St. Leonards Forest, The High Weald, West Sussex, January 2019
Gunshots echo from St. Leonards Forest, while up here on the dank January heath, woodpigeons fail to settle in pine branches. Within their paddock the sheep in deep black coats are startled by the scuff of my camera strap on my shoulder. They lift their heads from grazing, soon returning to their business. One with a white beard and human face gazes back at me, old man of the heath.
A powder-white and gold mushroom has been uprooted and left on a feathery bed of moss, an image of early autumn in this sodden midwinter. On the stumps of felled pine trees cup lichens grow like green, towering cities. I read that because they are a partnership of algae, fungi and cyanobacteria, they can’t truly be defined as a standalone species. Here they hold droplets of water like a precious stone in the top of a staff.
The birch bark is zebra-like in this land of deep purple, black and brown. The birches are routinely removed from heathland but to me they feel like a key part to it, a haven for many species of insect, a resource we seem no longer to know about. Every bit of this tree cut has a use for us: bark for firelighter, slippers, canoes and boxes; sap for sugary syrup; branches for brooms and spoons; wood for a fire. It follows us around and, unlike so many of our trees, is not facing an epidemic of imported disease.
Coming down off the heath, I walk up past a stream bed with alder trees climbing high to the canopy. They form dark clouds of branches and catkins at their tops. Alongside the track home holly woods stamp their permanent-feeling darkness. I turn to look left into a small break in that darkness. A silent sparrowhawk glides in touching distance of the ground, preying on blue tits that call in alarm. Those little things miss nothing until caught. It’s a reminder of how hard life is out here in January woods. It is eat, or starve trying.