Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘Beech’

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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Dartmoor - November 2019 blog-10

Buckland Abbey, Tamar Valley, Devon, November 2019

At last the rain has stopped. Buckland Abbey, once home to Sir Frances Drake (1540-1596), climbs out of its nook in the hillside, reflecting the stony skies above. Drake is known for ‘his’ ships which battled the Spanish Armada in the 1500s, for circumnavigating the earth and for his role in the slaughter of civilians on Rathlin Island in 1575.

Buckland Abbey November 2019 blog-1

I first heard about him from spending time in south-east London’s remnant ancient woodland known as Great North Wood. It is said that some oaks grown in the Great North Wood were taken to the docks at Deptford and used in the building of some of Drake’s ships. It has never been verified. One thing that was verified at Deptford was Drake’s knighthood in 1851, on the ship named the Golden Hind, something I only learned at Buckland Abbey.

The fields around the Abbey are pocked by small cream sheep that run like chickens as we pass them on the track. In the distance the dammed River Tavy reflects the sky again, the dark woods flowing across the slopes to where the river enters the Tamar. Looking at the Ordnance Survey map, something stands out. To the north-west is a large woodland named The Great North Wood.

BucklandAbbey_OS

Ordnance Survey © Crown Copyright 2019 and/or database right 2016. Licence number 100043379

Could this be simply because it’s so large, or because of Drake’s links to that area of south London? The name is said only to have been popularised in the Victorian period and could have been given to differentiate the once vast area of woodland to that of the Weald that covered most of south-east England in the Anglo-Saxon period. Perhaps this local wood was also named by residents of the Abbey in the 1800s.

Redwings are established now, flocking in the fields. I hear my first fieldfare chuck-chuck-chucking over the Abbey. Down in the woods beech trees burn even without the aid of sunlight. They brighten the most glowering corners. Hazels are yellowing and even the odd wych elm with its almost bulb-bright leaves. It’s here saying, ‘don’t forget about me.’ Many elms have gone, but wych elm survives.

Dartmoor - November 2019 blog-12

The rain threatens specks again as the light, if you can call it that, dwindles further. In a combe of a field a grey heron flaps its wings, either a slice of Buckland Abbey’s grey exterior breaking free, or a slither of sky lending itself south, to the glassy Tavy for the night.

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Epping - 17-8-2019 djg-15

Epping Forest, Essex, August 2019

Unlike most, I’ve welcomed the wet weather of recent weeks in southern England. In August, this means mushrooms. Hopefully not only an early burst in August but a good autumn clutch. ‘The coming of the fungi’ in autumn is an event in nature’s calendar that I would put in the same bracket as the first migrant willow warbler, swallow or swift, or the first butterfly. Autumn is a time of plenty. When mushrooms arrive en masse, we are witnessing a spectacle many millions of years old.

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A weekend visit to family in Essex meant a chance to visit the famous Epping Forest. This woodland is very close to London and is owned by the City of London Corporation (other sites outside London in Surrey and Hertfordshire also belong to them. I think they do a very good job). The Forest shows the scars of this proximity to one of the world’s biggest cities, namely the M25. It was interesting talking to family recently who grew up locally and their reminiscences of putting ‘stop the M25’ posters up in their windows. Epping Forest is also prey to nature writers (guilty as charged, but not published) framing their own ego against this ancient wooded landscape. The Forest and its mycelia feature in Robert Macfarlane’s recent award-winning book Underland, a book from a writer I love reading and admire greatly. However, I must to admit to disappointment in the lighting of a fire in that book. Even more so when I saw a tent and a fire in the Forest when I visited. The two obviously are not linked, but having been an urban woodland warden where fires were lit both in ignorance and violence, it is hugely galling (no pun intended). Leave no trace people, seriously.

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I mentally (and verbally) built up my visit to Epping Forest due to the rain throughout the week. The mushroom boom in my eyes (let’s call it that) was spilling out from every path and Epping Forest’s many visitors were tripping up over them. The early signs upon entering were not good. The ground was battered by recent rain and the sloping nature of the landscape had meant the soil was scarified by the heavy downpours. Mushrooms, washed away. The first wildlife encounter of any note was the above robberfly which I noticed out of the corner of my eye on the brim of my (it needs to go in the wash) sunhat. These predatory flies (not of humans) have had a good summer and I’ve seen more than I ever have before this year. #LifeGoals.

