In Devilsden Wood we tiptoe around fallen beech logs, slipping at times on beech leaves and clay, and the emptied mast. The nuts will have been eaten by hungry jays and squirrels. Over the past few weeks I’ve crouched down around these logs photographing their fungi: beech jellydisc with its almost caucasian flesh, purple jellydisc creeping out by the week from wisps of moss. Most startling for a layman like me was the glaring eye of dog stinkhorn, named after its canine stench. Lodged in a piece of black deadwood it had the appearance of a fox or wolf skull looking up at me. The long, finger-like stems that it had produced had collapsed, orange tips like finger nails. As Julian Hoffman has written recently, referring to the poet Rilke, we are surrounded by a world that beckons us to perceive it, to engage with it, to look and to touch. To me the fingers of the stinkhorn could be pointers to something worth seeing. Today only the jellydiscs remain, as well as a brown mushroom that reflects the white break of cloud between the trees above in its glossy cap. My friend Philip is searching for something behind me and as I look up the sharp dark shape of a sparrowhawk slices between us in silence. If we were little woodland birds we would not have seen a thing.
Blue smoke plumes from the dreary Downs, the crack of piled ash trees cuts through the distant wash of the M25, and now the noise of chainsaws. This work is good fun. How many people panic at the sound of this machine, waking to find that their favourite tree is gone from the frame of their bedroom window. In the town I am always suspicious when their itch carries. But this is the restoration of the chalky meadows swallowed by the incoming of woods. We as a species have been trying to halt the loss of woods but at the same time deny new ones for thousands of years. This is a thousand-year-old view, the only change the exchange of machines for the pop of axes on heartwood.
Against a view of near leafless beech, a green woodpecker rises from the anthills, its flight reminiscent of a puppet tugged at intervals as it passes. Robins sing, gulls create the aura of the Sussex coast, and rain specks add a pinch of cool. In the now flattened meadows fungi can be found: a parrot waxcap plucked and left, yellow gills that ripple like flames around its stem. Puffballs are scattered across the path, little footballs deflated and unwanted. I press my toe into one, flattened and leathery grey, its brown spores puffing out like effluent. I definitely take them with me.
Standing on the track leading into Devilsden Wood I look to the ground for dryness, somewhere that hasn’t been soaked by this perpetual rainfall. I see fallen ivy leaves that appear like cuts of leather when really they are crisp under foot. Dog shit, too, the new waybread for the modern ancient footway. I hate the stuff. My waterproof sheds its load onto my jeans and it’s wait and become cold or move and receive woodland raindrops, some chucked from the canopy of mature yew, ash and beech, some fifty feet up. When they get behind glasses, these droplets shock the senses.
It’s fungi season, the signpost of falling temperatures, not too cold but a shift from the sultry summer. I gawp at log piles with an explosion of mushroom caps, marked by striping and shapes that would define them to those who understood them. But still, I spy an oysterling appearing from a rotting trunk and feel that in two years of woodland obsession I have at least learned something about this magical animal that appears so fleetingly it could almost be through the fabric of time, a monitor on how we’re doing. Checking the sole of my boot again, we’re crap. I wipe it off in a mud puddle. The rain has not lessened. I head back out from the dark, autumn-beckoning woodland and onto the wet warfare of the Downs. The change in mind is clear, the atmosphere of a woodland changes you. It is not like the open land, so much a canvas for human experimentation, our impact on woodlands is never so clear as the plough’s to the open landscape. A woodland to all but a minority could have been in that state for millenia, before human time. The wood is a wild city, with nature’s social housing, swimming pools and fast food. It was our home once, too. There is the semblance of a summer out here, yellow rattle not yet rattling, knapweed funked-out in pinkish purple, even a bit of scabious. These wildflowers have something of January’s left over Christmas decorations about them. A car passes along the lane. Woodpigeons are striking through the rainy sky, turning their wings and bodies at an angle – to avoid the direction of the rain? – always as individuals. These birds cut several different figures in a year – hurried, panicked on the wing, or else male birds cutting arcs out of the sky as they display to females long into the summer recesses. Now they could be migrating, they could be hunted. Mostly they are gorging on elderberries outside my bedroom window.
On the Downs a flock of goldfinch are startled into the sky like pieces of a broken vase put back, its smash rewound and fixed. They sit in a small hawthorn bush and I look more closely. On the end of a branch, clear and possibly not so fearful of man is a juvenile, all grey on the head, interested in looking but unaware of the perils of being watched. My advances fracture them once more and I’m left with a snapshot of their escape into the landscape captured on my camera.