– Dorset, April 2011
The passage of the old stable quarters ran to a doorway opening out onto the back of the house. The doorway itself appeared blocked at first viewing, blocked by the trunk of a tree so large that it filled the entire frame. The pianist staying at the house had spoken to me about the tree.
‘I like to bang my head against it,’ he’d said. He had a face like a fox.
The tree goes by different names: Wellingtonia, Big Tree, Giant Redwood and Giant Sequoia. During my time as neighbour to it I called it a jumble of names, sticking with ‘American Redwood’. The tree was twice as tall as the house, a 19th century mansion, and viewing it from the stable courtyard gave a sense of the tree’s grand but gentle scale. The bark is a deep red where worn and soft as a wafer to touch. It has none of the scratchiness of our mature natives like oak or ash. It runs in one towering trunk. Perhaps the white settlers who came upon the Americas harboured a secret adoration for these towering, ancient things (the oldest tree in the world is a Giant Sequoia) felled with such relish, an adoration which survived generations, resulting in an Empire State Building. The tree I had the pleasure of experiencing in Dorset is a prime example of the beauty and power that nature exerts when allowed to grow. This tree was near to 200 years old, probably planted with the house by the adventurous Victorians who’d lived here.
The Redwood had an apartment block feel to its design. Walking along the passage, face to face with the trunk and into the garden, a mouse-like bird scarpered out of view. After a few encounters with the white-bellied creature I witnessed it disappear into a small bore in the soft bark. The bird was a treecreeper, named after its tendency to climb the bark of a tree from its base, poking its bill between the cracks for insects. It climbs up the trunk pinching between the cracks for insects. It climbs and then flies to the bottom of another to begin its ascent all over again. It will only do this on trees of a certain age and size. The size and permeability of the Redwood make it a highly desirable habitat. In the middle of the tree a pair of goldcrests would sing thinly, spinning coins coming to an abrupt halt. The thin nature of the canopy made it a viable way to enjoy not merely the sound of the bird but also to see it. They would be there at lunchtime without fail.
A number of chimneys were built into the stables and across to the house itself. A pair of jackdaws would spend parts of the day bringing sticks and placing them in the vacant portals. Jackdaws are thought to mate for life and a pair here would ‘jack’ to one another as they constructed their nest. In the mid-afternoon, the lull after lunch, they strolled along the lawns either side of the house in an almost synchronous fashion, digging for worms. This was a group of about twenty birds, and in the gloaming they returned to the highest reaches of the Redwood to roost for the night, their chatter lessening before night and silence fell.
From the stable courtyard an expanse of woodland opens up in the near distance. There was another Redwood on that horizon, equally tall but dead. I was walking to the walled garden one morning with the head gardener when he told me the story:
‘Someone was taking their horses out into the wood that way one day and they got to chatting with someone they knew,’ he said. ‘They turned their backs for ten minutes and by the time they looked back the horse had eaten its way round the tree. The thing just went and died. Terrible shame.’
When I said goodbye to the house and the stables I wished the Redwood a farewell. Not just to the tree but the creatures living with it, the treecreeper disappearing into the bark, the singing goldcrests and sleeping jackdaws.
– Dorset, April 2011
The track was churned up by tractor wheels, giving the appearance of an industrial thoroughfare. The trees were mostly beech, with the odd oak or ash in places. They were not yet in leaf, but on the cusp. On the verges wild primrose had bloomed and swathes of wood anemone grew where light fed the woodland floor. Beyond the ride, greyish flowers were appearing from the thin green sleeves of bluebell leaves. In patches common dog-violets showed their petals and heart-shaped leaves. The wood anemones, bluebells, wild primrose and violets all indicated that the woodland had been here, in part, for over 400 years. In Dorset, only wood anemone is indicative of ancient woodland. Though wild primrose, common dog-violet and bluebells would qualify the wood as ancient in the South-East of England, here in the South-West it was not necessarily proof. But wood anemone signifies ancientness. Beech is the final stage of woodland, and so the wood appeared to me to be especially old. Wood anemone is a slow grower, it increases its range by no more than six-feet a century. The tractor’s movement through the wood may have benefitted the primroses, its wheels carrying their seeds to hedgerows in distant fields.
