It’s the eagle

Glen Einach

Glen Einach, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland, October 2013

Lying on the grass where the road forks up and into the wind I watch the redwing and fieldfare slip across the grey sky. Down below us the River Am Beanaidh flows with great force. My friend has finished in his attempts to separate map from wind and joins me on the gravelly soil, rolling himself a cigarette. A few minutes ago we watched redwing appearing from the heather like particles drawn, magnetised to the scots pine. Some remained in the heather for a time, before using the air and their wings to join with the trees. My smug little siesta is embellished further by a reward received a few minutes earlier: the sight of a crested tit mixing with its coal tit cousins and picking at the sticks and lichens. I have felt the tiredness and tenseness that comes from a lack of proper rest since summer’s end but this landscape reinvigorates me like no other that I have set foot upon. Listening to the quickening wind dashing through the medium of pine needles, my friend calls an end to our pause.

We head up over the top path, the wind bursting through. It’s much cooler, a hint of ice. I automatically reach into my coat pockets seeking woollen gloves. It’s reported to feel like -11 on the peaks today and here blows the clue as we climb to 450m. Trudging along, a shape appears in the distance, passing over the pinewoods, across the river and the slopes of Cairn Eilrig:

‘Big, big bird,’ I shout, into the strength of the wind. My friend stops.

It passes across our view, a cloak caught by a gale. The thought process begins: buzzard… raven… its dark, primary wing feathers like digits. Its wings catch a slither of sun, a golden sheen. It’s the eagle. It disappears behind the trees, appearing again, coasting and now lost to the pines. My friend and I have both leapt up onto a lichen and heather-covered bank of soil. We jump back down, carried back by the wind by an inch or two. We hit a gloved high five, hard and true.

The shock of the heartwood

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.

The fabric of time

Devilsden Wood

Farthing Downs, London, September 2013

Standing on the track leading into Devilsden Wood I look to the ground for dryness, somewhere that hasn’t been soaked by this perpetual rainfall. I see fallen ivy leaves that appear like cuts of leather when really they are crisp under foot. Dog shit, too, the new waybread for the modern ancient footway. I hate the stuff. My waterproof sheds its load onto my jeans and it’s wait and become cold or move and receive woodland raindrops, some chucked from the canopy of mature yew, ash and beech, some fifty feet up. When they get behind glasses, these droplets shock the senses.

It’s fungi season, the signpost of falling temperatures, not too cold but a shift from the sultry summer. I gawp at log piles with an explosion of mushroom caps, marked by striping and shapes that would define them to those who understood them. But still, I spy an oysterling appearing from a rotting trunk and feel that in two years of woodland obsession I have at least learned something about this magical animal that appears so fleetingly it could almost be through the fabric of time, a monitor on how we’re doing. Checking the sole of my boot again, we’re crap. I wipe it off in a mud puddle. The rain has not lessened. I head back out from the dark, autumn-beckoning woodland and onto the wet warfare of the Downs. The change in mind is clear, the atmosphere of a woodland changes you. It is not like the open land, so much a canvas for human experimentation, our impact on woodlands is never so clear as the plough’s to the open landscape. A woodland to all but a minority could have been in that state for millenia, before human time. The wood is a wild city, with nature’s social housing, swimming pools and fast food. It was our home once, too. There is the semblance of a summer out here, yellow rattle not yet rattling, knapweed funked-out in pinkish purple, even a bit of scabious. These wildflowers have something of January’s left over Christmas decorations about them. A car passes along the lane. Woodpigeons are striking through the rainy sky, turning their wings and bodies at an angle – to avoid the direction of the rain? – always as individuals. These birds cut several different figures in a year – hurried, panicked on the wing, or else male birds cutting arcs out of the sky as they display to females long into the summer recesses. Now they could be migrating, they could be hunted. Mostly they are gorging on elderberries outside my bedroom window.

On the Downs a flock of goldfinch are startled into the sky like pieces of a broken vase put back, its smash rewound and fixed. They sit in a small hawthorn bush and I look more closely. On the end of a branch, clear and possibly not so fearful of man is a juvenile, all grey on the head, interested in looking but unaware of the perils of being watched. My advances fracture them once more and I’m left with a snapshot of their escape into the landscape captured on my camera.

