Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Epping - 17-8-2019 djg-15

Epping Forest, Essex, August 2019

Unlike most, I’ve welcomed the wet weather of recent weeks in southern England. In August, this means mushrooms. Hopefully not only an early burst in August but a good autumn clutch. ‘The coming of the fungi’ in autumn is an event in nature’s calendar that I would put in the same bracket as the first migrant willow warbler, swallow or swift, or the first butterfly. Autumn is a time of plenty. When mushrooms arrive en masse, we are witnessing a spectacle many millions of years old.

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A weekend visit to family in Essex meant a chance to visit the famous Epping Forest. This woodland is very close to London and is owned by the City of London Corporation (other sites outside London in Surrey and Hertfordshire also belong to them. I think they do a very good job). The Forest shows the scars of this proximity to one of the world’s biggest cities, namely the M25. It was interesting talking to family recently who grew up locally and their reminiscences of putting ‘stop the M25’ posters up in their windows. Epping Forest is also prey to nature writers (guilty as charged, but not published) framing their own ego against this ancient wooded landscape. The Forest and its mycelia feature in Robert Macfarlane’s recent award-winning book Underland, a book from a writer I love reading and admire greatly. However, I must to admit to disappointment in the lighting of a fire in that book. Even more so when I saw a tent and a fire in the Forest when I visited. The two obviously are not linked, but having been an urban woodland warden where fires were lit both in ignorance and violence, it is hugely galling (no pun intended). Leave no trace people, seriously.

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I mentally (and verbally) built up my visit to Epping Forest due to the rain throughout the week. The mushroom boom in my eyes (let’s call it that) was spilling out from every path and Epping Forest’s many visitors were tripping up over them. The early signs upon entering were not good. The ground was battered by recent rain and the sloping nature of the landscape had meant the soil was scarified by the heavy downpours. Mushrooms, washed away. The first wildlife encounter of any note was the above robberfly which I noticed out of the corner of my eye on the brim of my (it needs to go in the wash) sunhat. These predatory flies (not of humans) have had a good summer and I’ve seen more than I ever have before this year. #LifeGoals.

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It was only getting near to Ambresbury Banks (Aims-bury) that the mushrooms were in any way ‘common’. A slug-munched Boletus edulis or cep lay prone at the trackside. Then, half eaten, I found this:

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Moving my little camera around to the right angle, you would never know the cap on the other side was almost completely gone. This is a tawny grisette (Amanita fulva). This was probably the least photogenic specimen I’ve ever found, but with the green flow of woodland behind and a bit of bokeh, anyone can look good.

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Cheered by the sight of a half-eaten mushroom I checked out the swampy dog-poo realm alongside a path. There I spied these beautiful white parachutes (Marasmius) in wet soil amongst bramble twigs. My books are telling me they are Marasmiellus candidus AND Delicatula integrella. A woman passing by on her Saturday jog asked what I was looking at. She said how much she loved spending time in the Forest and that she was moving away soon. She said how important is was for her to see the seasons changing and how different the trees were in different parts of the Forest.

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She’s not wrong. The bizarre pollard areas near Ambresbury Banks are unique. Their pollarding stopped as a local practice some 150 years ago due to a wrangle of Acts of Parliament – who could lop what and where. They are of significance to the whole of Europe (ecosystems are European-wide, people). In some areas holly dominates and things get a lot darker.

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In one of the those areas I found an oysterling (Crepidotus) on a twig and found a nice tree to perch it in for its close-up. The gills look like flames to me and not of the campfire kind. See the darkness of high canopy beech and holly understorey? Creepy. A deer was hiding away here.

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Ambresbury Banks is always worth visiting. This is an ancient earthwork or Iron Age Hillfort, which was likely created by the pre-Roman (-AD43) inhabitants of Britain. Legend has it that Boudicca battled the Romans here in AD61 but people say that about so many hills in London, trust no one. Also for anyone espousing ‘Indigenous British’ as a phrase about themselves as a pedestal for their polticial views, those Britons who built Ambresbury Banks were probably the last group of people who could say that. It is now populated by ancient beech pollards which have no view on Brexit, other than that it may remove their Natura 2000 protections as a site of European Significance. But then again we may not have food and medicine by 1st November.

