Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

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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Mid-Colne valley

– Broadwater Lake, Harefield, May 2012

A chill wind moves across Broadwater Lake. Black-headed gulls are screaming from rafts built for the common terns which arrive here from their African wintering grounds. It is pleasing to be greeted by one of the newly emigrated. It swoops past, coming closer each time, raising aloft and diving into an arc that brings it back down to the surface of the water and away. The sky is alive with swifts feeding. When the suns does come out clouds of midges move like slow bands of rain after me and on the River Colne I see mayflies touching the water. There’s plenty of food if you’re feathered.

The track separates the Colne on the western side and the lake in the east. The river is separated again by a thick bank of nettles and cow parsley, that common umbellifer that signals spring. There are interjections from vibrant red campion flowers amongst the spread of green, probably indicators of the woodland that was here long before the lakes were dug for gravel and, when finished with, filled by rainwater to create today’s scene. The trees along the river are bursting with song, almost all with the fluid voice of the garden warbler, a bird so plain it’s unmistakable. It has a shy, modest look about it, as if too retiring to boast about its aural beauty. They’re in the bramble too, and it’s a song to silence the prick of the thorns.

On the other side of the river masses of dogwood cover the willow scrub. In the reedbeds struggling to establish along the bank of Broadwater Lake a sedge warbler is singing. It has a white eyestripe and differing palette of browns to mark it out from other plain-looking birds like the reed warbler. Its song is outstanding. I pick out the calls of a blue tit, great tit, goldfinch, greenfinch and the fink! of a chaffinch. This sedge warbler is a masterful mimic.

But there is one song which stands out most, and I hear it around the bend, further up from the lake. The cuckoo. It draws the breath.

A new bout of warm sunshine offers a male orange tip the chance to forage along the track, a pair of Canada geese are ushering twenty-four golden young away and into the Colne. It has the uncanny resemblance to teachers flocking fluorescent infants onto public transport. The geese wack in my direction as they go down river.

Cuck-oo, cuck-oo!

In the distant northern corner of the lake hundreds upon hundreds of house martins are skimming the surface, and from here it appears synchronised. I strafe the glasses from left to right and they are constant. Swifts are treating me like an obstacle, I’m sure I nearly took a hit from a dark and floppy hirundine.

The cuckoo is calling.

I pass back the way we came, again meeting the Canada geese, regarding me once more as a predator. A pair of reed bunting are busy between the scrub along the Colne, passing across to the edge of the lake, the black-headed male clinging to a willow stem, a stick in his bill like a dancer with a rose between his teeth. This bird is building a nest, the female appearing in the bush next door. They disappear into the thin stock of reeds at the edge of the lake.

As I head off in search along the track the cuckoo calls at its clearest, the sun free of cloud, piping. The bird calls from across the Colne, surely from a perch, we scan the trees and find the grey head and neck of the male but it’s bothered and takes to the air. It’s satisfying, so satisfying to see the bird my ancestors took for granted.

I continue along the track, buoyed with the sense that all is right with the world, that England is okay – if this bird has returned again then we must have something to be happy about. Of course, the calling cuckoo is only confirmation, whereas the sight of it is something else. This bird’s voice has become so much a part of our connection with birds, nature, wildlife, time, the world, whatever, that it’s become part of our language, even becoming a word to define mental ill health. It made it into a part of our mechanical world where other species haven’t, the sound of an hour passing and a new beginning. A world without the cuckoo is unthinkable to most. To see the bird calling is a privilege, and then you know it isn’t the gardener playing a trick, the old family clock, or a child portraying ‘madness’.

I’m in a daze. Two birds are squabbling overhead, I’m sure they’re sparrowhawks, but then I’m not. It’s two male cuckoos fighting over territory.

***

Outside the reserve and back on the main road my ears are ringing with the sound of birds – a blackbird somewhere along the way has recorded its fluid melodies into the fundament between my ears. A buzzard passes over the Colne in perfect silence, head twisting, two crows pursue it.

I climb to a pub on the hill over on the other side of the lake, to see the view of the mid-Colne valley and to get a sense of perspective. The weather is fluctuating, the wind is flung out and a few specks of rain touch the windscreens of parked cars, the sun breathes fire into the once dark globules of ornamental copper beech trees on the hill opposite and across the lake. The sunshine stays, the valley gleaming. Its beauty comes like a puncture. The swifts cover the expanse, wheezing and sailing across the vista. In the ragged hedge of hawthorn and field maple just in front of me a whitethroat appears, offering a few tentative renditions of its gravelly warble. A man walking a very slow and floppy-eared dog has spied me.

‘We see red kites very often, almost every day,’ he says. It’s his day off. He turns to take in the view of the valley, his thoughts turning to the proposal to build High Speed 2, a high speed trainline, through neighbouring Korda Lake and across the Colne. ‘It’s a nightmare,’ he says. ‘Hopefully they put it underground.’

The sky is an azure blue with discarded cloud, the sun intense. Broadwater Lake is a space of trembling, sparkling water. This was once a gravel quarry but now is a place which, in this moment, with swifts, warblers and the indefatigable cuckoo, retains a sense of the Arcadian paradise with which we paint our memories of the English countryside. With the threat of upheaval from HS2 it’s unclear how long that will remain.

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