In search of Mayo’s native woodlands

Mayo Woodlands

First published on the Earthlines Review

Co. Mayo, Eire, April 2013

Saturday

Last night we arrived to watch the mountain burn. The flames licked up from behind the plantation at the end of the field, capturing the tinder of last year’s heather. I thought of how dry that wood was, how it would go up in an instant. The farmer ghosted down the lane, no knowledge of who could have set fire to the mountain, or why. He always strikes me as part wild, so accustomed to the lay of this land that he has partly-merged with its bogginess, its giant boulders and streams, in the way I am accustomed to the wildness of streetlamps and new woodlands, how they impact me. Seeing an Xbox and satellite TV in his house a few years back diluted that idea. This isn’t the first time the mountain’s been set on fire, five years ago it happened. Waking up this morning it’s as if last night was a dream brought on by the exhaustion of a long and early journey from London, across the Irish Sea from Holyhead and then from Dublin. At the foot of the Ox Mountains this morning I see no sign of fire, no people, no animals. It must have been much further away than we thought it was. The bracken lies dead and dry, concealing crevices between rocks. How quickly this could burst into flame. The ground is dry at the foot of the mountain, the sphagnum mosses and reindeer lichens spreading as I climb with the wind. A herd of feral goats watch me from the top, filing away, perhaps in disappointment that I’ve blocked their path. Turning to look to the west I see Nephin in silhouette where the valley of farms and gorse-covered bog ends. I head south-east and up into the Ox Mountains.

Mayo Mountains

Trees are sparse, only a hawthorn or a mountain ash in 100 metres, bedraggled and gnawed by the animals that graze between the rocks. The heather is growing again, and where there is some dampness a cladonia cup-lichen pouts its miniature red lips on pale blue stems. I search along the south-facing banks for wildflowers and find dog violet and wood sorrel. Being a woodlander at heart, it draws me back home and to the question of origins – did woodlands once grow on the Ox Mountains? They must have. Looking around me, I am not convinced. But early or common dog violets do grow in ancient woodland in south London, and wood sorrel, too. One of my holiday reads is Oliver Rackham’s Woodlands. I will be tearing into it on my return back to the cottage.

A small bird is calling, barely audible above a wind that’s gained momentum as I’ve gained height. Two giant boulders sit like mountain fauna and all I see above and between them is sky. The ground is boggy, covered by the papery yellow grasses and red mosses. A goat path is indented through it all. I take it, stepping up into the goat hoof clefts and up between the two boulder gods. Though unseeing, they will have presided over a valley wrought by famine in the 1840s, worn only by the deep breaths of time. Last night they will have been coloured by fire, unmoved. To be rock is to be asleep.

The rocks are beneath me now, a plane of damp dead grasses and moss pervades. The wind is stronger, still. How strange that even on a tree-less moor of a mountain the movement between rock and mound can feel like entering somewhere new. I sit on the rocky deity’s scalp.  Down below, the plantation is crossed by bare larch trees, and in the distance the blue promise of Sligo Bay. Further west, in the realm of the imagination: America. But I’m hungry, and the basic desire for food always wins out over beauty.

I wander across and down, away from the sheer drop. At least the fall would be into a mattress of bog. A raven calls out, kronk, kronk, kronk, but so bare is the mountain the call could be a thing of the distant past, or my imagination. I grab onto heather forgetting that the soft ground will give and I nearly tumble bearing yet-blooming flowers, but a goat print saves me and I land on my backside. Gradually the song of a robin replaces the mountain wind, the images of sheep return to life and the mountain looms again, forgetful, triumphant.
Sunrise over Mayo

Easter Sunday

It’s evening, the weather is warmer here than in England but when the wind blows it cuts through you. I have been reading Rackham’s Woodlands. In the period between 1350 and 1500 woodland cover expanded in the United Kingdom in the wake of the Black Death. England’s population declined by 1/3 and so too did global warming[1].  Why? Less trees were being felled and burned. The woodland came back and captured the carbon. I wonder when that will happen again. Today we visited my grandfather at his nursing home in Kiltimagh, it’s an old estate with pollarded horse chestnut and beech trees. On the hillside wind turbines have been built. They do not look a scar or a slight on the land. But granddad never leaves the house to see these things, most of the people there drift in and out of sleep and eating, the radio playing in the background. It was Aerosmith when we arrived. He used to live in Ballindine, crossing the motorway to the shop, forgetting how many times he’d been. He always asks me when I’m going to get a haircut. I feel a little apprehensive about visiting the home but when I get there I enjoy it, the people are friendly even if some aren’t in their right mind and there’s a welcome warmth about the long faces, slow gestures and blazing radiators.

After a day spent in the car I decide to visit the mountain again. I’ve never been to the top. Me and my dad nearly got up there a few years ago but we didn’t feel the desire to. I take to the path again, passing the sheep in the field, the caravan shot to pieces, a lace curtain blowing through the hole where the window once was. I climb up the track again and feel no desire to reach the summit. I turn into a small cove where a stream runs down and the path becomes sphagnum moss, soft, white and red. I sit on a boulder and look up at the sky and the mountain. But for the stream there is no sound at all. All my thoughts come in and out again. Having had my fill of silence I return back down. On the way I see Nephin traversed by the sun setting behind clouds, the trees silhouetted on a hill before it. I can’t help but think of those who used to live on this mountain and in this valley who were shackled and degraded by famine. How did they view this overbearing rock and heathland, the sight of Nephin and sunsets like these? Surely they couldn’t have had the energy or mind to even think about it. It would not have mattered. I was reading a book called The Great Famine last night. When one ship carrying food and aid from England arrived in Ireland during the famine, three went the other way. At times I feel torn between my heritage, between my anger for the cruelty wrought by the British and the suffering inflicted upon the Irish. I do not feel completely one or the other.