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In all fungal seriousness there were actually a pleasant number of ‘shrooms around this Iron Age propaganda ditch. Spindle shank (Collybia fusipes) was bubbling up nicely at the roots of beech trees, likely nibbling away at their wood under the soil. Bridges of beech are likely to be built across those ancient earthworks in the decades that come, if you get my drift(wood).

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For photography brittlegills (Russula) are one of the most annoying. I have seen grey squirrels pull them from the soil and chew their gills down like some turbo corn-on-the-cob eating contest. Slugs also love them. Thankfully for you I found this Russula largely un-squirreled with some pleasant bokeh to be had in the world above. I lit the gills with my phone torch.

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Another sign that autumn is not actually here yet was the state of the Amanita mushrooms. Two years ago I found many, many of these beauties near Connaught Water in the holly woods (nope, not that Hollywood) and they were in the same state. If I’ve learned one thing from mushrooms it’s:

You can’t hurry poisonous fungi

There is no basis of fact in that. Not that it matters nowadays. Fake ‘shrooms.

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When you see so many Amanitas pretending to be beech nuts, you know autumn is tickling your toes. Winter is snoring.

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This cheery chap was reaching out from under a ghastly bit of deadwood to say good afternoon. I’m not sure of the species and it will require a bit of rifling through the field guides to get a general idea. Answers on a postcard in the comments box please.

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A beautiful morning in Epping Forest but what did fungi teach me? If you just walked in and found everything you ever wanted in fungi terms there would be no fun and you wouldn’t learn anything. Also, appreciate every chance you have to spend time in these special places and try not to make a campfire. Next up: Autumn.

Thanks for reading.

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Knepp 24-6-18 djg-15

Knepp, West Sussex, July 2019

The footpath runs off Countryman Lane behind a deer-proof gate. In this case it’s keeping them in. On the gate a sign welcomes visitors to the Knepp Wildland Project. A woman with three dogs holds the gate open for us. I’m here with friends visiting for the day from London, where the Knepp narrative of rewilding lowland England and its successes for wildlife are influential. We’ve come for a circular walk on the public footpaths that cross the Knepp Estate.

Knepp is an ancient deer park that, with investment from government and the landowner’s private wealth, is attempting to prove that farming can be done in a way that is much more sustainable and beneficial for wildlife. Critics say that most farmers lack the personal finances of the Knepp Estate and government investment to sustain the same, low-intensity measures to remain in business. Some people just don’t like change. Many farmers in Sussex are tenant farmers, not landowners, meaning they don’t possess the same money to set up a rewilding project in the first place. Many proponents of rewilding argue that farming shouldn’t happen anyway and the land should be allowed to re-establish natural states of woodland, grassland and wetland.

The footpath is lined with stringy hedges growing to a state of woodland. Large oak trees thrust up from the Wealden clay every few metres, the pillars that hold the Low Weald together. Trees like these run all the way west to the New Forest. In one of the hedges a bike has been locked up, purple ribbons are tied to hedge trees at intervals. It’s an indicator: we have arrived in purple emperor butterfly high season. A man with a large telephoto lens marches towards us, his tripod legs splayed like a broken umbrella. He sees that we’re looking up at an oak, where the emperors fly high. He sets his kit up, eyes open wide in anticipation, mouth gaping. He barely acknowledges us.

We carry on, purple emperors flying lower and in pairs, the white markings on their wings translucent in the light as they pass over our heads. Behind a hedge where people are warned not to go, a couple with their dog asleep in the grass watch with craning necks yet more of these superstar butterflies. The man with the tripod reappears on the horizon, spotting the small group, he homes in again like an insect-seeking missile. Further ahead two vehicles are parked on the track, a group of men are standing around a film camera pointed up at the canopy of an oak. One of the men squints into the viewfinder and grips the equipment, ready to shift it when its subject moves. Another man stands back smoking a cigarette, possibly the film’s producer.

‘Seen a blue tit?’ I say.

The smoking man offers a wry smile in response. The camera man takes his eye away from the camera and grins.

Leaving the oaken lane and continuing along the public footpath, we follow a circuit around and meet a couple tuning in to a turtle dove singing beyond the crown of an oak. My friend has just heard her first ever turtle dove in the UK, in six decades of living here, and she’s touched by its turring. This is a bird on the edge of extinction in our great nation. The couple tell us they’re camping and that it’s disappointing to hear the nearby A24. Their expectations of Knepp didn’t include the sound of the combustion engine.