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It was only getting near to Ambresbury Banks (Aims-bury) that the mushrooms were in any way ‘common’. A slug-munched Boletus edulis or cep lay prone at the trackside. Then, half eaten, I found this:

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Moving my little camera around to the right angle, you would never know the cap on the other side was almost completely gone. This is a tawny grisette (Amanita fulva). This was probably the least photogenic specimen I’ve ever found, but with the green flow of woodland behind and a bit of bokeh, anyone can look good.

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Cheered by the sight of a half-eaten mushroom I checked out the swampy dog-poo realm alongside a path. There I spied these beautiful white parachutes (Marasmius) in wet soil amongst bramble twigs. My books are telling me they are Marasmiellus candidus AND Delicatula integrella. A woman passing by on her Saturday jog asked what I was looking at. She said how much she loved spending time in the Forest and that she was moving away soon. She said how important is was for her to see the seasons changing and how different the trees were in different parts of the Forest.

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She’s not wrong. The bizarre pollard areas near Ambresbury Banks are unique. Their pollarding stopped as a local practice some 150 years ago due to a wrangle of Acts of Parliament – who could lop what and where. They are of significance to the whole of Europe (ecosystems are European-wide, people). In some areas holly dominates and things get a lot darker.

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In one of the those areas I found an oysterling (Crepidotus) on a twig and found a nice tree to perch it in for its close-up. The gills look like flames to me and not of the campfire kind. See the darkness of high canopy beech and holly understorey? Creepy. A deer was hiding away here.

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Ambresbury Banks is always worth visiting. This is an ancient earthwork or Iron Age Hillfort, which was likely created by the pre-Roman (-AD43) inhabitants of Britain. Legend has it that Boudicca battled the Romans here in AD61 but people say that about so many hills in London, trust no one. Also for anyone espousing ‘Indigenous British’ as a phrase about themselves as a pedestal for their polticial views, those Britons who built Ambresbury Banks were probably the last group of people who could say that. It is now populated by ancient beech pollards which have no view on Brexit, other than that it may remove their Natura 2000 protections as a site of European Significance. But then again we may not have food and medicine by 1st November.

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In all fungal seriousness there were actually a pleasant number of ‘shrooms around this Iron Age propaganda ditch. Spindle shank (Collybia fusipes) was bubbling up nicely at the roots of beech trees, likely nibbling away at their wood under the soil. Bridges of beech are likely to be built across those ancient earthworks in the decades that come, if you get my drift(wood).

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For photography brittlegills (Russula) are one of the most annoying. I have seen grey squirrels pull them from the soil and chew their gills down like some turbo corn-on-the-cob eating contest. Slugs also love them. Thankfully for you I found this Russula largely un-squirreled with some pleasant bokeh to be had in the world above. I lit the gills with my phone torch.

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Another sign that autumn is not actually here yet was the state of the Amanita mushrooms. Two years ago I found many, many of these beauties near Connaught Water in the holly woods (nope, not that Hollywood) and they were in the same state. If I’ve learned one thing from mushrooms it’s:

You can’t hurry poisonous fungi

There is no basis of fact in that. Not that it matters nowadays. Fake ‘shrooms.

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When you see so many Amanitas pretending to be beech nuts, you know autumn is tickling your toes. Winter is snoring.

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This cheery chap was reaching out from under a ghastly bit of deadwood to say good afternoon. I’m not sure of the species and it will require a bit of rifling through the field guides to get a general idea. Answers on a postcard in the comments box please.

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A beautiful morning in Epping Forest but what did fungi teach me? If you just walked in and found everything you ever wanted in fungi terms there would be no fun and you wouldn’t learn anything. Also, appreciate every chance you have to spend time in these special places and try not to make a campfire. Next up: Autumn.

Thanks for reading.

Explore my wood-wide-web

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Epping Forest - 11-8-2018 - djg-45

Epping Forest, Essex/London, August 2018

Saturday morning in Epping Forest and so often a trip to the woods feels like leaving a world behind. The weekend shoppers, cyclists, children feeding ducks in the village pond. The open plain. Rain came yesterday in stormy downpours. It was so wet a local garden centre roof couldn’t contain it. Today the sun beats down on the still scorched grasslands, small copper and common blue butterflies drinking from ragwort flowers at the path’s edge.

