Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts from the ‘The Weald’ category

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St. Leonard’s Forest, West Sussex, June 2020

Rain spots my shirt as a storm threatens overhead. The heat in Sussex has been blistering this week, with a breach of the thirty-degree mark yesterday. Today it is much cooler. I waited until the late afternoon to head out while the last embers of the heatwave petered out.

I’m amazed to see that the leaves of a fallen beech limb are still alive, still in their early spring state. It brings me back to those promising early weeks when spring appears.

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There is something sad about these paused beech leaves, perhaps because the tree has died with the fracture that has meant the leaves are so easy to reach and photograph. The tree had become rotten through its heart and base. A spring storm smashed through it and now here it lies. The leaves are beautiful, corrugated, and a fresh green.

Passing through a screen of holly and oak, I enter into an opening where giant beech trees live with great limbs like giant octopi. Everytime I come here someone has had a fire on the roots of the main beech tree. This is frustrating. The tree will be harmed by damage to the roots. The roots of a tree sit closer to the surface of the soil than you might think. This time, there is more than one firepit and signs of small trees like hazel being cut, sawn up and piled, either for another fire or a den. These old trees have clearly taken a beating over the years and I worry that people don’t understand their fragility, especially to fire.

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In the raised buttresses of this veteran beech white sawdust has been left, the trail of saw blades having cut into the tree’s bark. In a sheltered nook of exposed roots a bunch of freshly cut twigs and small sticks has been piled for kindling. Could this have been a place where someone wanted to start a fire, could people really think the tree would not be harmed? I gather the sticks and scatter them among the holly.

The Sussex Weald

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St. Leonard’s Forest, West Sussex, May 2020

It’s the blue hour and already birdsong rises from the woods: an unbreakable wall of blackbird and song thrush. The thrush pierces through with repetition as the blackbirds pause. Chiffchaff, robin, wren, the cascading song of a willow warbler.

Straight away, the hoot of a tawny owl in the echoing micro-valleys of gills flowing through the woods. Over time new owl sound-posts arise in distant corners of the landscape.

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5am comes. In the birchy patches roe deer crash away through old bracken. Their sheer weight can be heard. A roe barks a warning – we have been seen.

The owls’ calls grow with the onset of dawn. The darkness still sits in the beech, oak and birch woodland. Pine, forever green, holds it that bit longer.

A sound from far away, slipping over the owl and deeper into the Weald. The cuckoo, master messenger of spring. We heard him here last year and wonder if he is the same bird back from the Congolese rainforest where he spent the winter. Whoever he is his life has been richer than any human’s could ever be. And the female cuckoo, she too will be hidden away somewhere in silence, listening.

We meet the crescendo of the dawn chorus now. Owls hooting on the crest of song thrush and blackbird. Cuckoo rising over everything. Crows begin the first administrative duties of the day, checking outposts of their web and marking party lines. The owls will not be lost on them.

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Down a sunken track enclosed by holly, we notice the shapes of bats hawking. It’s the path we need to take. On approach they disappear, as if they were never there. The mosquitoes landing on our foreheads are glad we’ve moved them on. I’d love to tell them, the bats will be back.

The Sussex Weald

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Horsham District, West Sussex, April 2020

The sun glows in the slowed Arun, the alders casting long shadows broken by the entry of a dog fetching a stick. It’s evening and this once quiet track has more walkers, runners and cyclists than I can remember. We all try to stay two-metres apart. Even here on this April evening far from a city, the fear of the virus can be seen.

It’s disarming to see a dog eating horse poo.

‘Disgusting dog,’ its owner scolds.

Quieter again but for a white globe of a cyclist, we inspect the first hazel leaves where they glow in the setting sun. We consider the age of this old pathway cutting along the edge of a field, the birch and bracken-choked slopes on the other side. In the shade bluebells flood, the first I’ve seen this year. The birdsong is such a mesh, a spring frenzy, that in my mind I can’t recall its parts. But blackbirds, cheerleaders of this unimaginable time. Of spring, that is.