On the way back down I have a sudden desire to remain, to sit against a rock and enjoy the fresh Atlantic air. I remember hearing a cuckoo a decade ago, but it hasn’t returned yet. After my breather I continue into the valley and meet the farmer on the track. I ask him if cuckoos still come here. He doesn’t understand me. I sometimes forget that my accent isn’t clear to everyone. He eventually realises what I mean and points to the plantations growing on either side, comfortable with the knowledge that they come often.

‘But it’ll be too cold for them here now,’ he says.

Easter Monday

From Woodlands, page 206: ‘Ancient woods are not the place to look for ancient trees. Indeed, the presence of ancient trees, unless they are boundary pollards, indicates that the wood is not ancient, but has grown up around freestanding trees (in-filled savannah).’  There are no ancient trees at the foot of the Ox Mountains, there are barely even trees. I still have hope of finding something.

Mayo Mountains

Tuesday

We aren’t visiting granddad today. We drive to Westport to see what they have in the bookshop there. On the river a grey heron is mobbed by black headed and common gulls. They stand on the wall having their pictures taken by everyone, including me and my family. We drive to Achill Island for the day, the sun beating down but the cold wind still lingers. It’s snowing in London. The views from Achill are astounding, rock pipits merge with the winter grasses and silver boulders as they feed at the cliff’s edge. Spring is still not with us, the leaves are not on the trees, no swallows nest in the barn and no cuckoo calls from the wood. The bogs on Achill are strewn with rhododendrons, thriving on the acid soils, clearly admired by the locals for their unusual pinks and purples when in flower. I bought The Story of Ireland by Neil Hegarty. This quote from Oliver Cromwell stuck with me:

‘For to what purpose was it to plow or sow, where there was little or no Prospect of reaping? – To improve where the Tenant had no Property? This universal Neglect of Husbandry covered the Face of the Kingdoms with thickets of Woods and Briars; and with those Vast extended Boggs, which are not natural but only the Excrescences and Scabs of the Body, occasioned by Uncleanliness and Sloth.’ (page 136).

It’s what I love about Ireland, the bogs, the boulders, the ‘Excrescences’, the 1970s Opel car rusting in the ditch. In Mayo the Irish are not erasing their visual history, the ghost towns of the 1990s are still standing and the eerie cottages of the times gone by are still decaying at the roadside. In England we are obsessed with tidiness.

Greenwood Mayo 5

Today has again been spent in the car, imprisoned. I haven’t been able to contend with the landscape other than through the camera. It’s evening and the sky is broad and blue. The children are playing in the fields, traversing the margins and fence lines. Now I feel the need to see the mountain’s top, I want to know what’s on the other side. I make it to where I stopped the other day, no need of silence or thought, I continue up through the goat clefts, driving shin-first through midge clouds. A wren is singing up above me as I dip in to the path as it bends around an alcove home to boulders that have become dislodged and crashed down over time to sit in the vegetation, cool. I pass back out and the track becomes more steep, the heather creeping across. Now I can see another fire in the south, the smoke blowing to the west across the glassy Roosky lake. The field lines are clear from up here, the margins deep and defined. I turn and clamber to the top. The zenith opens out with a gust of a cold, cold wind. I put my hood up and watch as a meadow pipit raises aloft, calling, a single peep, escaping on deep undulations. So that was the little bird I’d heard the other day. The top of this mountain is peat bog, the feral goats see me and disappear over a peat bank. There are lines where the peat has been removed in the past, a practice which is now criticised by environmentalists because so much carbon has been stored in the bogs. To the Irish who cut out this peat it was just a local and available fuel, it was not an evil act. A trough in the heather is full with water reflecting the sky. The wind ripples the surface. Frogspawn sits in large clumps in one corner. It’s only the second lot I’ve seen this year, here and on Exmoor. I decide to head back down the mountain

A meadow pipit appears and clings to a sprig of heather. I watch it through my binoculars as it looks from side to side, its speckled breast twisting. I pass the winding path again and overshoot, taking the wrong goat path this time. I spot an unusually verdant green peeking from behind a boulder. And here we have it, lesser celandine, wild strawberry. Woodland indicator species hiding behind a rock. So, could it be, did the Ox Mountains once have ragged woods rather than heather? How long ago? I think of how I came to find these plants, by following a goat path. There will be no woodland as long as the goats roam these moors. A man is standing on rock down below covering his eyes, looking around in a fashion not far from the meadow pipit’s.

