Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘Happy Valley’

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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North Downs diary, Farthing Downs, January 2017

I pass through the gate onto the downs and a fox crosses the lane, that long, fluffed up tail and jinking stride. It seeks the safety of the woodland edge. Snow lingers on the downs, magpies feed in small groups. When they fly up it’s not unlike slices of snow lifting off the ground. Their strategy is simple: feed until a bigger beast passes, sit in the trees, then return. The sun breaks the dough-like cloud, a kestrel cutting through with ease. She finds the tip of a branch and balances, the twig bending under her weight. She looks out across the snow. Feeling herself perhaps too exposed, she shifts to the fox’s wooded margin. Restless, knowing she is now unwelcome in open land, she cuts west and disappears over the hill.

The hazel scrub carries beads of melted ice, hanging long out of the breeze. The shapes show black branches like little snow globes, a looking glass into some dark wood of elsewhere. On the ground the snow carries tokens of those living things that have since passed: dog, human, crow. In between them the stems of wild carrot persist. On the steepest slopes of the downs, sleds slip across the scene, their crew dressed in pink and orange, the colours of our mass production garment industries. On the eastern slopes of Happy Valley the snow rests without the patchiness of the highest point. Yet more magpies are driven from piercing their bills in search of soil. At the bottom of the hill birch trees reflect the snow’s whiteness, their reddish hue shows they are not whiter-than-white.

I heard a radio programme recently charting the decline of snowfall in Kent over the past fifty-years. It brought the presenter to the point: might snow become a thing of the past in southern England? Climate change’s predicted course means that the snowy downs here as I see them today may yet be something that can only be spoken of in the past tense. So does the act of photography now morph into a sentimental act of conservation? Our species’ recent photographic binge, due to the camera phone revolution, means that snow will never be forgotten in image, but its sensuality can’t be felt in a jpeg or print.

I forget these things so quickly when London’s short snowy affair departs, the glow of light from the white ground, the dripping trees, the soft press and crunch of boots, the sheer joy that children feel and express on their plastic sleds. Perhaps to us southerners who see so many different types of weather, the loss of snow’s short stint will barely be noticed. For climate change will bring profound challenges for species that depend on certain conditions, be they polar bears, butterflies, mushrooms or migrating songbirds. On the downs, like many thousands of others I’m sure, I seek change in itself. A different state of mind, of perspective, colours, textures and places to walk in. Nature reminds us always that change will come.

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Coulsdon, June 2016

Britain has descended into political turmoil, but out here on the downs normality persists. Summer’s flagship species are on the wing in the form of the marbled whites, meadow browns resting low down in the grass, feeding on hawkbits, hawkbeards or whatever these large yellow daisies happen to be. Yellow rattle flowers in its prime, this nationally rare flower in full voice on Farthing Downs. Now is the time to seek orchids, but so very many of them can be found in the right place it’s more a case of avoiding them. Pyramidal orchid, common spotted orchid and common twayblade gather in great number on one slope. Crab spiders cling conspicuous to florets, waiting for their moment.

The birdsong has not yet come to its end: a whitethroat sits atop scrub not yet cleared, singing, preening and dropping down to safety, a skylark and a yellowhammer distant. The plaintive piping of a raptor can be heard and a kestrel with feathers lost skates across, disappearing beyond the brow of the hill. Crows raise an alarm, I scan the now open downs for a bird of prey. Crows, ragged and worried, fly across the roof of woods, and more alarm calls are made. A scuffle ensues, the brown of a buzzard’s wings, like melting milk chocolate in this light, is followed into the trees by crows. It’s usually where the battle ends.

Trundling on in the growing heat, I pass through an area of oak, ash and bramble. From the long wash of pale grasses high as hips, a young deer bursts free. It jigs and jumps up, not so much running as bouncing along the sheltered belt of trees and bushes. It seems almost naked, in body and spirit, free of all sense. It ranges to obscurity. Soon a man dressed in a trench coat passes with his dog and their dwindling shapes swim in the overpowering scene of breaking sun and flowering grasses.

Moving through the quiet of Devilsden Wood, the clamour of school children’s voices behind me, I quietly question the decision of motor cross riders to drive back and forth for half an hour along Ditches Lane. There is a sense of a hollowing out, the opportunity to express oneself without remorse now, at least since Friday morning. I walk through these woods, ancient, growing, and think of all they have lived through. The world wars, Napoleonic war, the Magna Carter, what about the Norman Conquest, the Roman invasion, even the Neolithic revolution of 6000 years ago? I don’t know.

I leave the woods and its splintering blackbird phrases. Why do they still sing now, is there still time to breed? The meadows have thickened with grasses in one week, I rue their itchy monotony. We have experienced rainfall on an unprecedented scale, 40mm of rain in what Londoners call ‘the Brexit storms’. There are so few butterflies, only really the meadow brown, a creature that seems to endure rain, moves amongst the flowers. I feel ripped off, dispossessed. I dream of these meadows in winter. Now they have been reduced. Heading back I see a figure on the hill with a guitar. In five years I’ve never seen someone like this here, a place mainly of dog walkers, horse riders, retirees exploring the London Loop and the weekend charge of cyclists. I approach him.

He has dark hair in a ponytail, I don’t think he’s English. ‘Hi, can I take your picture?’ I ask. ‘I’ve never seen someone with a guitar here.’

‘Of course,’ he says. ‘Usually I play the piano but I want to busk in London so I am learning to play the guitar. I am Italian, from the north.’

He begins playing a song but can’t remember who it’s by, someone American, slapping his wrist against the hollow body of the guitar. When he finishes I ask him what he thinks about the referendum.

‘I have been here one week and in Italy they did not even talk about it. Now I am here and wow,’ he says. ‘My friends think that I am in London surrounded by cars and buildings, but I am here.’ He opens his arms to the sunny downs. ‘And I love it.’

I thank him, Marco is his name, and point him towards Happy Valley. You can go that way and walk for weeks, I tell him. It’s something I always dream of doing, ambition reduced by its likely pain and lack of time to do it. I leave him to practice, flecks of struck guitar strings ringing out from the crown of summer downland.

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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.

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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