Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

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Spider silk-1



Spider silk



Reaching for the black
and bulbous fruit
I risk the crab spider
opening its arms and
legs in defence

might it mistake
my finger for the body
of a honey bee

paralyse it, carry it away
into a brambly underworld

perhaps not
but still my fingers
bloodied by raking thorns
and broken berries

they are knotted
in discarded spider silk
a long-forgotten scaffold

with bundled bodies
of emptied hoverflies


© Daniel James Greenwood 2018

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Malham Cove-1



The falcon etched



Wait with the falcon etched
into cove rock at Malham,
meadowsweet aglow
in the fields below.


Wait for the falcon etched,
with those cheeks streaked,
drawn like the scars
on the limestone it enlivens.


Does it ever move,
bird or fossil.


This dale holds great riches
for those talons and talents
to savour.




© Daniel James Greenwood 2017

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North Downs diary, Gatton Park, Surrey, April 2017

As we drive into Gatton Park a mistle thrush and a robin are singing under streetlamps. In front of this vast estate, with gardens laid out by the famous ‘Capability’ Brown, the darkness yields little birdsong. It’s 4:30 and dawn is yet to break on the downs, even the nearby M25 is held in relative silence. A cold wind blows across the lawns before the estate mansion, once the dwelling of the Colmans Mustard family, now an environmental education centre run by the Gatton Trust. Jess Hughes, the Trust’s education officer, is leading a dawn walk of the grounds and I am here to pick out the birdsong. Walking in a place I don’t know without full vision is unnerving with 3 hours sleep, so we pause at the dark blur of trees and fish for birdsong.

Walking down from the hill the wind dips, we ruffle the feathers of roosting woodpigeons in passing underneath their trees. Those wings and that kerfuffle are unmistakeable. Blackbirds sing from ranks of mature trees, the repeated verses of a song thrush pitched across the cover. A robin scratches its scribbly tunes from a branch somewhere. The dawn chorus always alters the sense of time that you take with you before one of these walks. I have learnt to recognise the change in sound with the change in the light, the point when some species emerge or sing. There is a set list of sorts.

As the light begins to spill over we enter a wood of tall, stringy ash and scrubby bramble. Behind us, the open parkland begins to fill with the flurry of blackbird music, my personal highlight of the dawn chorus. The tide pushes down through the open lawns and dotted trees, across the Serpentine stream to meet us in this wood. The blackbirds appear in ones and twos, I never know if it’s a case of birds moving like an armada, or whether one by one they blink into life like bulbs.

We hear not only song, alarm calls pierce through – the ticking of wrens, the rattling of a mistle thrush. We continue on back to the brink of woodland. The Serpentine crawls between the wood and park, on its banks yellow cowslips offer the day’s first glimpses of colour. At the water’s edge sweet woodruff flowers, its use for flavouring gin draws warm appreciation. Mallards drift in the subtle flow, in the shade of a tree opposite the first blackcap bubbles and warbles. From further downstream a great tit adds its bicycle pump to the mix.

Now crows skate to and fro overhead, a kestrel edges trees and hovers over the long grass in search of a first meal. We head round to the vast lake along a track marked by wild garlic, the sun rising between alders, behind clouds, the light rippling in the water. We pass Gatton Park’s edges where old yews have been lopped and anglers have built platforms embellished with woodchip for their camps. A neighbouring field overgrown with nettles lies for sale, from the group there are worries of an impending threat to the downs, echoed across Surrey by recent proposals to build entire new villages. Whenever green space is for sale it can be the only thought.

We pass up away from the enormous lake near veteran oaks enclosed by fencing, remnants of ancient parkland. The sun rises in the south east, the fresh leaves of the oaks glowing lime green in the light. We pause at the crown of the hill, before a Pulhamite rockery brought back from the brink of woodland by the Trust’s volunteers. Edging the hill is an ash tree, protruding, exposed to the south before Surrey, the Weald and Sussex. It is yet to leaf but Jess and the group have found fruit. A tree creeper inches the pale bark, its curved bill picking away for food. It’s a pointer to the time of day: dawn is over, the hard work has just begun.

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North Downs diary, Banstead Woods, March 2017

A bench has been built in a patch of recently churned clay, a rusty red. The bench matches the colour, dedicated to Jamie Eve who passed away in 2016 aged 26. His dedication tells passersby that he loved this place. A bouquet of tulips and ivy lies on the seat. Around Jamie’s bench bluebells peek, it is that special time. All across this wood the lilies push through. All around us life is returning, our side of this earth is coming closer to the sun, and wildlife is responding.

