Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts from the ‘Trees’ category

Kingley Vale - 27-10-2019 blog-7

Kingley Vale, South Downs, West Sussex, October 2019

We enter the ashy woods of Kingley Vale, one of the most spellbinding place in the South Downs. Mushrooms are everywhere at the feet of yew, ash and oak trees as the season enters its peak.

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The light is weak so we kneel down next to the mushrooms to look more closely. We find blushers, ceps, deceivers and many brown species that are very difficult to identify.

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Archetypal mushrooms grow with black gills and caps that glow purple. Their collars hang loose like pastry over the edges of a tin.

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Kingley Vale is famed for its ancient yew trees, particularly one area that is heavily visited, the roots of the trees beginning to show above ground from the impacts of footfall eroding the ground around them. They feel like one of the most still and unmoving of tree species, owing to their hardness and strength. Their living tissue is some of the strongest in the plant kingdom and their heartwood is not at all needed for them to remain upright. Their roots can go on producing new trees even when those above ground have died, like the Borrowdale yews in the Lake District.

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Out from under the yews chalk grassland spreads to the foot of the ridge where yew and ash woods cover the hills. Many of the ash trees are succumbing to ash dieback disease, in a landscape where they are content. It is a tragedy but then it is our own fault for unchecked trade of wood products, combined with the eventual spread of fungal spores.

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In the chalk grasslands we find a cowpat with mushrooms popping from the poo. One of them is snowy inkcap, a species I have never seen before, with its powdery cap and stem. It looks like something you might find in a snow globe.

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Climbing up onto the ridge the sun slips away in the west, casting a final glow across the chalky bowl of Kingley Vale.

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The grunting of a male deer echoes in the yew woods broken by the white stags of bare bone ash branches. Knowing some of these trees may be dead lends them a ghoulishness. Their brushheads are fading into history. Many will not be here in years to come.

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The sun glimmers in Chichester Harbour and the sea. A plume of smoke spirals into the evening sky.

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In the dense and dark yew woods on the slope we hear the strange, tropical bubbling of a tawny owl. Here yews reach out into the light at the edges like multi-limbed bodies sucked into a vortex. The yews have clarified the soil, no other plant can compete. Combined with the tawny’s song, the experience is otherwordly.

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At dusk rooks flock in a sea of black over a field-edge wood. Their cawing grows louder and closer as they envelop the sky above our heads, drawing in jackdaws, drifting back beyond the tops of the trees. On the darkening hilltops deer graze like slow-footed, four-legged people. We are left with so many questions.

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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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Storrington, The South Downs, April 2019

A recent walk along the the South Downs on a hazy day with hawthorns. They tough it out in some of the most intensively managed landscapes the UK has to offer.

A hawthorn stands alone, overlooking the folding Downs as they run deeper into West Sussex.

This hawthorn faces out over the Arun Valley towards Pulborough. The Low Weald is hidden by mist in the north.

Along the South Downs Way the trees show signs of pathway lopping, or an extreme politeness to the thousands of users of the National Trail.

A hawthorn obscuring a village built along spring-lines. The Arun snakes away in the background.

 

A tanker sits in an open field. I think that’s a hawthorn splodged against the South Downs Way towards Amberley.

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A monoculture of wheat (I think) with a single oak on the horizon. Wheat has been grown in the South Downs for thousands of years. It has only become mechanised and intensified in the past 100 years. We may idealise the days of horse and plough in the South Downs but it was a harsh and unforgiving existence. Few people could cope with it today. There were also fewer people to feed.

There was a single break of light over the Downs. The hazy nature of the day makes the photo look like a painting. My friend said it was good that the simple things matter to me, which apparently wasn’t an insult. I agree.

 

 

 

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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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A layer of snow

Carrbridge, The Cairngorms, Scotland, October 2013

Arriving in the fields, the lichen frosted pinewood in our wake, I admire an old alder tree coppiced and growing by a brook. The landscape unfolds, the Cairngorms rising in the east, fringed in all corners by the yellow of birch leaves. We look to the hill where we had observed this scene only two hours ago, from a spot where a sheep skull hung from a piece of standing wood. We follow the River Dulnain as it runs east, the sound of traffic returning along the A-road. A buzzard floats over a line of trees, calling out, the sound severing the reminder of motor vehicles. We egg it on – ‘go on, my son!’ – and approaching a small farmstead we find a rabbit freshly mutilated, its neck bone protruding, eyes gone. Was this the buzzard’s work, or perhaps a mustelid. We cross a tributary of the Dulnain and a goosander bursts from underneath the footbridge. This saw-billed creature is one I had never seen before now. It steers itself upstream into the dusky light reflected by the water. We continue past a dilapidated cottage and fiery beech tree, watching as sheep leap and bounce away from a row of cabbages they had been eating in a neighbouring field. We meet the main road and wait patiently for our chance. Having crossed, we train our binoculars on the summit of Cairn Gorm, the restaurant and funicular railway car scratched into its slopes. All is dressed in a layer of snow.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014
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Farthing Downs

Full set of photographs here on Flickr

Farthing Downs, London, January 2014

The long shadow of a jogger crosses me and at first I think it’s someone approaching. A peek over my shoulder shows the silhouette of a toiling woman, but is it new resolution or good habit? She is followed over time by a trail of cars, parents clutching the hands of young children, and finally the huffing shape of a cyclist rolling past. The world of the Downs reminds me again that the earth is something of a cauldron, everything is always changing. Groups of people walk along the lane, shadows breaking and reforming, pausing to watch something, perhaps a bird, perhaps the view of houses creeping up the hill, or views of a distant, spiralling city.

Jackdaws dot the horizon in the east, their indentations against the sky encourage the play of human language. They are a slow swarm of insects, embers from a smokeless blaze, or simply jackdaws doing their winter dance. Woodpigeons pass them in the foreground, redwing, too. I sit and watch. On New Hill, the land beneath the jackdaws, the small ash trees are indeed like matchsticks, or else the stiff hairs of a broad and worn broom. More have been felled, chopped and piled, and against the brown wash of wood and winter grasses the shock of the heartwood is telling.

The sun slips down to me, the ant hills like boulders at the edge of a lake, dropping chunky shadows from the daylight. Squirrels cavort, their music one of scratched syllables, like little huffing corvids. We regard them with equal disdain, forgetting their own intelligence and desires. They feel a dislike for their kind, too, sometimes. A helicopter careers overhead, a primitive design still, but how long until tiny drones trail through these skies, how long before they snag in the branches of oaks or the tangle of hawthorn? Who will collect them and what will be done with them. The helicopter is navy blue and white, it heads south-west towards the North Downs as vulnerable as flesh and feathers.

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