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A few years ago I experienced a Sussex evening just like this in April, waiting for badgers to leave their sett. It helped me to fall for Sussex – its woodland bluebells like purple gases aglow in the low-slung sun. The inability to travel beyond my new home has brought me back to that moment.

Further ahead the canopy has closed for the first time this year. Hornbeam appears, an indicator of ancient woodland in the Sussex Weald, key charcoal fuel of the lost iron industries that roared across this landscape centuries ago. Their leaves shade little suns of goldilocks buttercups. Here with bluebells, wood anemones and ramsons they are in their element. They are home.

The Sussex Weald

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Blackdown, West Sussex, March 2020

We climb the hill on a winding, muddy path through woodland. The trees are sprawling yew, rotten beech and broken holly. On the thick, black soil holly leaves have fallen. We listen to the spinning coins of a goldcrest’s song as it moves close over our heads in the twigs of a yew. These tiny birds weigh little more than a 20p piece and must eat 90% of their body weight each day to survive in winter.

The light at the top of the hill comes through the branches. Woodland becomes heath of gorse, bilberry and birch. The voices of a walking group echo down as we step up through sandier soils now. A screen of crooked birches are splayed across the view, desperate to keep its secret. Their birchen secret is out.

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From up here, the highest point in the South Downs National Park, the Sussex Weald opens out. Soft brush woods are broken by fields where individual oaks express themselves as they once would have, in landscapes kept open by now extinct herbivores like aurochs and wild horses.

Then there are the folding Downs catching in a spill of light from the west. The beechen clump of Chanctonbury Ring, with the heavy metal orchids of Truleigh Hill further east.

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A woman is here with her son and his girlfriend, walking the dog. She tells them in a faintly Irish accent that you can see the Isle of Wight on a good day. This is not one of those days.

The families and walkers are dissipating and the view is now ours for a moment. Just as the last person leaves, a call rings out from the woodland we crept up through.

One call, and then the truncated follow-up. A tawny owl, calling from the rafters of the Weald at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon.

The Sussex Weald

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SLF - 6-2-2020 blog-37

St. Leonard’s Forest, February 2020

The sun hasn’t yet reached St. Leonard’s Forest. Frost covers the depressed spreads of bracken at the edge of trees. A dawn chorus still rattles on, dominated by song thrush posted across this wooded landscape. In the distance there comes the clopping of horse hoofs, a throwback to the days when highwaymen roamed the Weald and when people travelled almost anywhere far away enough, on horseback.

The horse riders appear on the hard track ahead of me. They’re galloping until they see me, surrounded by a cloud of perspiration. Their upper bodies are coloured yellow, green and orange by hi-visibility vests. The man leading the troop glares at me from under his helmet as I pass with birch trees between us. Perhaps he thinks I’m a warden.

‘Good morning!’ I shout across to them, which is met with a murmur.

Off they trot.

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Beyond the stands of spruce and pine planted on old areas of heath, the sun is climbing. I can hear the wash of the M23 as vehicles roar through its wound in the Weald. It’s one I use a couple of times a month, too, when heading further south and then east.

The first breaks of sun glow golden in birches and the spreading branches of pines. The remnant flowers of heather persist like leftover decorations.

When the sun breaks the tops of the pines, things begin to change. Rays of light cut through the plantations and light small fires in the beds of bracken. They burn amber at the base of pines.

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The birds remain elusive: crests, tits, siskins, woodpeckers. They’re all here but they’ve found all that’s left of the shadows. I can only see silhouettes.

More people are arriving now with the sun, all with dogs. One couple have more than ten between them, one pug-like thing snarls and froths at the mouth, following me for a good minute. Of course, the apologies come. It’s such a common thing, you get bored of saying ‘don’t worry about it.’

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I notice a spread of oak trees, the sun crashing down through their boughs. One curved oak with a trunk lit entirely with green moss opens its door to yet more of its fellow species. These oaks are walking out of a cold and frost-bitten night, the icy coating on the vegetation around them steaming as it melts away in the day’s eyes.