‘Have you seen a sheep and a lamb passing up these ways?’ he asks.

I haven’t. I see the smoke plumes again. ‘Who is setting fire to the mountain?’ I ask.

‘Just cats,’ he says.

Greenwood Mayo 6

Wednesday

I walk up to the top of the mountain again but with my family this time. I want them to see this view. I see how much good the walk does them, out of the car, not worrying about granddad, if he has enough clothes, if he remembers us, if he’s happy.

Thursday

Stepping off the main road we tread carefully over the rocky steps to Lough Conn, the water lapping against the rocks as it flows under Pontoon Bridge. On the opposite bank the gorse is flowering at every opportunity. North of Foxford it’s bright orange, the dry weather and warm sun has lit fires across the Ox Mountains, this morning the sun shone through the smoke and lit everything brown. It’s not arson this time. In the nursing home they mentioned it on the radio. This place feels like the whole world, the only place. In Pontoon the cars passing at 50mph on the road are not regular enough to dominate the soundscape. I listen – no birds. To the left is a pile of rocks and boulders, leading to a shoreline of reeds, grasses and willow. Beyond the water’s edge is woodland, rising into a lip that looks out over the lough. To me, from here, that is an ancient wood. I look through my binoculars and I’m sure I can see oak buds against the blue sky, growing amidst the straggly birch trees.

Mayo Woodland

How can I get there without drowning? It’s a family holiday and my parents are with me, so dad suggests climbing across the boulders to the left. When we were on holiday in West Cork in the 1990s he would go fishing off rocks our mum deemed dangerous. My sister and I would sit at the window waiting for him to appear on the lane, unsure if the ocean, a shark, a giant squid might have captured him from us. He risked it, and so I’ll do it. The water isn’t deep immediately below the boulders but a cold soaking isn’t on the cards when I’ve got my camera with me. I clamber up onto a big boulder, leading with my feet, stepping onto smaller, and sometimes shifting rocks. I bring my right arm round and the sleeve of my coat unclips my lens cap – and off it goes, somersaulting into the brown water. I can’t help but think of Leonardo di Caprio disappearing into the sea at the end of Titanic. This feels like one of those times when things go a bit wrong. I slip down onto my backside and try to drag the cap towards me with my boot. The lens cap begins to sink. I fish again and drag deeper, I pull my boot away and it’s there, I snatch at it and zip it away.

I climb across the final few rocks until the water has receded and a sandy shore is under foot. This route is rarely taken, it’s blocked by crouched willows and twigs that are so dry they snap as I move. Further along the shore is a stone hut with an iron roof. It looks old, really old, but renovated. The ground is sandy, boggy, midges and mozzies frolic in their respective mobs. Cutting across the marshy path towards the trees I get my first view of it – the green of an Irish rainforest. Everything is vibrant with moss, the tongues of ferns and decrepit trunks of birch and oak trees. At last, I’ve discovered one of Mayo’s ancient woodlands. A chiffchaff is singing from over the bank of collapsed oak and rock, the first of spring. There’s a slender path through the moss, leading to the lip I’d seen from the other side of the water. I wave to my family and call across. It’s ancient! It’s like entering into a new kingdom, a homecoming, a piece of land that hasn’t been twisted and torn by the plough. But there are signs: the stone hut on the shore has a back window (open casement) with a bar running through it, inside it’s dark and wet like a medieval prison.

Greenwood Mayo 8

A swing has been tied to an oak and some clothes are hanging up like the sails of a ship moored in this wood. I feel as if I’m trespassing, like in Frances Horovitz’s poem ‘Winter Woods’: ‘we have encroached – /this is not yet our land.’ There are signs of people yet I’m alone. A flock of long-tailed tits pass overhead, one holds the body of an insect and its sprawled limbs in its mouth – spring is beginning to move now – I wonder if that’s for a baby bird. I take one last glance at the mosses, a script lichen etched into hazel bark, the wood sorrel and ferns and head towards the water. A path through some heather leads up and out to the main road. I needn’t have scrambled after all.

A profusion of buttercups

Meadow buttercups
Meadow buttercup

Farthing Downs, London, June 2013

Stepping on to the Downs, a marked change has taken place in the two weeks since I’ve been here. The grass has lost its wintry edge and there grows a profusion of meadow buttercups. On the woody margins white butterflies steer themselves through the day, the slight of a cool breeze will no doubt register with them. A man is sitting on a bench taking pronounced drags from a spliff. I imagine ushering him to the gate as does someone wanting to be in a room alone. What is that link with landscape and human solitude.

A holly blue flutters about in a restless fashion, unwilling to perch, itself ushering me away, perhaps. I take the hint. The jackdaws are still here, so faithful to this place, much more so than me. This is why wildlife is so deserving of the land, perhaps more so than we. It doesn’t have a choice. Last time I watched them in a snowy sky but now they move through the ankle high wildflowers like shadows. They call out and burst free into the air when I enter into their field of vision.

