Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘City Commons’

Gasteruption assectator, a parasitic wasp

North Downs diary, Farthing Downs, June 2017

The last day of June but still flowers are yet to bloom. The meadow’s time has not been missed. On Farthing Downs the gate’s latch clicks and ringlet butterflies jig between grasses. Lady’s and hedge bedstraw cover patches in a lemon meringue mattress form, a reminder of the microcosms of grasslands:  dampness, the presence of certain rock or regular disturbance – it all leads to diversify the plants that appear now, and where others want to be. Skylarks still have songs to sing, as do yellowhammers, a song thrush down in the woody field edge. Crows half-heartedly mob a sparrowhawk with prey clasped between its talons.

On the lower slopes hundreds of meadow browns, ringlets and skippers cross the path sheltered by trees and the adjacent slope. It is that sense of abundance that so many lament losing. These chalk grasslands, managed with the long-view in mind, are the exception here on the edge of London. For centuries the North Downs have felt like an escape route from the city. Don’t forget that for thousands of years people have tramped the Pilgrims’ Way to the sacred site of Canterbury. To me they feel like a doorway to something better, somewhere free of the city’s ills. Somewhere you can breathe, where a wild, pastoral world still reigns. In truth it is just a thought and the reality remains different.

It’s quiet but I meet people walking dogs. A woman admires spikes of rosebay willowherb, remarking in a strong Indian inflection: ‘beautiful wildflowers’, snapping them with her camera phone. Another lady with a hint of Yorkshire in her voice says how delighted she is to watch marbled white butterflies. Whilst examining hogweed flowers a woman from the north of the border asks what I’m looking for. There’s a parasitic wasp with full ovipositor raised over its back like a scorpion ready to sting – of course it does nothing of the sort.

‘I’m looking at the thing that made Darwin think there was no God!’ I say.

Her eyes widen, she looks away, and she knows exactly the thing I mean.

‘I remember reading about them,‘ she says.

Ichneumon wasps insert their needle-like ovipositor into their prey, laying an egg which pupates into a grub that eats the prey from within.

Sitting to scribble this on a desire line between pyramidal orchids, vetches, marjoram and clover, a scorpion fly rests momentarily and horseflies make their attacks. They perch on my bag with turquoise compound eyes and trowel-like mouth parts. I flail my arms like a chimpanzee, mindful that a dog walker may soon approach and offer emergency first aid. These downs hold great riches, some of which only want your blood.

North Downs diary

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London’s mini heatwave has closed its doors, great grey clouds entomb the downs. In my mind the meadows have all flowered and gone, so quickly has the psuedo-summer taken root. Sunday’s 27 degrees felt more like July than May. Gladly, at Farthing Downs all of May’s icons can be found: meadow buttercups, silverweed, yellowhammers singing in flowering hawthorns, cowslips moving to seed. A strange song emanates from the young trees grown too woody for livestock to graze. At first I think it might be swallows passing through, zipping and chattering, then perhaps baby birds. Swifts swoop overhead but no other hirundines are here.

The chattering song continues and I move closer. In ash, bramble and oak twigs the white throat of that very bird flashes. It jumps up onto a branch and I photograph it, a white bud or bug of some kind in its bill. The whitethroat has travelled from Africa to be here on the North Downs, a journey we cannot quite comprehend. Except we Europeans too came from Africa, but it took some 60-100,000 years to do it rather than a few months.

This whitethroat is not alone. Behind me is a bigger clump of trees and scrub, a thicket of ash trees riddled with canker. I’m listening to a song that I expect to hear in passing every April here, like a little chain tinkling, or some early mechanical clock. It’s a lesser whitethroat, another arrival from Africa. But I can’t see it, listening closely for a sign of whether it’s under cover or out in the open. I give up. A kestrel appears from over the whitethroats’ bushes, gliding, hovering and slipping off.

North Downs diary

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Farthing Downs & Happy Valley, March 2016

A motorbike oozes across the road that runs through Farthing Downs, its deep, unsettling groan scatters woodpigeons and magpies from the branches of trees. When it’s over another sound breaks through: a male yellowhammer. Its song is never quite the ‘little bit of bread and no cheese’ it’s accepted as, but the mnemonic is so memorable that those of us who might not have known it ever existed can remark upon it, can seek it out. The bird is a silhouette, a blackhammer in a hawthorn bush against the bold march sun.

Winter’s decorations still remain, it is a time of flux. The cropped green grasslands and anthills look like a sheet, the racket of chalky wildflowers hidden below. If you didn’t know this was chalk grassland now you wouldn’t expect much else to come. Redwings dot the tree lines, their calls which were in October nocturnal now add to a soundscape that includes the spring skylark, high up above my head, marking out a territory that signals an intent to force new life. I see two of these birds. The skylark is one I hear or see only every few months. Its song has no hint of monotony. But one that I have missed this winter and can hear day after day in spring is the blackbird. From trees that separate Farthing Downs and New Hill it lights the valley with its gentle verses. The shadows grow long, reaching into the blackbird’s dreamy hedgeland.