The Sussex Weald

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SLF 50mm - 18-1-2019 blog-7

St. Leonard’s Forest, January 2020

The winter sun floods the dark stands of birch, oak and sweet chestnut. It glitters in the frost as it melts away from crowds of moss. Steam rises from the soil as the sun warms the ground between oak trees, where nuthatches pipe and skip through their upper reaches. I scan a fallen pine tree for small things, fungi, moss, and find an incongruous clump of slime mould. The mould is like an emptied basket of boiled eggs resting in the swirling heartwood of the pine, smoothed by rain and people sitting.

The slime mould has a rope of spider silk crossing it and it has begun to melt in the centre like poached eggs that haven’t cooked for long enough. I set up my tripod as a man and his two black Labradors exercise themselves nearby. He stares at them, hidden behind a tree. I thought he had gone and left them until I stepped back and his monolithic profile appeared.

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Mud squelches grey and beige under foot, still on the Wealden clay, with the sandy soils of the High Weald sitting only across the gill. Speaking of the stream, I can hear it gushing down below. The rain has fallen heavily all week, with the Arun and the Rother both bursting their banks and swallowing fields whole. This feels like the first sunny day of the year.

A song thrush scampers across under holly, with redwing dotting the branches overhead. Their contact call is a bit like a hiccough. A stock dove’s wings beat in a way that sounds to me like the gentle yaffling of a green woodpecker, stopping abruptly as they land on a branch. A real woodpecker, my first of this year, hammers in the top of an oak. Robins rise up onto waist-high branches and sing their songs. Spring is building in the winter wood.

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At the foot of the High Weald’s heathland, where the clay comes to an end, frost looks to have crashed down over night onto the bracken. The fences that protect the heath are topped with barbed wire, itself entwined in honeysuckle. The warm weather (eleven degrees on Thursday) have given the green light for some plants to grow. The honeysuckle spurts small green tongues, its leaves hold the water beads of melted frost. In the droplets the shape of pines, sky and open heath glow, in a world turned upside down.

The Sussex Weald

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SLF - 5-12-2019 blog-24

St. Leonard’s Forest, West Sussex, December 2019

The path slopes up between ranks of birch, beech and oak. On the banks bracken is encrusted with frost and the addition of oak and beech leaves. I love the sight of a silver-lined oak leaf and December is the month to find them.

It’s about 9am. Mist lingers up ahead like the faint hang of smoke from a campfire. All around I can hear the falling of droplets of water. Looking at my sleeves there is no sign of rain. Then I realise it’s the frost melting in the tops of the trees. Water only falls from their crowns.

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In among the trees small birds flock and feed. These mixed groups of species have been building since September. A trio of bullfinch slip away from me in birch branches and bracken. Their fluty calls are faint and sweet. A white bib on their backs marks them out as they escape deeper into the dripping woods.

St. Leonard’s Forest was once more open than this. You can find huge beech trees dotted around from when they had the freedom to grow uninhibited. Now many more trees compete with them for light in the sky, good and water in the ground. One of the beeches has been damaged in a storm. A third of its trunk has fallen, splitting in two directions. Its summer leaves are still held by the fallen branches, shielding the scene of its collapse.

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This is not a catastrophe. It could result in the tree living centuries longer. Looking more closely the trunk glows green with moss and algae. It raises one limb still high into the air. This is its lifeline. Its heartwood is now exposed and soon more insects and fungi will move in. This is not a symptom of human error or mistreatment. Its is the true wildness of a tree stepping into the realm of the ancient.

The Sussex Weald

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Midhurst, West Sussex, December 2019

The cloud bares blue sky wounds above the Cowdray Ruins, as mist rises from the Rother. The sun breaks from the cover and melts the frosty rushes, droplets glimmer in brambles. Bull rushes thaw like over-frozen choc ices emerging from the bottom of the freezer.

A song thrush sings from the woods nearby and it has little competition. Except for a couple shouting at their dog as it flashes through the low rushes. Imagine if a song thursh was actually just saying ‘kids, go to school’, ‘where’s my breakfast’, ‘what’s the time-what’s the time-what’s the time’. Its beauty would shrivel away and it would become an annoyance. The mystery gives it life.