Willow warbler crop 1
Willow warbler

I walk into the scrubby chunk of woodland that the path cuts through. I am struck by the change, the green, the lividness of the living. A woody, leafless hawthorn reminds me that both states remain all year round. Chiffchaffs are calling to each other up ahead, followed by the only slightly different voice of a willow warbler, a bird almost identical to the others. I sit in the shade on the edge of the path and listen. A willow warbler appears from the bush and lands on the branch of a young hazel tree. It has some insects in its bill and it whistles incessantly, huuu-eet. I take a picture and sit still. After a short wait a green woodpecker yaffles and the willow warbler dives into the long grass and bramble. Two weeks ago this bird did the same but without food in its bill. Now it’s feeding silent young down there in the thorns and tussocks. A couple pass me where I sit.

‘Are you looking for a lesser spotted whatever-it-is?’ the lady asks.

I explain the situation, pleased they don’t think I’m up to no good. Her partner turns to me: ‘I know you.’

‘And I know you.’

We remind ourselves of when and where from. We both agree things have improved since then. They leave happily, I get up and carry on through Farthing Downs.

Farthing Downs in June 1
Farthing Downs

The year’s first brood of small heath butterflies have hatched on the Downs. A pair rest on separate patches of bare soil created by livestock, conducting the heat of the sun. They live as adults for as little as seven days and I admire their freedom, their lolling and landing, they circle me, perhaps jittery when I move but not much bothered. They are orange smudges against the green downland. I sit with them. A soldier beetle clambers up a blade of grass and wrestles with its own weight, a clumsy, dim creature, it straddles the seed head, whirs its antennae and unleashes its wings from its black backpack, struggling into the air.

Soldier beetle
Soldier beetle

Chasing butterflies down stairs in Italy

Positano
Forest fire above Positano

Positano, Italy, September 2011

I’m sitting out on the terrace of the pensione, complaining aloud in the full sun. Last night I’d peered over the ledge at the lemon and olive trees, the tiled terraces and bright white roofs. The faint voice of a thrush had caught my ear, and the familiar dark, scuttling figure of a blackbird darted across a building about twenty-five-feet below. But there was something unusual about the blackbird. The light was low and so darker tones fell to black. However, this was not a wholly black bird and I entertained the thought – could it be a blue rock thrush? I was unprepared for it, so unrefined is my knowledge of anything non-British and unfamiliar. From the viewpoint of our pensione, the houses, hotels, gardens and restaurants, immaculately packed together, are built like steps to the sky with the sweeping curve of the only road in the town cutting through them, linking Positano to Naples and Sorrento to the north and Amalfi in the south. Above all this stands dry, steep and rocky mountains with deep green woodlands below the peaks. Helicopters are taking turns to pour water from the ocean onto a forest fire that has erupted in the southern peaks. It has been going on all night, the choppers roaring, their sound unbearably loud in this mid-30 degree heat. On the terrace I watch the heat rise as the morning nears noon, the choppers ferrying water from ocean to mountain. From beneath me a butterfly emerges, and it’s the beast of European butterflies, the swallowtail, flitting between the railings like a twenty-pound note.

*

Having had the shadow of a swallowtail pass over me, down into the depths of the gardens where the mystery bird had scampered, I decide to investigate its flight path. I’m here for my uncle’s wedding. It’s a big family holiday and so I have relatives scattered around all corners of the town. Had they all been ornithologists or lepidopterists things might be easier for me. There’s the rumour of a path or set of stairs that runs for nearly half a mile from our pensione down to the beach. My uncle, the groom, tried it and nearly died, apparently. My sister, fresh from travels in India, walked it the other day and says there are ‘loads of butterflies’. She mentioned colours which don’t even appear in my rubbish field guide. The image in my mind is of clouds of blues dancing amid the nu-rave hue of Mediterranean wildflowers.

Wall lizard

The temperature touches 35 degrees by 2 or 3pm, and so it becomes a time of hibernation. It feels too hot even to think, to speak. The steps down to the beach, some 400 or so, begin by a chapel outside the pensione. A black priest enters through the old wooden doors, sending an SMS with his mobile as he walks, never looking up. The stairs aren’t uniform, they dip and swerve, the height of an individual slab varying and inducing vertiginous feelings. Streaming between old, old walls the path echoes with the slap of thin, rubbery footwear and suddenly a burst of pink lanterns, bougainvillea flowers which are so evident, climbing across the blistering walls of Positano. It’s September so some are turning to seed, they appear tea-stained. The stairs descend past the front doors of people’s houses and iron gates which offer tantalising visions of Italian ornamental gardens. On the rough surface of the waist high walls either side, lizards rest and escape. They give themselves away quite easily – the sound of brittle leaves dislodged in the cavity of a wall, by neither wind nor gravity. Ants channel the iron handrails. The sun is so hot and so high, my legs tremble when I look up.