Edward Thomas, a poet made famous, really, by the success of Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways and sense of invigoration given to the subject of nature writing, wrote about the Banstead Downs. It is only because of reading Macfarlane’s books that I know of Thomas and for that reason that this time of year, when bluebell leaves threaten to reveal flowers, when the earliest pipings of blackbirds don’t quite progress to nightly songposts, reminds me of his poems. I have never truly got on well with his style, but Macfarlane’s success is the ability to bring you closer to the lesser known authors, walkers and naturalists. The line ‘Spring is being dreamed’ is one that is quoted across media formats at this time of year. It perfectly encapsulates that rough and wearied time when winter has bitten in and bitten long, but spring’s presence is unmistakable.

You can feel it in the movements and actions of birds, the great tit, chaffinch, blue tit, tree creeper all singing and moving across the wood. The consensus is growing. The hornbeam’s branches look different to the way they were two weeks ago, as the buds begin to break with their usual slowness. Small clusters of leaves spit from elder branches, hawthorns are never too ready to shift with the season. Throughout Banstead Woods large oaks stand in stoic silence. There is no hint of a leaf, their fistfuls of buds, many of which will never be needed, remain golden brown and closed. I remember last year seeing the tiny red leaves of oak coming out months in advance on the 25th January in south London, but this year there has not been the mildness to tempt the oaks out.

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These oaks, along with beeches, hornbeam pollards and mighty sweet chestnuts, suggest this wood was once more open, lighter and more intensively managed. These trees bestow a grandeur not quite felt in other woods I know along the North Downs, even the mighty beeches of Devilsden Wood. Here the trees are all on the plateau of Banstead Downs, their scale is not reduced by the steep slopes of the many valleys that cut through this chalky landscape. Here storm Doris has broken limbs and split trees, several by gusts blown along a ride that cuts widely through. Sometimes you have to squirm through branches to carry on.

I pass a man with binoculars and ask him of hawfinch and lesser spotted woodpecker, two birds that are rumoured to be present here. He has black curls with a touch of grey and says he has never seen them but ‘surely they must pass through’. He exhibits a sense of contentment in what the land holds for him this afternoon. It marks the end of Banstead Woods, signalled by a family passing, booted and offering a greeting as they make their way inside. At the wood’s edge the landscape opens out, a few of the typical farmland oaks stand in the centre of the field and along a hedgerow boundary. I follow the path along the wood’s edge where crumbling oaks and beeches dominate, with laurels and rhododendrons creeping in at their toes.

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At nearby Canons Farm a buzzard perches in branches, mobbed by crows, stirring starlings, sparrows and finches to leave their feeding until later. Above a lane enclosed by a close crop holly hedge birds explode across the grey sky, the buzzard following them in a blaze of alarm calls. Following the road round past a small clutter of houses where a man revs his van and reverses out, its emissions pungent, the buzzard perches in the branches of an oak. In the distance jackdaws roost and break in the tops of trees, closer at hand a crow swings low and short of the buzzard. It is unworried by the attention, taking its time, waiting for the right moment to move off over the fields again.

Tracing a path through leafing croplands that lead into the wealthy suburbia of Kingswood, the prospect of spring has been sidelined. It rings true – those who have no closeness to or desire to venture into woods or landscapes of the less manicured kind, can have little sense of the changing seasons. Treading the verge on route to the train station beside mansions with static laurel hedges, four cars and paved driveways, I can guess what Edward Thomas valued more.

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North Downs diary, Cuxton, September 2016

We arrive on Church Hill, the river Medway careering through Rochester under the fresh grey concrete of the bridge. The city looks a toy model from up here, high speed trains crisscrossing, back and forth to London and Dover. The carriages are coloured navy and pale blue, corporate and inoffensive. The howl of traffic comes from Cuxton at the bottom of the hill, possibly soon to be increased by a second major highway, the Lower Thames Crossing that has been proposed by Highways England. The plans have resulted in a campaign against the project, focusing on the impact it will have on the village of Shorne, nearby ancient woodland and Cuxton itself. I’m walking with my friend Pete Beckenham, he shows me on his old OS Map the Tilbury marshes where the Lower Thames Crossing will cut through, some of North Kent’s finest marshland. To our left and in the north suburban homes have crept into the downs, stopping short of the ancient coppice woods we have just escaped from. We have left behind a vast estate owned by Lafarge tarmac, polite signs succumbing to lichen asking walkers to stay on footpaths. In other places, fields and copses leased for grouse hunts, black and white signs warned us: KEEP OUT. Pheasants gathered in harems, their winter feeding stations deposited throughout the estate. The coppices of sweet chestnut appeared ready to fell, either for straining or simple fenceposts. Elsewhere old hornbeams coppiced and left for many decades reflect a trend across the North Downs:  hornbeam has little to no value economically anymore, its heritage value to us a reminder of the ancient charcoal industries now long extinct.