The dog runs free through the rushes, its paws sloshing as it seeks the scent at the end of its nose. Its owners’ cries grow louder, angry, fear creeping in. With it a small bird, a wader, bursts from the rushes and arrows out towards the town. It has a white breast and a long, thin bill, curving as it reaches the tip. Its wings are sharp like a modern fighter jet. I’m sure it’s a snipe.

The bird will have been roosting over night in the rushes and now will seek more wet grasslands, probably where the Rother snakes behind Midhurst and where there are less people. Not that there are really so many here. On spring evenings they perform an otherworldly song flight, something that I first heard over reedbeds in Poland a few years ago.

They sing in a bizarre, electronic kind of way, but also like someone skilled at blowing through a large blade of grass. That evening I watched it soar and swoop over the reeds and river. Birds hold such potential for us, the promise of their weird songs, in these dark winter months, offers hope.

The Sussex Weald

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St. Leonard’s Forest, West Sussex, November 2019

The last day of autumn. The final patches of beech, oak, hazel and birch leaves are all that resist the darkest greens and browns of a winter wood. The green leaflets of an elder dangle out across the path, the only ones left on the entire tree.

Grey squirrels round the trees in small groups, like people wrapping a maypole in its ribbons. They are elf-like in a place where little else moves. I stop to take a photo of a biscuit-brown pine tree and a woman waits alongside me.

‘I thought you’d seen an animal,’ she says when I look, her dog carrying on ahead of her.

‘Just squirrels,’ I say.

She laughs: ‘Oh, yes. Plenty of those!’

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The gill is full as it slaloms down through the woods. In a pond at the edge of the path fallen oak leaves rest in perfect stillness.

At the foot of the heath, golden mushrooms grow in the soil amidst the remains of bracken. They are so easy to miss. They’re trumpet chanterelles, a species as edible as the original. Like all the mushrooms I photograph, I’m not here to pick or eat them. Their trumpets curve out like gramophones, their stipes sinuous, yellow and tapering like a birch trunk.

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These are autumn’s final moments. The frosts are creeping in, our breaths stolen away on the air as they leave our lips.

The Sussex Weald

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SLF - 17-11-19 blog-38

St. Leonard’s Forest, West Sussex, November 2019

After so much recent rain, the water flows fast through the s-shaped streambed of Sheepwash Gill. Clouds have consumed a sunny morning, Wealden clay clogs under foot. I’m trying to cross the gill by treading across the buffed sandstone which is usually above water. This is no ‘Robert Macfarlane climbing a mountain up a stream in his pants’ kind of effort. The water runs ankle-high against my boots.  On the other side a dog bounds down off the leaf-littered slope and barks at me, stopping my crossing. It’s big. It jumps around at the water’s edge in that ‘I’m trying to pretend I’m going to eat you’ kind of way. Its owner calls it back and I find another way to cross.

A girl watches me as I find a short gap to hop over. The dog is her family’s. They’re gathered around dens made from branches and logs on the banks of the gill. The eldest man is grappling with a thirty-foot long birch tree that’s hung up in another tree. He’s getting advice from his young son on how to get it down. The man is wearing brown leather safety boots, a sure sign of a construction worker enjoying a Sunday with his family in the woods.

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The birch won’t move much and he gives up. St. Leonard’s Forest is covered in birch. It’s the most westerly point of the High Weald’s heaths, much of which is covered by wild birch and gorse, or otherwise planted up with conifers for forestry. Birch is seen as an enemy or nuisance but it is a special tree that has benefited our species in our evolution. Its wood makes excellent spoons, its bark can be used as fire lighter, its sap tapped for syrup, its branches make brooms. Its Latin name ‘betula’ means ‘to beat’. Getting walloped by birch branches was once a recognised punishment, sometimes in public.

The birches are all yellowing and dropping now, turning to their deep, purple and leafless phase. The small yellow leaves catch by the petioles in mosses and on the splintered fibres of broken heartwood. In the dark pine plantations of St. Leonard’s Forest they fizz and spark.

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Explore the Sussex Weald

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