Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘Nature writing’

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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Rainfall on the downs. Still the jackdaws toe the grasslands in their flock, still green woodpeckers cut arcs across the landscape, still the spring’s song builds in hedgerow blackbird music. Linnets flock to the small bushes of rose and hawthorn, skylarks lift from the turf, dropping back down onto the grassy mounds of anthills. So few flowers, but rosettes are massing at the margin of soil and sky, the dropwort, rattle and eyebrights feeding on the thinnest layer of nutrients, readying to flower. But the rain still falls and so I make for Devilsden Wood where bluebells have peeled from green to that almost purplish colour. Our common name feels a little inadequate. But then that’s the joy of common names, there are so many, they each tell a tale of our senses through time. Wood anemones, probably my favourite flower, were known as windflowers because people thought that they only opened their petals when the wind blew. Here they bloom in their little flocks amidst dogs mercury and more bluebells.

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Explore my North Downs Diary

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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Coulsdon, London, August 2015

The woodpigeons take flight as the gunshots ripple through the air from a neighbouring farm. I heard a little girl say, with great sincerity, that she wanted to come back to the downs with her sled when it snows, ‘I love it here,’ she said. So, what gives the fool with a gun his pleasure? It’s a question that needs answering the world over. But it’s not just pigeons that disappear into the trees at the sound of ammunition, a sharp-winged kestrel evacuated a tree in the middle of this hillside meadow, slipping into nearby Devilsden Wood like a compact disc. Thankfully the insects and wildflowers aren’t fussed by the gunfire, instead common blue butterflies drink from wild marjoram, a hornet mimic hoverfly, Volucella inanis, does the same. A white tailed bumblebee’s heft droops the heads of yellow rattle, still flowering low. From amidst the flowers birch, willow and ash leaf like little green fires ready to burn these grasslands up into centuries of shade. The man with the strimmer will hold back their revolution with those of his machine. If only the ammonia stench from the grazing cow’s dung could be cut back like vegetation. When you step in it, it follows you around wherever you go. At least I’ll have a carriage to myself on the train home.

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Beetle

Beetle on grass blade, near Otford, Kent, England, May 2015

I am walking the North Downs Way back to front, upside down and inside out. This beetle was doing its best to remain on a blade of grass at the side of the path near to the village of Otford. It succeeded. I am struggling to identify it.

Please click through to see more pictures of the North Downs Way on Flickr.

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Wildflowers

The North Downs, Coulsdon, May 2015

Entering onto the Downs, a group of teenagers are fixing their upturned bikes in the buttercups and silverweed. They spill out onto the lane, calling across to each other when a car comes past. It’s evening and the sun hits the mounds of anthills overgrown by birds-foot trefoil and speedwell. The glowing yellow and blue petals are a precursor to the summer yet to hit these chalky meadows, their flowers like a stash of forgotten jewels. From the strip of trees and bushes that separates Farthing Downs from New Hill, a flow of blackbird music runs, moving here and there as the wind tugs and carries their songs to different places. A red fox slips into the hedgerow. Song thrushes evade the wind with their daggers and trills. Up ahead, a pair of young women pose on the path, and only until a few paces ahead do I see the selfie-stick with their phone on the end. Disappearing off, knowing they aren’t alone, they throw a few more statuettes to their camera, before slinging hand bags back into the crooks of their arms. Skylarks call from up on high, one with its wings and bill working as if it all depended on that verse. In the hawthorns the linnets ping and pang, a green woodpecker lifts up from the turf and submerges itself in some oak scrub. The magpies tread through short tufts of meadowland coloured by buttercups and the hot red stems of salad burnet, still yet to leaf. Before me is Happy Valley, its wayfaring trees flowering in white spots on the hillside. Slipping off into the chalk hollow that will lead to Devilsden Wood, the defiant song thrush sings into the tunnel of hazel and yew, a master of this underworld. On the track before me is a light brown toad, sitting in the middle of the path. Like a baby it crawls towards me and nuzzles in against the side of my boot. I remove my foot and let it continue its journey into the undergrowth.