Breaking into Epping Forest, the temperature sinks and the dampness swells. I’m here to photograph mushrooms, hopeful that the rain has prompted the fast-acting fungi to fruit. Last August autumn came early and Epping Forest was bursting with boletes, amanitas and russulas. Every step meant mushrooms. Over the past year that memory has spread through my mind like the hyphae of a fungus in the woodland soil. Today, the woodland floor offers the complete opposite.

Ganoderma fungus - Daniel Greenwood

Some fungi don’t need much water but for the majority of species it is fundamental to producing a fruiting body, otherwise known as mushroom or toadstool. Epping Forest has many dead trees that hold their own reserves of moisture in the cool, dank shade. The fallen beech trees that lay across the Forest host tough and long-lived bracket fungi that appear as hard as stone. Softer are the oyster mushrooms splashed against the old trunks. At first they are brown-capped but as they mature the cap spreads to match the creamy flesh of the gills.

In Epping Forest our former reliance on woodland trees for simple materials and fuel echoes into the age of disposable plastic and solar panels. Approaching Ambresbury Bank, areas of the Forest open out into exhibitions of old beech trees known as ‘lapsed-pollards’. These digit-heavy trees were once cut to a high stump or pollard. Their branches were pruned back for firewood and other thrifty woodland things. Many have not been cut since the 19th century, the era traditional, pre-forestry woodland management began to fade in the UK. The old way of doing things, that is.

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In the past few years I’ve come to know someone who grew up local to here, living through the Second World War, with the Forest as her childhood playground. She remembers doodle bugs running out of fuel and crashing down to destroy a house a week away from receiving new tenants and the greenhouses where her father grew mushrooms for a living. She also remembers a man approaching her and her sister in the woods but she was smart enough to get them away as quickly as she could.

Today she said something unusual to modern language, calling the path that runs centrally through the Forest a ‘ride’. This is an old woodland word harking back to the days when large trees were felled and carried out along a wide trackway cut through a wood. This act is where the phrase ‘the long haul’ originates from.

The use of the word was proof of a life lived close to woods and a bygone way of seeing them, before they became pure recreation areas, nature reserves or carbon sinks in the minds of citizens today. Now the ride is the domain of cyclists, tyres hissing on the still wet gravel, as well as dog walkers and horse riders. Though the trees are cut for conservation and their own preservation, no timber is drawn out along this ride in the way one local native of the Forest once knew.

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A few hundred yards ahead a small desire-line appears between brambles, leading to a noticeboard and huge trench. On the banks of the trench are pollard beech trees, which are in fact much younger than the trench. This area is known as Ambresbury Banks, an earthwork thought to have been dug out in 500BC by a pre-Roman, British tribe. Its aim was probably to protect the people from invasion or as a place to keep livestock.

The creators of Ambresbury Banks were like close to the true Brits or Picts of pre-Roman Britain, the ‘painted’ people. Unsubstantiated tales (or myths) tell that Boudicca’s final stand against the Romans took place here. It’s a story adopted by several green spaces in the hills of Greater London.

Another nugget of knowledge from my native Forester came with the true pronunciation of Ambresbury Banks when I told her where I was going for a couple of hours:

‘It’s “Aims-bury”,’ she said. ‘Not “Am-bres-bury”.’

I head back to the village following the route I came in on. Saturday walkers appear from behind trees, lost in the lack of ride and clear trackway. A glade has been formed by the collapse of an old beech tree. Its limbs grew as individuals from its base. Falling, they have pulled up soil and broken smaller trees in their wake. Now light fills the break in the canopy. Dragonflies compete for airspace, hoverflies bask on the sun-baked bark. Oyster mushrooms squeeze from cracks in the dead wood. The loss of this old tree has elements of sadness but look at the life that comes in its wake.

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Falkenstein djg-1

In April 2014 I visited the Bavarian Forest, a landscape which, combined with the neighbouring Bohemian Forest in Czechia is the largest area of protected woodland in Europe. The Bavarian Forest or Bayerischer Wald, contains populations of lynx. In recent decades an outbreak of the spruce bark-beetle has devastated areas of conifer woodland. It is a remnant of the once vast Hercynian Forest.

The Bavarian Forest, Germany, April 2014

They burst from the slabs of granite like stony pillars. They are beech trees and they mask the view on all sides. They are giants imprisoning me on the path to Groβer Falkenstein. They are elephant limbs, they are victims of metaphor. Beneath them is a sea of copper and golden brown. The wind moves through last year’s fallen leaves and I think for a moment that it may be the sound of footsteps. Chunks of shining granite and smatterings of plant life break the spell of the endless leaves. Wood anemones, even this high, have opened their petals to the sun breaking through these yet leafing beeches.

