Daniel Greenwood

The river is all I can hear

Posts from the ‘Plants’ category

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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Fly orchid 4

Farthing Downs & New Hill, London, July 2013

On the Downs the butterflies are immediately evident, the week old broods of meadow brown ferry amongst the long grasses, rarely stopping to feed on flowers. Breeding season is ending but still the song of skylarks comes from over the slope, some ancient language remembered, its translation lost. Greater yellow rattle blooms now, the spring buttercups lost to a swathe of Yorkshire fog and other grasses I don’t know. The suntan lotion on my arms acts as an adhesive, my skin covered with seeds. The grasshoppers are conjuring up their rickety, wooden percussion. I am hopeless in finding them, except for one that hops between seed heads, a micro Tarzan in this meadow jungle. But where are the people? A man drives a BMW sports car along the lane, revving its engine. I know where I’d rather be. Men in England are bare chested at the slightest chance and here a couple stroll along the lane drinking from big bottles of water. The tattoo stamped on the man’s back stands out in this simple landscape of slopes and flowers.

Lovers

Ghostly day-flying moths spread at my every step through the long grass. Bumblebees forage on clovers, dropwort and yellow rattle, small heath butterflies appear again, two fly together, eager to fulfil their short lives with as much fornication as is possible. I cut back on to the path I know best. A chiffchaff sings in the hedgeline at the bottom of the hill, a single blackbird and a whitethroat, too. There’s no sign of spring’s willow warblers or their clutch of young. A crowd of peacock caterpillars munch through nettle leaves, leaving only the dreadlocks of flowers. A yellowhammer appears from across the lane, landing in a small hawthorn bush, its strong yellow plumage brighter than dandelions, a South American yellow, and at its brightest here. I take a few photos. Along with skylarks, this is a bird I have to travel to see, when once, before my time, you might have woken to it flocking in the hedges and fields.

Peackock caterpillar

Leaving the Downs I enter the chalky wooded hollows at the bottom of the slope, with tor grass growing along the track, an indicator of the calcareous soil. My sweat cools with the breeze that slips through here. In the dappled shade I scan the path edges for orchids, black bryony creeping out from the darkened hedges. And there it is: the fly orchid. I change lenses and struggle to get the image right, sweat dripping, bringing lotion down my face. But it’s beautiful to look at – a bit like a bumblebee pinned and proffered by the long spike, with its little eyes and short antennae. A family are passing behind the hedge, discussing how to control the dog.

‘She’s pulling me down into these weird places,’ says the mother.

‘Just let her off the lead, let her off the lead,’ the dad says.

They arrive on the path heading down hill. Their daughter warns the dog to stay with them. I only see the mother, she’s dressed in an apricot coloured dress and heeled shoes. She’s young and glamorous, so fitting with the array of flowers bursting from the hillside.

‘Who needs Box Hill when you can come here, eh?’ says the dad. They disappear down towards Happy Valley.

Speckled wood egg crop 1

I carry on along the ridge and settle on the desire line drawn down the hill and through the flowers. Ringlets move through the meadow, the first I’ve seen this year. They move at the same time and, stitched together, they are a tapestry of flickering wings. In my silence and stillness wildlife begins to move around me, perhaps more trusting. I see more plants now: twayblades, common spotted orchid, salad burnet, marjoram, ox eye daisy, rough hawkbit and bladder campion with its inflated, balloon like calyx-tubes. The wind blows through the trees. A speckled wood butterfly flaps about me, its wings audible as it hits my khaki shorts and leaf stalks. It clasps hold of a spear-like grass stem and curves its abdomen, laying a tiny pearl of an egg. This, for me, is something new.