The man says a spotted flycatcher is hunting around the corner from a branch, and so it is, along with a juvenile. This is the first fledged juvenile spotted flycatcher that I have ever seen in the UK, and the first flycatcher in southern England. Like the nightingale and turtle dove, they seem at home here, indeed they have made this piece of the Sussex Weald just that. There is so much chin-scratching, speculation and opinion in nature conservation. When you see results such as these, it’s hard to disagree with the state of a place.

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SLF - 13-6-2019 djg-6

St. Leonard’s Forest, Sussex Weald, June 2019

Gentle rain falls as dog walkers share tales in the car park. Squirrels saved from their pet’s jaws giving thanks with a bite of their own. Birdsong swells from the understorey, perhaps five song thrush sing to sure up territories. Either side of the track is a wall of green, from the shrubs to the canopy of oak, birch and beech.

There is a feeling of a deeply wooded landscape here, the continuity of the Weald stretching away east to Kent. Of course it has now been broken, so many times, but there is a sense of the wilderness that faced the Romans and later the Saxons upon their respective invasions of Britain. It is thought St. Leonard’s Forest was part of a wooded landscape that stretched all the way to the New Forest, as recently as a thousand years ago.

The rain has drawn me out here. It is such a relief that this June is one of mini-monsoons, compared to last year’s heatwave hell. The nearby South Downs were rendered brown for months. At the side of the path, under the darkness of a beech, mushrooms glow. They sprout peach-coloured, or maybe apricots on sticks, from a tree stump. They are sulphur tuft, one of the most common species but very photogenic.

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Further into the forest chiffchaff sing from the pines, a distant willow warbler’s melody decaying in the darkening evening air. There is a scale to this landscape that feels expansive. Woods challenge our human senses of depth and time. Moving along the footpaths the woodland shifts from clay where beech and oak prevail, to the pine and birch dominated sands where heathland once was kept open by local people expressing their rights of common.

Down a track through birch and holly a single flute-like note comes from the trees above my head: a bullfinch. It calls over and again. It’s a beautiful sound.

Returning round through dark areas of oaks and veteran beeches, I find a small toadstool uprooted at the edge of the footpath. It’s an amanita of some kind, a ring around its neck like Shakespeare or a ruff, patches of white webbing still on its grey-brown cap. Amanitas are a fearful family of mushrooms, being home to the deathcap and destroying angel, to name but the most potent. But I’m not here to eat these marvels of nature, so I take my photos, capturing memories to take back to the town, to ease the sense of dislocation from this ancient wooded landscape, its bullfinches and mushrooms.

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Dulwich oaks 2016-4

I’m very pleased to share this invite to a guided walk I’m leading at Dulwich Park in south London on Saturday 10th August 2019. The walk will begin at 11am and run for about 90 minutes to two hours, meeting at the Court Lane Gates.

The walk is free and there is no need to book.

I would encourage anyone who wants to donate to support London Wildlife Trust in their work at Sydenham Hill Wood and the wider Great North Wood and/or become a member of The Dulwich Society.

The walk is general interest and is open to all. It will be a way to learn how to identify common British trees and delve into their natural and cultural history.

I have lots more info about woods and trees on this page.

Please share the poster on social media if you want to!

Dulwich_Park_tree_walk_2019

My previous posts about oak trees in Dulwich Park can be read here. This story of the historic Great North Wood (which Dulwich Park is a part of) will also be of interest.

Hope to see some people there(!).

Daniel

 

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Cuckfield - 6-5-2019 jpeg-1

Cuckfield, West Sussex, May 2019

With some hours of Bank Holiday Monday to spare, we drove to Cuckfield in West Sussex. Pronounced ‘Cook-field’, it gets its name from the cuckoo.

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The chuchyard in Cuckfield is vast. A country walk in Sussex is never complete without a visit to at least one church (which, if it’s old enough, usually has an ancient yew tree next to the building). Entering it from village streets dominated by a cedar of Lebanon, it spreads over the gentle crest of a hill, the South Downs rolling along in the distance. On that evening, they were so green and clear they seemed within arm’s length.