In Happy Valley the hazel trees’ tails mass like wigs. Looking closely, the buds are cocked ready to leaf, some with the purple tongues of flowers poking out. The yellow grains of pollen that have come from the dangling tails can be seen. I flick the tails to help. The twigs of hawthorns are coloured yellow and blue by Xanthoria parietina. Trying to get a close up photo of the fruiting cups, the apothecia, I find the ‘roosting’ buttons of ladybirds. Who would ever see them here? Dogs, voles, mice, flowers, lichens. Surely only the most inquisitive birds would ever find them.

In the shelter of scrub the primroses bloom in old dogwood leaves. I love this time, the birds singing from the woods and trees, the first flowers breaking the rule of death and decay. No doubt, spring and summer have plenty of that to offer, but at least now the pendulum has swung the other way.

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Farthing Downs, Coulsdon, November 2015

It’s a struggle, this time of year. The early darkness feels new and staunch. It’s a time to dread as far back as July, when the birdsong goes and some butterflies begin to look tattered. The newness of spring feels far away. But here we are, a mild November once more, knapweed and scabious in flower on Farthing Downs. I’ve often heard people say November flowers are confused, a human trait, of inaction. Really these hardier daisies are taking advantage of the warmth, ‘waiting’ for the frost to kill their petals off. Where there are no flowers I find instead the wreckage of waxcaps, trodden in by human, cow or canine. Some meadow waxcaps lie young and picked. There is a natural urge to do so, though the City of London Corporation won’t allow you to. I lie on my side to photograph a bright red honey waxcap that had me magnetised and muttering upon seeing it. Farthing Downs and neighbouring Happy Valley are rich in this family of mushrooms, due to the ancientness of the grasslands. The Corporation’s workforce have cleared a large chunk of post-war oak, hawthorn and ash woodland, opening up more ground for the rare waxcap habitat of this chalky landscape. I ponder the fact that a similar area of trees is to be landscaped up north in the borough of Southwark at Camberwell New and Old Cemeteries in order to provide new burial space, resulting in a campaign and a heated debate amongst the local community. Here at Farthing Downs this important work passes with no such fuss.

The grazing cattle’s cowpats merge with the mud coughed up by the machines brought to clear the trees. Looking closely, the surface of each poo is dotted with tiny orange coins. They are the fruiting body of Caprobia granulata, a dung fungus. But that is not the only life to be found on the cowpats. Yellow dungflies, one of 54 species in Britain, perch on the ledges of the pats, brawling and mating in the furrows. Some rest in perfect stillness until I venture too close and their mounds are vacated in an instant. I hear the alarmed calls of a crow and look up at the faintly blue sky. Nothing. It is usually the crow’s indicator of talons and curved bills. Indeed, I see them now – two rooks and a crow, the latter with a piece of food held between its bill, chasing a sparrowhawk. They dive and the hawk turns its talons up at the incoming corvid, righting itself with a 180 degree spin. The sparrowhawk slows, turns, ducks another attack and then moves off, gliding to the safety of Devilsden Wood.

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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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Evening meadows

Evening meadows, Farthing Downs, London, June 2015

It’s that time of year when the meadows are reaching their height. Here you can see the yellow rattle in flower, soon field scabious will appear to be fed on by burnet moths and bumblebees.

Please click through for more of my pictures of Farthing Downs on Flickr

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Parrot waxcap

Farthing Downs, London, November 2014

Blue smoke plumes from the dreary Downs, the crack of piled ash trees cuts through the distant wash of the M25, and now the noise of chainsaws. This work is good fun. How many people panic at the sound of this machine, waking to find that their favourite tree is gone from the frame of their bedroom window. In the town I am always suspicious when their itch carries. But this is the restoration of the chalky meadows swallowed by the incoming of woods. We as a species have been trying to halt the loss of woods but at the same time deny new ones for thousands of years. This is a thousand-year-old view, the only change the exchange of machines for the pop of axes on heartwood.

Against a view of near leafless beech, a green woodpecker rises from the anthills, its flight reminiscent of a puppet tugged at intervals as it passes. Robins sing, gulls create the aura of the Sussex coast, and rain specks add a pinch of cool. In the now flattened meadows fungi can be found: a parrot waxcap plucked and left, yellow gills that ripple like flames around its stem. Puffballs are scattered across the path, little footballs deflated and unwanted. I press my toe into one, flattened and leathery grey, its brown spores puffing out like effluent. I definitely take them with me.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014
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FD may blog-2

Farthing Downs, London, May 2014

I sit on a path new and slight, pressed into the grasses. Last year I sat in a spot close by under the shade of ash trees watching a willow warbler make return visits to a nest down in the brambles. Now the brink of a small copse of trees has gone, the bird, perhaps returning, may have decided this was no longer a place to raise young. In the absence of willow warblers, brimstone butterflies, perhaps reaching double figures, mark the new space of downland that has been reopened from the folds of trees. The piles of logs and branches stacked in the iron beds are still here, yet to be burned or hedged. I like that slowness, that I can come back some months later and no one has felt too pushed to tidy the place up.