The steps snake round and flatten into a slope, I sit down in the shade of an olive tree and waft my hat about my face. A woman and a young man, probably her son, are climbing up the steps. She is visibly sweating, I smile at her and attempt a universal gesture for overheating. She’s a typical Italian mama, portly with dark hair and a cloth dress. She’s out of breath and looks at me like the stranger that I am. A man is watering his garden behind the iron railings. I sit and wait for butterflies. The olive trees pool at their bases, as if they’ve been melted by the sun. The larger oliver groves have nets tied around their trunks, ready to be rolled out in season to catch the falling fruit. It’s not time yet. In the sun of the path’s slope, a lemon tree dangles over from a garden, plump with yellow fruits. Great umbrellas of fennel grow on the perilous bank beyond the wall and a white butterfly lands to feed on one plant. I photograph it and zoom in on the crop. Positano is home to white butterflies as London is to pigeons, mostly the small white, Europe’s most common butterfly. The one I’ve pictured isn’t a small white, however. It has dark markings on the wings, a little like a marbled white, but more like a bath white. In my head I swiftly establish this perilous walkway as Positano’s first wildlife conservation area. Peering over the wall at the olives and dry grasses, there is the usual sign of plastic bottles and bags discarded. This, however, doesn’t compare with the crap around Naples airport.

Positano's first wildlife conservation corridor/stairwell
Positano’s first wildlife conservation corridor/stairwell

The heat is getting too much for me, I glance at the steep steps back up to the hotel. I let in the murmurings of hot panic. From the lemon tree garden the gigantic shape of a swallowtail soars down onto the path and over the wall, just like it passed over our terrace. I rush out to try and get a photo but it’s too quick and I’m too far from it. Against the rocky wall a brimstone glides, a flash of orange on its outer wing. This is no normal brimstone. I look at my field guide. It’s Cleopatra’s. The sun pulsates. I dive back into the shade. The Mediterranean glimmers blue in between the olive branches holding ripening fruits, Tunisia and Algeria beyond the horizon. People have been passing me, comfortable with the sun rays, on their way down to the beach. It’s 1:30pm, the hottest part of the day. I guzzle from my water bottle and make my way back up the steps to hide.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2013

The silence overcomes us

Loch Garten

– Loch Garten, Scotland, November 2012

Bar a few cars passing us on the approach road there is no one here. And but for the track itself, the birch, heather and lichen covered Scot’s pine exude a sense of ancient wilderness. There are no human trails through the heather and soggy mounds of moss, only a few signs of other mammals escaping into the wilder regions. Some odourless spraint we discover at our feet intrigues us: pine marten, otter? I don’t know. A bit further back, we watched a red squirrel hug the trunk of a pine, climbing a branch higher as we took steps closer. The images we’re fed in England of confiding creatures doesn’t match the shy nature of these Scottish animals.

The sound of chainsaws is moaning, unending. It may be work that will help these famously mistreated woodlands, cleared with such fervour by the English, but the noise is irritating. We turn into Loch Garten and our minds to the capercaillie, a member of the grouse family which is renowned for the defence of its territory to all comers. Our host in Aviemore showed us a photograph in the guesthouse lobby of a celebrity capercaillie that entertained the masses in the 1990s. Anyone who passed the field bordering the bird’s pinewood territory would be met with a fanfare of its black tail feathers, not unlike a peacock. The framed photograph in the lobby showed that the bird lacked a tail feather. This led to uproar locally – someone’s dog had attached the bird and it had lost its feather. That, however, proved to be untrue. A local farmer had put out feed for his horse in the field next to the capercaillie’s dwelling, and the bird had begun to join the horse for dinner. Eventually, the horse grew tired of the charismatic grouse eating its food and bit it on the arse. Mystery solved. There is no chance of us witnessing such scenes today at Loch Garten.

But what’s to be enjoyed in the absence of the Cairngorms’ other celebrity birds, the ospreys that travel here from Africa to breed? The Loch itself. The roots of mature pines spread freely from the soil as the opening of the Loch appears before us: the gentle movement of its surface, the image of Craiggowrie in the distance, the silence overcomes us. How peculiar that silence can feel louder than chainsaws. Nan Shepherd wrote about it up in the mountains but here it is lapping on the water at just a few hundred feet. The movement of the water’s edge does not end there, it moves across the sandy soil, into the pine forest, rippling through me. From the bordering pine forest comes the cheerful trill of a crested tit, it sounds like the only thing on earth. The pines on the waterfront have beard lichens snagged in in their branches, so much like the facial hair of miniature woodland elders, dark green and bright blue. The gnarled dead wood of the pine holds their ghastly expressions. We turn on our heels and head for the depths of Abernethy Forest.

