 450m. Trudging along, a shape appears in the distance, passing over the pinewoods, across the river and the slopes of Cairn Eilrig:

‘Big, big bird,’ I shout, into the strength of the wind. My friend stops.

It passes across our view, a cloak caught by a gale. The thought process begins: buzzard… raven… its dark, primary wing feathers like digits. Its wings catch a slither of sun, a golden sheen. It’s the eagle. It disappears behind the trees, appearing again, coasting and now lost to the pines. My friend and I have both leapt up onto a lichen and heather-covered bank of soil. We jump back down, carried back by the wind by an inch or two. We hit a gloved high five, hard and true.

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Blean Woods RSPB just outside Canterbury in Kent

I live in an area of London that was once covered by a stretch of woodlands, commons, meadows and wood pasture that was called the Great North Wood. It was not the continuous wildwood which some argue had covered parts of England totally after the melting of the ice 10,000 years ago, before humans began to cut the trees down. It was known as the Great North Wood because it sat north of Croydon, a large market town fringed by chalk downlands which are not so hospitable to the kind of woodlands dominating the land to the north on London clay, namely hornbeam and sessile oak. On London’s open downlands livestock grazed and rabbits were bred for their fur and flesh. The wild but manipulated landscape of the Great North Wood would have stretched all the way north to the Thames at Deptford (where timber could be exported on ships or turned into ships), cutting off at Penge (Celt for ‘the end of the wood’) and slithering down a little like the continent of South America to Selhurst. Many of the placenames in the locality echo the woodland past, the history of its woodspeople, or the woodsman (which Ben Law neatly points out means ‘wood hand’ rather than excluding women). This can be seen most clearly by Norwood, derived from the name of the landscape itself, as well as Brockley which could describe a human settlement where badgers were notable. The ending of ‘ley’ generally means a clearing or settlement next to woodland. Honor Oak is a pointer to the Oak of Arnon Wood, a slab of probable millennia-old woodland which is now embellished by the Local Nature Reserve One Tree Hill, where the Oak of Honor stands in the form of an English oak replanted some 100 years ago after the site was saved as a public open space by dissenting locals in 1896. The lack of a ‘u’ shows that this is of the old English spelling for honour, the language taken to the Americas by settlers some centuries ago and now seeming somewhat alien or incorrect.

The Great North Wood was not merely one of endless woodlands or of wildwood, it was a landscape that humans were a part of and dependent on for their livelihoods. Some of the woodlands which remain today such as One Tree Hill and Sydenham Hill Wood, have shown that they were at times more open, that larger trees stood singularly with commoners grazing their livestock on the grasses and herbaceous plants underneath the shade of trees like elm, oak, hornbeam and ash. This before the advent of the enclosures when commoners had their rights removed through an Act of Parliament, a series of events which define the landscape of my hometown to this day. As recently as the 1950’s one of the Great North Wood’s most unaffected remainders, Dulwich Wood, was grassier and more open whereas today it is darkened by holly and an array of other trees such as hornbeam, ash, hazel and rowan. Still, the ancient remnants of the Great North Wood hold colonies of wood anemone, dog violets, wild garlic and other plants which indicate continuous woodland for at least 400 years.

Wood anemone indicates 400 years of continuous woodland

One of the main ways that people would have earned a living was by inhabiting the woodlands. Charcoal burning was one of the most common sights and vocations in the Great North Wood. They were known as the colliers, their presence indicated by Collier’s Wood in Wandsworth, beyond the western fringes of the catchment. Hornbeam was ‘coppiced’ on a cycle of 10 or so years, the trees cut at about 20-30cm, a vigorous regrowth the next year created multiple stems and thus an eventual greater crop to be burned and sold to blacksmiths and those needing intense heat to fire their craft. Other trees coppiced were hazel and ash, with hazel especially important for its usages for fencing and walking sticks. Sessile oaks were allowed to grow tall and true for their timber and the tannin residing in the bark. But coppicing is not necessarily as destructive or exploitative as it may sound, as when coppicing was more common – before the advent of coal and the increase in imports of cheaper fossil fuels from abroad – the Great North Wood’s coppices were home to populations of nightingales and nightjars, not least at Penge Common (now covering the famous Crystal Palace Park and the town of Anerley) where locals were said to visit at night to listen to the nightingale song, and there is some anecdotal evidence that the nocturnal music fuelled an increased birth rate. Coppicing allowed light into woods, enriching the herb layer of these woodlands, giving life to wildflowers such as dog violet which then supported the silver washed and dark green fritillary butterflies, as well as beloved primroses, now diminishing from the English landscape as ancient woodlands and hedgerows have been grubbed out and poisoned over time, feverishly in the latter part of the twentieth century.

A renewed interest in coppicing has given a new sense of purpose to our woodlands

This brings me to the issue of woodlands and biodiversity offsetting, a scheme mooted by the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) as a way to mitigate losses to wildlife from development. In recent times the former Transport Secretary Justine Greening advocated the ‘transplanting’ of ancient woodlands which are in the way of the proposed High Speed Rail 2 line intended to travel from London to Birmingham and then north to Manchester and Leeds in a final ‘Y’ section. More recently Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has confirmed his liking for proposals to clear ancient woodlands and plant 100 trees for every ancient tree that is lost. Both of these proposals fall flat after only a little research or, dare I say it, consideration. As Oliver Rackham puts it in his totemic ‘Woodlands’, ancient woodlands are not the place to look for ancient trees. Paterson is mistaken. What he is looking for might be something like Penge Common, or one of the other commons now gone from the Great North Wood. It is now only really in wood pasture or ancient hedge lines that you can find ancient trees. In ancient woodlands it is the landscape and ecosystem which is ancient. Paterson sells himself as a man in-tune with nature and the countryside, posing by fence posts and boasting of keeping badgers as childhood pets. His rhetoric suggests he is out of his depth.