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The South Downs beyond the spread of Wealden woodland, from Cuckfield Park

Entering into a church I am always struck by the smell, like an antique shop. There is cool and a sudden stillness. The small churches of English villages hold the scars of our history often with lists of names of people killed in the First World War, or sometimes with gruesome histories stitched into tapestries. Most of them are not actually English but Norman (1066). The yew trees in their grounds often date to pre-Saxon times (500AD), even before Christianity was dominant in Britain.

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In the church a tapestry of a tree held symbols of the village. Perched on a branch was a cuckoo with its sharp bill and grey head.

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No cuckoos sang in the churchyard and no yew tree had lived long enough to recall Pagan Britain, but a castle of a giant sequoia grew amongst the graves.

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We walked for four miles into the woods and fields that edged the village. Great veteran oaks sat on field margins, quintessential Wealden scenes of sprawling boughs and hefty trunks with woodland on one side and an open field on the other.

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I spend a lot of time traveling by car between the Weald and the South Downs. From the corner of my eye I can tell when the Downs are done and the Weald has returned. It’s a case of oaks sitting in hedgerows of neatly set fields. Looking at a map of the Weald, these fields are glades carved out of the ancient woodland that once cloaked the entire area between the North and South Downs. No, it probably was not wall-to-wall woodland (as people say), but its openness was more rugged and less formal. Less civilised. It’s not all oaks in fields, however. Here a Scots pine stood in a private field, framed by the woodland footpath we were taking and the rounds of hay rolled up against the fenceline.

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As is the way in the Weald, the most spectacular trees are the oaks like this one here. At the edge of a field this oak has lived without woodland close by for probably over 500 years.

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As with so many oaks like this one, as they age they begin to tell a tale of all they have survived. The boles, knobbles and scars, the direction of the boughs and their sprawl.

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In the plentiful chunks of remnant ancient woodland, the oaks are smaller and white with algae. The latter is a measure of better air quality, of less chemical pollution from farming. They are smaller because they have to put up with competition from other trees. In May their toes are decorated with spreads of red campion, stitchwort and yellow archangel.

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To see these flowers in this state is one of the moments of the year. It takes the breath away. It is a measure of what we have lost in Britain (mainly between 1960-1990) to our brutal, thoughtless treatment of the landscape.

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Bluebells were at their crispy peak. I love them in the evening, all that frames them: the light coming through the new green leaves of trees at the field’s edge, a silhouetted oak trunk and the faintest of light reaching those curling petals.

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Not all of the trees in the woods make sense. Walking down a lane as we looped back to Cuckfield I noticed this ogre of a beech tree sat on a wood bank. Was it an old hedgerow tree? The trees around it were young, bluebells spread around its buttresses. Perhaps it was in a more open landscape that had now become closed. It showed signs of severe cutting, that is what had given it the look of an octopus.

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Passing through Cuckfield Park on the return to the village, the bright yellow and orange of chicken of the woods broke the lowering evening light. Growing from the felled trunk of an old oak at the edge of wood and field, it spread through barbed wire and even goosegrass, a sign of how quickly it was growing. This is a sign of spring turning towards summer and even, like the fox’s bark in January, the first sign of autumn. Seasons are not set things, their threads reach out far beyond the timescales in which we define them.

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A quick up and over through gill woodland, so typical of the High Weald with its alders and snaking stream, we found the churchspire peeking out from a horse chestnut in flower. Here a queen bumblebee took the last of her nectar for the evening on flowers that appear almost as orchids up close.

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Amberley, the South Downs, May 2019

I’m followed by a flock of dancing flies along the River Arun. I put out my hand to let them alight. Their bodies dance urgent as mayflies, their wings flutter soft as moths. They travel with me along the bend in the river.

Reed warblers are settling into spring song patches on the riverbanks. A reed bunting with his black warpaint holds a perch in green willow, delivering a simple, fractured tune.

Across the river a mighty willow sprawls dominant, dipping its branches into the flowing water.

An octopus returning to sea.

These great veterans stalk the Arun valley at Amberley, oaks replacing them where hedgerows arise.

A low note breaks the din of the A29 traffic and trains rattling through the chalk quarry at Amberley.

Koo…koo…koo…koo!

It’s a cuckoo.

The fields beyond the river lack trees, smudged by rushes creeping into pastures where cattle loaf. Crossing a shock of metal that bridges the banks, I can’t see it.