In Devilsden Wood I feel the first hints of the evening cooling, the sun having reddened my skin in the open land. The new, hardening green leaves of beech explode in the canopy where the light hits them, the few slithers of sky that can be seen between their branches leaves nicks of light along the trackway. A couple with their two sons walk with sticks, picking their way through the undergrowth to find new paths and treasure. The bluebells hum purple in the dark hazel coppices, brightened in part by the helmets of yellow archangel and splashes of stitchwort. The wood ends and the buttercup meadows of Happy Valley simmer at the break of trees. A man and a woman stroll the way I have come with butterfly nets in their hands, a happy day spent on the Downs, I am sure.

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The route leads back into sun dappled bluebell woods swamped by bramble. Two dogs shoot past from behind a small mound and I’m taken by surprise. Meeting company in the dark wood I waste no time breaking out again into the valley. On the hill that will take me to Coulsdon Common, two lads are rolling down, swearing as their tumble takes a surprising turn. At the bottom of the hill waits a girl with hands on hips, as if deciding between them who she will choose when their race climaxes. The lad with long black hair and grunge hoodie lies on his back, raising himself up on his elbows. The girl jockeys him and lies back. They rest in the sun-draining valley like a pair of Siamese twins. I pass them and head towards Coulsdon Common, overtaking a man in his seventies:

‘Evening,’ I say.

‘Good evening, sir!’ he fires back, as if still in the military. He stops, casting his eyes across the flowering meadow to the scene of a white gazeebo in a garden where a PA system amplifies a ceremony of some sort. He is a lone figure on that track, wearing a cap and winter coat. On Coulsdon Common the goal posts gape in shade as the sun breaks through the branches, illuminating the grasses: cocks foot and meadow foxtail. It’s approaching eight o’clock and so I chunter on, passing Saturday evening strollers fresh from an afternoon in the Fox pub. A man drives a mower along the verges, a clutch of bluebells given a stay of execution around a fencepost. I drop down into Rydons Lane past houses with vast lawns dotted with wildflowers left over from their previous incarnation as meadowland or wood. The absurdity of suburbia strikes its note – carp ponds, seven cars, gates with intercoms. I leave on an incline swallowed by yew trees and bursting with chalk, a Labrador storming past me. A voice blurs with the tree dark.

‘He’s over here,’ I shout.

‘Oh, thanks mate,’ is the reply of a man in a white t-shirt, stranded amidst dogs mercury.

I walk through a familiar farm where women ride horses, a Jaguar parked close by. In winter these fields are boggied by the deep clefts of horse hooves, now they are sealed by the heat of a hot day’s sun. Crossing a stile I arrive in a field where a man smokes a cigarette at a pathway in from his house, evidently in need of some silence and peace, he does not see me. I follow the mowed path alongside a hedge of poplar suckers, beyond a dead oak and its dead ivy which has only collapsed in the past year. In need of a snack I sit on the grass and notice paths which I had not seen before. A young, fresh red fox bounds into view, skipping as if from something invisible to the human eye. It sees me and stops, staring, unsure of what I might do. But I’m only here to sit and chew a Tunnock’s Caramel. I watch it through my binoculars, its image framed by buttercups and hedges, a house at the field’s edge. Insects move in small clouds along the edge of the mower’s reach.

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On Hayes Lane I dodge speeding cars and see that patches of wild garlic are being harvested with scissors, hollow stalks standing leafless on the verge. Their thoughtful foraging will make no dent in this robust lily, a plant flowering in profusion along the trackways from here to Canterbury in spring. At the entrance to Kenley Common a song thrush rises to a protruding branch, smashing a snail against the wood. It drops it and flies away. Taking a closer look I see the snail still curled up in its brittle, fractured home. The Common is not empty, the same spreads of buttercup full with human life. A man lies on his stomach in the flowers calling for his dog to run towards him, the remaining sunlight channelling straight down his lens. I look at the English oaks, swelling woods and distant wounds of chalk quarry and wonder what draws us so readily to gather professional images of our pets. With time on my mind I snatch a glimpse of the Caterham valley and head towards Whyteleafe, the remainder of the Common swamped in the shady wood pasture by cow parsley. The wood of mature ash and wayfaring trees are bright white, naked limbs in the twilight. At the end of my walk a poorly, urban fox cub nips into the road, pausing to watch me, like its healthier meadow counterpart, to see what I might do. I watch it disappear into the avenue of parked cars and take the pavement down to catch the next train home.

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