On telephone wires spanning the hillside a kestrel perches, looking out across the grasslands. He’s soon joined by a pair of linnets, waiting closely, pressuring him, a reminder that the element of surprise is lost. We make our way down to Cuxton, the roar of traffic growing ever louder. We pass through the grounds of St. Michael’s Church, a plastic monarch butterfly fluttering at the grave of a four-year-old child. Across the intersection, horses graze and groom one another, framed by the concrete bridge. In the White Hart pub we order two pints of Kentish ale – Pete is a true Kentish man – and sit on leather sofas. In the corner men play pool after work, while two regulars sit apart in colourful shirt and tie, one man in breeches, scribbling away at an A4 notebook. Another regular hobbles in from the car park, a plastic support boot on his right foot.

‘I went for a scan and then it turned out I had a fracture,’ he says. ‘I don’t believe ‘em though.’

The barman, youthful but confident in his experience, pulls the injured man a pint of lager and places it in front of him on the bar. ‘Twenty-quid please,’ he says.

We can’t see the man’s expression, but his silence suggests a wry smile. He’s leafing through a Cuxton gazette.

‘What’s happening in Cuxton, then?’ the barman asks.

‘Parking, parking and more parking,’ the regular replies. ‘Everyone’s got three cars nowadays.’

We drink up and head to the train station, a horse with hair like Little Richard, tangled by months-old burdock burrs, chews vegetation on the edge of the lane. Up ahead, in perfect entanglement, shrink-wrapped cheese sandwiches dangle from a twig.

 

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North Downs diary, Coulsdon, May 2016

Buttercups cover the secret meadows of Happy Valley, an almost unthinkable break from the towering darkness of Devilsden Wood. There the bluebells are going to seed, the yellow archangel flowering on the edges of the track where the buttercups erupt. With a macro lens I stalk the flowerheads for insects. There is a note of impatience. A sawfly buries itself between the petals and stamens of a buttercup. It is powdered yellow by pollen. A variable longhorn beetle with demonic elytra grapples with stems of ribwort plantain. I rock back and forth turning the focus ring to try and get a picture of its eyes, my camera firing off shots in hope. It’s never easy. Micro moths stir at each step. One rests finally and I frame it against a buttercup background, blurred, it could be the sun rising.

The meadows are edged by hedges and woods, nuthatches call, chiffchaffs sing. A song thrush moves through its repertoire, conjuring mimicry and melodies that could be tens of species to the uninitiated. Blackbirds draft a soundscape that I cling to, I never want this hubbub of thrush music to end. I love the margins of woods, especially when they are met with meadows as full with life as this. I know a trick: lie down, cover your face and be still. See what comes your way. Flies teem around my ears, on my clothes. I spy them cleaning their legs in the corner of my eye. From this perspective my walking boots toe a roof of flowers. Three swifts appear from over the woods and for the first time I hear their wings, a rippling sound I forget almost instantly. Beetles whirr and slap down onto my hat. An animal arrives in the grass behind my head and, spooked, it escapes. A gull calls and I look up to see fifty or more rising on warm air. A single swallow travels across. It must be good here, why else would they cross the Sahara.

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Rainfall on the downs. Still the jackdaws toe the grasslands in their flock, still green woodpeckers cut arcs across the landscape, still the spring’s song builds in hedgerow blackbird music. Linnets flock to the small bushes of rose and hawthorn, skylarks lift from the turf, dropping back down onto the grassy mounds of anthills. So few flowers, but rosettes are massing at the margin of soil and sky, the dropwort, rattle and eyebrights feeding on the thinnest layer of nutrients, readying to flower. But the rain still falls and so I make for Devilsden Wood where bluebells have peeled from green to that almost purplish colour. Our common name feels a little inadequate. But then that’s the joy of common names, there are so many, they each tell a tale of our senses through time. Wood anemones, probably my favourite flower, were known as windflowers because people thought that they only opened their petals when the wind blew. Here they bloom in their little flocks amidst dogs mercury and more bluebells.

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