Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘Birch’

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.

SLF - 17-11-19 blog-26.jpg

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.

SLF - 17-11-19 blog-49

Explore the Sussex Weald

4 Comments

Sweet chestnut coppice

King’s Wood, Kent, December 2012

The piles of birch trunks tell us that this chalky fringe of King’s Wood has recently been coppiced. The heartwood glows golden against the black, brown and grey of a winter’s afternoon. The paths are boggy, holding the tracks of boots and the tyre marks of cyclists and scramblers. Large ditches appear at intervals, home to trees and dead wood. A Soakham Downs poster a little way back identified these as chalk pits dug in old times to extract the chalk from the soil. The chalk was then spread in the fields – what once would have been woodland – to fertilise the soil, left to weather under sun and rain.

Further ahead the woodland opens in earnest, endless tracts of sweet chestnut coppice climbing into the sky. A brown puddle reflects the bare branches. Sweet chestnut provides the nuts we like to roast at Christmas, as well as forming the most economically viable form of coppicing in today’s market. The poles are cut after about five or six years and split down the middle to make chestnut paling, a type of fencing used in parks and nature reserves up and down the country. It’s another aspect of the Roman’s botanical legacy – they brought it along with them. The vertical slant of the branches is interrupted by a movement of four legged animals crossing our path in the distance. Our talking pauses as we watch an endless trail of deer move from right to left, disappearing into the trees. One of them was all white and it sticks in my mind like a puncture. We make our way towards Chilham, stopping briefly to search amongst these overgrown trees for walking sticks. We listen to the multiple stems tapping together as the wind steals through, some trees creaking. This a sound that in the endless scene of coppiced trees we mistake for shrill and distant calls of people.

Leave a comment