Even under snow

Even under snow

Featured on The New Nature

– Farthing Downs & New Hill, London, February 2013

Snow covers the Downs. From the town comes the agitated clamour of traffic and, somewhere, the eagerness of a chainsaw. The layer of snow is fresh, renewed by flakes heavier out here on London’s periphery. Beneath my feet the seeds of field scabious, knapweed, yellow rattle and marjoram wait for the thaw, warm in the soil. Just as winter’s onslaught can’t be held off, nor can spring and summer wildflowers be maligned for long. The small pockets of woodland lack the crunch of the open Downs. The snow has melted quickly there, the ivy bright in the tree-dark, a young oak drips loudly, the sound heard out in the snowscape. Winter’s renaissance will be short lived.

A flock of some forty jackdaws whip around in the white sky. They have seen Farthing Downs at its brightest, remaining here to make something of it, even under snow. Their image is otherworldly, as if the past is being ripped out and unleashed, helpless, across the sky. A car passes in the lane blaring tunes, stopping, the driver steps out – at first I think to accost me and perhaps the camera – kneeling down he photographs his car with his phone, front and behind. Two magpies are flushed into the air. He steps in and rolls away. The snow melts and flows in a stream down the chalky hollow of the woodland descending to Happy Valley, heavy droplets falling from gleaming hazel coppices and blackened hawthorn. The world is working.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2013

Birdsong fills the dour skies

York Robin

– York, December 2012

Having travelled up north today, one thing is clear – it’s a grey day in England. The fields are flooded, rivers have broken their banks, swamping hedgerows like spurious borders between water-bound states. Perhaps it’s a vision of the future. In York it’s much the same as we walk the walls. These giant slabs of stone encase the city’s heart, having done so for centuries. My footwear is unsuitable, leather boots with worn, grip-less soles. My companion is even more ill-suited in her heeled boots, though somehow she doesn’t slip as I do. Perhaps it’s the familiarity of the native. I fail to pick up placenames or any other manmade pointers, often quick to admire the old structures of men, we sometimes overlook nature’s work entirely. Instead of history, I’m drawn to the algae-green branches of lime trees and the peeling bark of mature sycamores, the small chunks of tree skin leaving ripples, as if they’ve disappeared into the flesh of the thing itself.

The walls break up and we have to climb the slender stairwells again to continue. I’m struck by how many people say hi, how many smile and seek eye contact. The sheer banks below show the early leaves of nettles and cow parsley, some plants are flowering, a large pink mallow the most striking. Have they evolved to find winter cover in the wall’s company? A flock of starlings spread between plane trees, ticking and whistling. I insist we wait and listen. Their roundabout call is a joyful sound.

We descend again and find the River Ouse has flooded the walkways, sandy rivulets reclaiming stone. A white swan mingles with a gang of Canada geese to feed on the bank opposite. Under the bridge a dog defecates, its owner pointedly collecting it with a little plastic bag. A fire and rescue dinghy glides past, a crew member waving as I take their picture. We return to the street above and cross the bridge. Mud from the river has coloured the tarmac of a car park.

Back on the wall we watch two hooded teenagers hide their bikes in the black walkway of a terraced housing estate. They are wary of leaving their belongings out in the open. Down below a strip of no-mans-land offers up the remains of a bike immortalised in long grass, like the inhabitants of Pompeii to molten rock. Up ahead we squeeze out of the way of oncoming walkers and stop to admire a scene of sparrows flocking to a garden bird feeder. It reminds my friend of her time in Spain, ‘a happy sound’, and we watch their grey shapes darting between food and the shelter of the gutter. Their calls explode into single shrieking notes. A juvenile sparrowhawk crashes into the feeder from over the fence, what seemed to be ample shielding from the outside world. The hawk is unmistakable with its dark brown barred wings. It falls out of sight, presumably pinning its prey to the patio, or in the shrub below the feeder. We wait for news. A good few minutes later the shrieking – unceasing during this time – heightens further. The sparrowhawk makes its getaway over the fence and cars parked in the street beyond, the shadow of a sparrow in its talons.

The bells of York Minster sound over the ornamental gardens, their spacious mown lawns and the first beech trees of our time up here. Robins sing from all sides, one is silhouetted in a branch close to our ears, its blackened bill working as it counters the dour skies and echoing bell toll with its shimmering wildsong.

Somewhere between a cuckoo and a high speed train

Mid-Colne valley

– Broadwater Lake, Harefield, May 2012

A chill wind moves across Broadwater Lake. Black-headed gulls are screaming from rafts built for the common terns which arrive here from their African wintering grounds. It is pleasing to be greeted by one of the newly emigrated. It swoops past, coming closer each time, raising aloft and diving into an arc that brings it back down to the surface of the water and away. The sky is alive with swifts feeding. When the suns does come out clouds of midges move like slow bands of rain after me and on the River Colne I see mayflies touching the water. There’s plenty of food if you’re feathered.