Ancient woodlands are not the place to look for ancient trees.

Today ancient trees are loved, most in estates or arboretums where they are prized for their age and ‘wisdom’. In ancient woods, such is the diversity of life, many trees succumb to fungal infection, because fungi is another aspect of an ancient woodland. The life of fungi is in the soil, the mycelium, to be exact. The mycelium is, in some ways, the life force of woodland, passing nutrients back and forth between trees and soil, a little like the information superhighway I am using to publish this article. Fungi is as vital to human existence as trees, often described as ‘the third force’ after animal and plant life. So too are certain species of wildflower, insect, mammal and bird depend on ancient woodland ecosystems. We are talking about an environment that takes many hundreds of years to develop. This is why HS2 Limited’s desire to dig up the ancient woodlands (33 ancient woodlands are directly affected according to the Woodland Trust) and transplant them elsewhere is the thinking of people who should not be entrusted to decide on infrastructure projects that endanger ancient woods or natural landscapes. ‘Moving’ a woodland would not mean a big family moving from a big house to another. It would be the same as a city removing its hospitals and replacing them elsewhere without foundations or power to run the building and its infrastructure. The real point is that ancient woodlands, biodiversity, nature, these are hindrances to short-term economic gain, and in many ways, to this government’s ideological assault on the environmental sector. Biodiversity offsetting, on this level, is something those of us who love trees, woodlands and nature cannot accept or allow to occur.

One Tree Hill’s Golden Jubilee beacon attracted 600 people in 2012

But what does this have to do with the Great North Wood, or of woodlands that were not necessarily valued for their biodiversity and wildlife but instead for their produce? The failure of biodiversity offsetting is its inability to recognise the need that human beings have for woodlands int he environmental sense, the importance of access to green and ‘natural’ spaces. It fails to see the importance of place, let alone wildlife or biodiversity. Worst of all it is a signifier of our failure, not just that of politicians, to see that woodlands present an opportunity for a more simple and healthier existence than the one presented to many in England today. In Ben Law’s ‘The Woodland Way’, he outlines just how far the English have moved away from their ‘forest dweller’ existence, an era that would have dated back to the Great North Wood. Woodlands offer us sanctuary, food, the resources for infrastructure, a place for real learning – wood carving, coppicing, construction, food growing, fencing, tool use – and countless creative industries. Many people express the sense of belonging offered by time spent in woodlands. The woodland sell-off plans panned (but possibly remodeled to fit biodiversity offsetting) caused outrage in the UK and led to a 500,000 strong petition being delivered to the Prime Minister David Cameron. This was a worrying time – we learned then that this government do not hold the best interest of our woodlands at heart – but the public were able to send a unified message. The sell-off was not acceptable.

Biodiversity offsetting fails to acknowledge the importance of place

The Great North Wood is a case in point for people standing up for their woodlands in the shape of One Tree Hill, saved from enclosure by ‘the great agitation’, as it is known locally, when thousands rioted to protect it from enclosure. And then there is Sydenham Hill Wood, saved twice by local people, London Wildlife Trust and the Horniman Museum from plans for it to be developed for housing. I wonder how the battles would have gone if biodiversity offsetting was in place in those, both very different, times. Our woodlands are only safe when they are loved, ‘used’ and valued by local people. Sadly, it would appear that our woodlands are not merely under threat from invasive species and disease, but also from the short-termism, bravado and lack of thought from authority figures like Paterson. Though some woodlands have been around for more than 1000 years, even in a place like urban south London their national fate is at the whim of individuals looking only as far as 12 months into the future. But that is only the case if people do not speak out and challenge the ecological illiteracy of ancient woodland offsetting. Consider that the next time you walk through a wood in spring, when its wildflowers, birds and insects are flourishing around you. That place is only safe because you and the community value its sense of place.

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Farthing Downs

Full set of photographs here on Flickr

Farthing Downs, London, January 2014

The long shadow of a jogger crosses me and at first I think it’s someone approaching. A peek over my shoulder shows the silhouette of a toiling woman, but is it new resolution or good habit? She is followed over time by a trail of cars, parents clutching the hands of young children, and finally the huffing shape of a cyclist rolling past. The world of the Downs reminds me again that the earth is something of a cauldron, everything is always changing. Groups of people walk along the lane, shadows breaking and reforming, pausing to watch something, perhaps a bird, perhaps the view of houses creeping up the hill, or views of a distant, spiralling city.

Jackdaws dot the horizon in the east, their indentations against the sky encourage the play of human language. They are a slow swarm of insects, embers from a smokeless blaze, or simply jackdaws doing their winter dance. Woodpigeons pass them in the foreground, redwing, too. I sit and watch. On New Hill, the land beneath the jackdaws, the small ash trees are indeed like matchsticks, or else the stiff hairs of a broad and worn broom. More have been felled, chopped and piled, and against the brown wash of wood and winter grasses the shock of the heartwood is telling.

The sun slips down to me, the ant hills like boulders at the edge of a lake, dropping chunky shadows from the daylight. Squirrels cavort, their music one of scratched syllables, like little huffing corvids. We regard them with equal disdain, forgetting their own intelligence and desires. They feel a dislike for their kind, too, sometimes. A helicopter careers overhead, a primitive design still, but how long until tiny drones trail through these skies, how long before they snag in the branches of oaks or the tangle of hawthorn? Who will collect them and what will be done with them. The helicopter is navy blue and white, it heads south-west towards the North Downs as vulnerable as flesh and feathers.

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