A male and female brimstone fly together and then fall down amongst the twigs and low, woody brambles. I’m interested to see what they’re doing so I get up and have a look. They’re mating, bodies bent round, facing away from each other. They part. High in the sky, against the blue and its herring and lesser black-backed gulls circling on thermals, a huge flock. I wonder why, I wonder what for. Down here with me the female brimstone is again on the wing, met by a band of battling males. They pass her and are turned immediately onto her, each forgetting their quarrel and targeting the paler female. This is the perfect reflection of the adult butterfly’s life: the males seek as many females as they can; the female, having mated, defends herself from latecomers as she strives to find the right plant for egg-laying. The males attack her, but she breaks free, up into the sky. She is not free of them. The four males cloud her, their colours so close as they gain height that all sense of defence has disappeared into a neon waltz. They go up, up and over my head to the world of gulls and warm air rising.

© 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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Fly orchid 4

Farthing Downs & New Hill, London, July 2013

On the Downs the butterflies are immediately evident, the week old broods of meadow brown ferry amongst the long grasses, rarely stopping to feed on flowers. Breeding season is ending but still the song of skylarks comes from over the slope, some ancient language remembered, its translation lost. Greater yellow rattle blooms now, the spring buttercups lost to a swathe of Yorkshire fog and other grasses I don’t know. The suntan lotion on my arms acts as an adhesive, my skin covered with seeds. The grasshoppers are conjuring up their rickety, wooden percussion. I am hopeless in finding them, except for one that hops between seed heads, a micro Tarzan in this meadow jungle. But where are the people? A man drives a BMW sports car along the lane, revving its engine. I know where I’d rather be. Men in England are bare chested at the slightest chance and here a couple stroll along the lane drinking from big bottles of water. The tattoo stamped on the man’s back stands out in this simple landscape of slopes and flowers.

Lovers

Ghostly day-flying moths spread at my every step through the long grass. Bumblebees forage on clovers, dropwort and yellow rattle, small heath butterflies appear again, two fly together, eager to fulfil their short lives with as much fornication as is possible. I cut back on to the path I know best. A chiffchaff sings in the hedgeline at the bottom of the hill, a single blackbird and a whitethroat, too. There’s no sign of spring’s willow warblers or their clutch of young. A crowd of peacock caterpillars munch through nettle leaves, leaving only the dreadlocks of flowers. A yellowhammer appears from across the lane, landing in a small hawthorn bush, its strong yellow plumage brighter than dandelions, a South American yellow, and at its brightest here. I take a few photos. Along with skylarks, this is a bird I have to travel to see, when once, before my time, you might have woken to it flocking in the hedges and fields.

Peackock caterpillar

Leaving the Downs I enter the chalky wooded hollows at the bottom of the slope, with tor grass growing along the track, an indicator of the calcareous soil. My sweat cools with the breeze that slips through here. In the dappled shade I scan the path edges for orchids, black bryony creeping out from the darkened hedges. And there it is: the fly orchid. I change lenses and struggle to get the image right, sweat dripping, bringing lotion down my face. But it’s beautiful to look at – a bit like a bumblebee pinned and proffered by the long spike, with its little eyes and short antennae. A family are passing behind the hedge, discussing how to control the dog.

‘She’s pulling me down into these weird places,’ says the mother.

‘Just let her off the lead, let her off the lead,’ the dad says.

They arrive on the path heading down hill. Their daughter warns the dog to stay with them. I only see the mother, she’s dressed in an apricot coloured dress and heeled shoes. She’s young and glamorous, so fitting with the array of flowers bursting from the hillside.

‘Who needs Box Hill when you can come here, eh?’ says the dad. They disappear down towards Happy Valley.

Speckled wood egg crop 1

I carry on along the ridge and settle on the desire line drawn down the hill and through the flowers. Ringlets move through the meadow, the first I’ve seen this year. They move at the same time and, stitched together, they are a tapestry of flickering wings. In my silence and stillness wildlife begins to move around me, perhaps more trusting. I see more plants now: twayblades, common spotted orchid, salad burnet, marjoram, ox eye daisy, rough hawkbit and bladder campion with its inflated, balloon like calyx-tubes. The wind blows through the trees. A speckled wood butterfly flaps about me, its wings audible as it hits my khaki shorts and leaf stalks. It clasps hold of a spear-like grass stem and curves its abdomen, laying a tiny pearl of an egg. This, for me, is something new.

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