The track separates the Colne on the western side and the lake in the east. The river is separated again by a thick bank of nettles and cow parsley, that common umbellifer that signals spring. There are interjections from vibrant red campion flowers amongst the spread of green, probably indicators of the woodland that was here long before the lakes were dug for gravel and, when finished with, filled by rainwater to create today’s scene. The trees along the river are bursting with song, almost all with the fluid voice of the garden warbler, a bird so plain it’s unmistakable. It has a shy, modest look about it, as if too retiring to boast about its aural beauty. They’re in the bramble too, and it’s a song to silence the prick of the thorns.

On the other side of the river masses of dogwood cover the willow scrub. In the reedbeds struggling to establish along the bank of Broadwater Lake a sedge warbler is singing. It has a white eyestripe and differing palette of browns to mark it out from other plain-looking birds like the reed warbler. Its song is outstanding. I pick out the calls of a blue tit, great tit, goldfinch, greenfinch and the fink! of a chaffinch. This sedge warbler is a masterful mimic.

But there is one song which stands out most, and I hear it around the bend, further up from the lake. The cuckoo. It draws the breath.

A new bout of warm sunshine offers a male orange tip the chance to forage along the track, a pair of Canada geese are ushering twenty-four golden young away and into the Colne. It has the uncanny resemblance to teachers flocking fluorescent infants onto public transport. The geese wack in my direction as they go down river.

Cuck-oo, cuck-oo!

In the distant northern corner of the lake hundreds upon hundreds of house martins are skimming the surface, and from here it appears synchronised. I strafe the glasses from left to right and they are constant. Swifts are treating me like an obstacle, I’m sure I nearly took a hit from a dark and floppy hirundine.

The cuckoo is calling.

I pass back the way we came, again meeting the Canada geese, regarding me once more as a predator. A pair of reed bunting are busy between the scrub along the Colne, passing across to the edge of the lake, the black-headed male clinging to a willow stem, a stick in his bill like a dancer with a rose between his teeth. This bird is building a nest, the female appearing in the bush next door. They disappear into the thin stock of reeds at the edge of the lake.

As I head off in search along the track the cuckoo calls at its clearest, the sun free of cloud, piping. The bird calls from across the Colne, surely from a perch, we scan the trees and find the grey head and neck of the male but it’s bothered and takes to the air. It’s satisfying, so satisfying to see the bird my ancestors took for granted.

I continue along the track, buoyed with the sense that all is right with the world, that England is okay – if this bird has returned again then we must have something to be happy about. Of course, the calling cuckoo is only confirmation, whereas the sight of it is something else. This bird’s voice has become so much a part of our connection with birds, nature, wildlife, time, the world, whatever, that it’s become part of our language, even becoming a word to define mental ill health. It made it into a part of our mechanical world where other species haven’t, the sound of an hour passing and a new beginning. A world without the cuckoo is unthinkable to most. To see the bird calling is a privilege, and then you know it isn’t the gardener playing a trick, the old family clock, or a child portraying ‘madness’.

I’m in a daze. Two birds are squabbling overhead, I’m sure they’re sparrowhawks, but then I’m not. It’s two male cuckoos fighting over territory.

***

Outside the reserve and back on the main road my ears are ringing with the sound of birds – a blackbird somewhere along the way has recorded its fluid melodies into the fundament between my ears. A buzzard passes over the Colne in perfect silence, head twisting, two crows pursue it.

I climb to a pub on the hill over on the other side of the lake, to see the view of the mid-Colne valley and to get a sense of perspective. The weather is fluctuating, the wind is flung out and a few specks of rain touch the windscreens of parked cars, the sun breathes fire into the once dark globules of ornamental copper beech trees on the hill opposite and across the lake. The sunshine stays, the valley gleaming. Its beauty comes like a puncture. The swifts cover the expanse, wheezing and sailing across the vista. In the ragged hedge of hawthorn and field maple just in front of me a whitethroat appears, offering a few tentative renditions of its gravelly warble. A man walking a very slow and floppy-eared dog has spied me.

‘We see red kites very often, almost every day,’ he says. It’s his day off. He turns to take in the view of the valley, his thoughts turning to the proposal to build High Speed 2, a high speed trainline, through neighbouring Korda Lake and across the Colne. ‘It’s a nightmare,’ he says. ‘Hopefully they put it underground.’

The sky is an azure blue with discarded cloud, the sun intense. Broadwater Lake is a space of trembling, sparkling water. This was once a gravel quarry but now is a place which, in this moment, with swifts, warblers and the indefatigable cuckoo, retains a sense of the Arcadian paradise with which we paint our memories of the English countryside. With the threat of upheaval from HS2 it’s unclear how long that will remain.