I’ve travelled here over land and left the anemones coming towards the end of their annual cycle in London’s oldest woods. We have that in common, then, both species attempting to move through the woods of western Europe. Back home, I do my best to help them. Amidst my minute understanding of German and the feeling of isolation that brings as a lone traveller, I do get a sense of home from these white buttercups. Wood anemone is not the only plant to have made it up here, wood sorrel, one of the most common wildflowers in the Bavarian Forest, sits with its flower heads drooping, its leaves like the club from a pack of cards, still to be revealed. I continue on, touched by vertiginous thoughts as the path slaloms through the beeches, the mountainside steepening.

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A stream channels its music to my ear and the familiar spread of marsh marigold, a buttercup that I’ve planted in the marshy woods back home and dunked into my parents’ enamel sink-pond by the kitchen window. Yesterday I feared hypothermia in the snow around Zwiesel’s mountains but today I’m in a t-shirt and a large orange butterfly bursts across the stream. It drives around me in a circle, never taking a moment to rest, it must still be too cold for it to pause too long. Butterflies need a body temperature of about 32 degrees to fly and forage properly. They often hold their wings out to trap hot air and warm their hairy bodies. It’s not as simple a manner of basking as it may seem. I think it’s a silver-washed fritillary.

I have come to the continent with a sense of something missing from England’s wildlife. This butterfly is one that was more common in England but has declined. It is a butterfly of woodland rides, laying its eggs on dog violets, plants which grow in my front garden and in our local woods. Last August in London I visited the doomed Heygate Estate in the Elephant and Castle to shadow an invertebrate survey with local entomologist, Richard ‘Bugman’ Jones. Led through the fencing by private security guards with gigantic German shepherds caged in the boot, we stepped out onto the parkland under the shade of cherries and mature London plane trees. The flicker of a butterfly’s wing caught my eye and Richard threw his net into the air. Looking at the contents we discovered a silver-washed fritillary. I could not quite believe it.

Czech Rep 2016 blog-432

There is a sudden drop in temperature as I turn up the path, a chill wind skis across. In the shadows beneath boulders sits the remnants of yesterday’s snow. The spruce trees return, the snow thickening, slush on stone a recipe for serious injury. This is primary spruce woodland, or natural forest, formed without the helping hand of humans. However, the dominance of spruce lower down is due to the intervention of foresters (förster) in the first half of the twentieth century, as in England, when timber was needed to fuel either side of the world wars. It is telling – one of war’s casualties are woods.

From the boulders comes the drip of melting snow. Through the trees I see a large house that marks Groβer Falkenstein’s height of 1315m. A whisper passes through the highest spruce trees. A number of trees have been felled, the stumps cut with chainsaws. The ‘step cut’ in the stumps is still there, the torn wooden ‘hinge’ which the forester leaves intact and that helps guide the tree in the right direction when falling, throws up splinters.

Falkenstein djg-3

I hear voices, laughter and that peculiar zenith-community that exists atop well-attended mountains of this kind. Four happy Germans appear to be double dating. I sit on a picnic bench by a cleared space of spruce, the scene hazy at best, the cloud cloaking the valley below. I hear a dunnock singing, a shy garden bird that instead nests in dense upland spruce plantations in this part of Europe. I eat some nuts and chocolate and head past a lady walking a hund, to the other side of the peak. The snow is deep, I clamber over spruce trunks to get to a plateau. One path back down has been closed due to nesting peregrine falcons. In London, 2014 holds 27 pairs.

I take a seat down on some soft, dead grasses, all around me are the dead and rotting stands of spruce said to have been killed by a spruce bark beetle outbreak. Many of the trees have been allowed to rest for fungi and other smaller, subtler wildlife, one of any woodland ecosystem’s most important aspects – the recyclers. I take it all in – the hazy folds of mountains, the glistening rooftops of immaculate Bavarian churches and towns. I head off and down through the spruce woods, under the song of the ring ouzel and firecrest. This path will take me to the realm of the lynx.

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Nomada rufipes

Nomada rufipes, a cleptoparasitic bee that I spotted on Farthing Downs on the edge of London. It steals from an Andrena bee to survive, but I only saw it drinking nectar from the heads of these ragwort flowers.

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