Out here the cuckoo can target the nests of reed warblers, but that’s the female’s job. This cuckoo has a song to sing first.

Passing away from the river on a track, towards the chalk ridge of Bury Hill, telephone wires cross the landscape. Not far beyond them, where the track is white underfoot, the cuckoo sings again.

Turning back to look towards the Arun, the bird balances on a telephone wire.

Cuc-koo, cuc-koo, cuc-koo!

His tail fans as he rocks on the wire, the full thrust of his calling causing a see-sawing that could send him tumbling.

I wonder how many female cuckoos are out there in the Arun valley, listening. Are they perched in riverside willows or the ancient, dying ash woods in the steep escarpment of the chalk hills.

One of them, somewhere, has heard him.

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Shelleys - 26-4-2019 djg-4

The Sussex Weald, West Sussex, April 2019

I visited a small woodland in the Sussex Weald after work to make the most of a break in the showers. My aim was to catch the bluebells in the early evening light when I think they look best. The forecast was for cloud but it was windy enough for some sunlight to break through. This woodland is coppiced and was where I photographed the wood anemones last month. It is the bluest bluebell woodland I’ve ever seen. My friend always tells me, ‘no, it’s purple!’. He’s right.

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Bluebells are a huge draw for anyone who has a camera (so that’s everyone). It’s part of the traditional spring experience to go to a bluebell wood, in most places that still have them. That’s something that shouldn’t be taken for granted, ancient woodlands like those in the Sussex Weald are being lost, despite the fact that they are irreplaceable habitats. Their species diversity has evolved over thousands of years. At a coppiced wood like this, their ecosystems have coalesced with our management of them for wood products. The oak above might be a coppice, but it could also be three oak saplings fused together.

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Something felt quite gentle and warming about this oak plugged in amongst bluebells. Perhaps it’s the slight lean, it’s almost an invitation to pass by. The mental and physical benefits of spending time in woodland are great.

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I’ve noticed the flush of new green oak leaves and how quickly that freshness is lost to the stiff darker shade.

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Take these two oaks in the High Weald from a week earlier. Their new green is incredibly fresh but will now have darkened. You have to enjoy every moment of spring before it goes.

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Back to the wildflowers. Before visiting the wood I spoke to a colleague whose job it is to survey woods. He said he’d seen very few early purple orchids this year, possibly due to the colder than average January and then sudden heatwave in February. I said I would report back on my findings. I discovered a patch of about 10 flowering on the wood’s edge with plenty of other spotted leaves yet to produce flowers. I had seen them in the same patch a couple of years ago so knew where to go.

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I find orchids that grow in woods to be twice as exciting as those out in the open landscape. It’s a personal thing, because the diversity is far greater out there. There’s something about woodland versions of other species, birds or butterflies for example. There is something so interesting about the fact some species have made a niche for themselves in certain types of woodland only. Don’t get me started on firecrests. It’s even more interesting when these species, especially the wildflowers, escape out into the surrounding landscape.

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It’s not possible for the flowers to do much of that in this slither of the Sussex Weald because it’s surrounded by a monoculture of oilseed rape. On the contrary the farm is making its way into the woodland through the run off of fertiliser and water being piped in. You can see where the wildflowers are being pushed further into the woodland, away from the polluted areas. It’s something happening to almost every small woodland in England in one way or another.

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Photographing the orchids was tricky because it was windy, dull and the plants were small. I used a telephoto lens and tried to maximise the bokeh around the flower. These flowers are beautiful even when out of focus.

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The woodland flowers felt as if they were at their peak. Elsewhere yellow archangel spread amongst bluebells.

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The details of a wood at this time of year are incredible. If you look closely it’s not just the bluebells that will attract you, the fronds of bracken unfurling are worth investigating. These primitive plants reproduce through spores and pre-date flowering plants like bluebells by millions of years. It’s a tough plant and can be a bit invasive. Oliver Rackham reckoned it was the most common plant across the whole of the UK.

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People often say they spend a lot of time trying to remove pendulous sedge from their gardens. It gets around. It’s actually a resident of ancient woodland and can be found in the wood. I passed this community of sedges on my way out as a few bands of sunlight broke through the clouds and lit their drooping seedheads.

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That light broke free as I made my way out again, illuminating bluebells either side of tree trunks. It was a reward for gambling on a grey sky.

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