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Image 2

First published on Caught by the River

The River Avon, Bristol, June 2013

I walk along the floating harbour in search of the woodlands I know are further downstream of the Avon, high above the city of Bristol. The harbour is a story of new developments in a variety of different colours and states. One sign by a small park warns of its private nature – no sunbathing, no dogs. Another building is skeletal, multi-storey car park-esque. It always makes me laugh how the images of what a development will look like become less a promise and more a threat when they’re in this half state – it will be finished. Together, these buildings are gently grotesque. The death of England’s once great ports is a boon to the property development industry. Just like in Liverpool and Manchester, old buildings which once provided lifelong employment and were a focus of global trade have become bars, shops, restaurants, apartments and offices, transient spots for the aspirational middle classes and upward to work, frolic and recover. But that’s not the whole story. There’s a revolt against the tidying, the ornamental planting, the exclusivity and boredom. At the water’s edge is red valerian, a Mediterranean flower that has escaped into walls and pavements across England and grows here in the cracks between the stone where daisies also blush pink. Together these plants are the punks of the gentrified waterside, the Pussy Riot of the floating harbour. I clench my fist and salute these wildflowers.

Image

The Avon bends north and in the distance I see the mighty Clifton suspension bridge bursting from the wooded limestone cliffs. But I’m getting lost on my map in trying to locate the path to Leigh Woods, confused by the A370’s spaghetti junction. I cross a footbridge and then a few roads and find the river itself, a prehistoric mud swamp that’s brown in its entirety. Gulls are making prints, lesser black backs, herring and common gulls, they rule this city totally. When I opened the door to the room where we’re staying I looked out of the window and met the fierce eye of a gull. I cross a bridge plastered with posters protesting against plans for buses to pass through. Gulls below see me and act a little tentative – I wonder if they get any trouble from people up here, in this well hidden spot, maybe kids with air rifles. Parkland opens up, the suspension bridge now clear, I aim for the trees. The Avon and I both flow in the same direction. The wheel of a trolley reaches from beneath the mud, as does a traffic cone and a road sign, fragments of a world of transport now mired. I pass underneath the bridge and its black strip across the sky catches in my vision through the leaves of the trees. Up ahead comes a left turning and the entrance into Leigh Woods.

Clifton suspension bridge CBTR

The path appears carved from the gorge. The banks are denuded of trees, covered in hartstongue fern, panting as they soak up the light. The path is steep and wild, riddled with chunks of the limestone that defines this landscape. The slopes become more wooded as I climb, hazels grow amidst single ash trees, with a good number of wych elm and some oak. A chiffchaff sings somewhere, as does a blackbird, a song thrush pipes its beginnings. A month ago there would have been much more, but the breeding season is beginning to take its toll on the songbirds, they are growing quiet. That said, a moment of rest and silence brings more songs: the aborted music of a coal tit, a robin squeezing its thin medley out through the thicketed scrub of young trees. A trio of East European students pass me where I sit, a young woman speaking pointedly. They don’t notice me, so involved in their conversation. The Poles I know all speak in their native tongue with such passion, you’d think their world was at stake.

Image 3

I happen upon a settlement that the interpretation board renders some 2300 years old. The banks were perfect for the defence of the river. I walk along the ridge lit by red campion and struggle to imagine the scene. Farther over on the other side I find the first common spotted orchids of my summer, taking them by the throats with the tips of my thumb and finger.

Back amongst trees, the wind blows through and I notice the rumble of the city, the searing sound of cars around the River Avon. I wonder how the hunter gatherers would have lived in dense woods like these. People today are enlivened and stressed by the proximity of others, as well as their distance. The woodland peoples, before they began exploiting the clearings at the edges will undoubtedly have been driven by a fear of wolves and bears, creatures that were made extinct in England. I ask two ladies and their dog in passing if they know how to get back onto the riverside and they shrug, they don’t know: ‘I think you just have to find a slope and go for it.’

I head on down a side track and the limestone rocks return, cutting out a steep, rugged path into the wooded hillside. At the end there’s some light, colours move across the gap. I’ve found the edge. The view opens out and the murmurings of vertigo appear with the river, the road and the gorge. It is a bizarre and beautiful sight. An oak is dead and beheaded above me on the precipice, how frightening for the woodlander who had to cut that off. Slick ferns grown from its mossy trunk like attempts at wings and feathers. The track isn’t at an end here and so I sense an exit. On the way down it crumbles under foot and so I’m thankful for the fistfuls of hawthorn wood that I can hold as I descend. And as I do I think of the settlers rushing to defend their land from an invasion on the Avon, flying down to the river with spears, arrows and other weaponry to hand. You see, I only have a camera and binoculars. I live in the age of observation.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2013
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