The track reached a plateau, swooping down and around a dense plantation of larch and other coniferous trees. No light reached the woodland floor, nothing could be seen beyond or between the trunks, merely needles and intense shade. No anemones, no violets. But this was a blip in the wood, the musty conifers likely planted for timber in a clearing came to an end. The spread of bluebells and beech returned. It was here that a big, moving, breathing blotch entered my peripheral vision. It was an animal, too tall to be a dog but that was my instinctive response. This flickering feeling is known as ‘fight-of-flight’, an adrenaline surge caused by the brain sensing that you are in danger. The brain then sends a command for adrenaline to be released into the bloodstream. Your senses are tunnelled. Leap the nearest fence or suffer the consequences. This natural pinch of adrenaline didn’t last. The fluffy white ‘tush’ of the animal engaged my senses. It was a roe deer. This doe got one whiff of a fragrant human and darted out of sight. The encounter was over within seconds. She had looked at me as she would once have witnessed her original predator, the wolf, a species long absent from Britain. In one of the trees a badger-viewing platform had been constructed. I climbed up and looked out across the dulled wood. The bluebells remained in their nearly state, spindly lichens hung from the bare branches of oaks like small, bluish wigs caught as their minor bearers escaped. In the gap of the sky untouched by twigs, the broad wingspan of a buzzard passed across. I clambered down and happened upon a neat den made from hazel poles and covered with brown ferns. To the side was an overgrown hazel coppice in need of cutting, with arms stretching out from the wide base. The ground underneath was coated with bluebells gradually lifting their heads to flower. Inside the den the leaves of the plant were flattened and brown hairs were scattered. A resting deer had stopped here.
There was a left-turning out of the wood marked by a rusted oil drum. The trees came to a sudden end and a field of grass exploded into a vista of deep, silent green. The roe deer stood in the tramlines leading over and down to an undulating expanse of the same. It watched me and continued sniffing around without much concern for a time, before galloping away as I took a few steps in its direction. I turned from the green field and gazed upon the woodland’s sudden end: a border of trees, a ditch and then the dirt of the farmland. A rabbit flinched in the low scrub by the ditch. The monoculture of the crop covered the scene for perhaps a mile over the hill and far away. In the wood, wildflowers of great variety grew, badgers slept through the day in their sett, birds of prey surveyed the glades and clearings while deer ambled along, sometimes stopping to rest in a man-made den. I turned my back to the farmland and sky and entered the wood once more.
Eype, Dorset, May 2011
Kraków, Poland, October 2011
By the Wisła the sun shone into my eyes, the great white bulb had me remove my winter coat. Wawel castle rested on the hill, overlooking the swoop of the river. I had been here in the thirty-degree heat of a Polish summer, Krakówians hiding in the shade of a tree on the riverbank. Now no one sat on the bank and my companion grimaced at the suggestion. The sound of footfall ricocheted from the medieval wall surrounding the castle as people walked briskly in the chill afternoon. The river gleamed beyond the slope of grass and winding paths filed by intermittent cyclists, their chains clicking.
From over the bank the silhouette of a large butterfly appeared in the ball of the sun, beating its wings against the cold. The insect flew over my head, its red and white bars flashing translucent from the glare. A red admiral. Mired in a deep, uncomfortable silence, the butterfly brought me back to life. Vanessa atalanta is common, and I’m glad to experience its dynamic coverage, to meet it there and then, when the thought of wildlife was far from my mind. This is a butterfly that tends to cross the channel to reach Britain from the Mediterranean and over vast tracts of land to appear in Poland. It hibernates in the south of England sometimes, with surviving individuals reappearing in March or April. Some red admirals linger until as late as December in milder winters.
A few hours later I stood on Karmelicka waiting for a taxi, the sun already set behind the buildings crouching around Kraków’s market square, the largest in the world. The red brakelight of a tram blurred in the new darkness. Krakówians were moving across the roads and broadly paved streets. The loop of ash, oak and lime which buffers the city’s heart had grown deeper and dark. Above the movement of electric lights the gloaming was purplish, accentuated by a channel of calling corvids. The jak-jaking of jackdaws cracked the noise of engines and voices. The birds were flocking in vast numbers, perhaps hundreds of thousands, en route to their nightly roost in a nearby park. A few pairs splintered from the gushing movement and disappeared onto the rooftops. The number of birds was so large and so constant, it was as if they were being drawn into a vortex from which they would not be returning from tomorrow.
Earlier I had watched with surprise at how these birds pulled worms from the sloping banks near the busy underpass leading to the train station, Kraków Główny. A pair had remained perfectly content with the humans but five-feet from them without a hint of anxiety. I thought back to the same birds I had lived alongside in Dorset. They would drag themselves to the wing with little encouragement, a glance from a watery blue eye. In Kraków, as we prepared to leave the grand old city, I felt the heavy blow of the flocking birds.
All rights reserved by Daniel Mikhailovich