Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘Nature’

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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Mutěnice fish ponds

South Moravia, Czech Republic, July

I’m standing in the street waiting for Moravian ornithologist Karel Šimeček. From here I can see a serin on a TV aerial across the road, and from over the houses I hear a golden oriole releasing a few phrases of its fluty, unmistakable music into the morning air. In the road is a dead animal, a common sight, and an indicator of just how much wildlife there is here. Another common image, especially on the roads leading out of town, is squashed hedgehogs. In England we barely have dead ones anymore. A car pulls up on the other side of the road and out steps Karel, binoculars round his neck, eye pieces covered by grey duct tape. He crosses the road, making sure not to be run down like a hedgehog. He shakes my hand and turns to the squashed animal in the road:

‘Turdus philomelos,’ he says.

A song thrush, my favourite bird. We get into Karel’s silver Peugeot estate with Radiohead’s Kid A on the stereo, a welcome reminder of home, and we set off. The roads are mostly empty but then it is 8:30am on a Sunday morning. I ask Karel about his interest in wildlife.

‘I became interested in birds as a boy when my mother bought me a book,’ he says. ‘I have been watching birds for more than thirty years. But there are not as many as there used to be, when I look at my notes I can see that there are less birds now.’

Why is that?

‘Different reasons. Agriculture is very important but it is probably the main reason,’ he says.

I was astonished to see how large the fields were in South Moravia. My host is conservationist Zuzana Veverkova, and she told me that the average field size is 500 hectares, meaning that small-scale, sustainable farming is impossible. Young people cannot find a way in other than through inheritance. And there are reasons why farms are so large: inspired by Stalin’s collectivisation of Russia’s agriculture, the Czech communists did the same, forcing farmers off their land and into prison if they refused. Today you have the corporate farming practice with monocultures of what Karel calls ‘the yellow evils’ of wheat, corn, sunflower and rapeseed. In some places, there are miles of these plants and nothing else.

But back to birds. I’ve never seen a goshawk and have read they are one of the most common raptors in the Czech Republic:

‘They are at 20% of what they were when I started,’ says Karel. ‘They are hunted and poisoned by people who think that anything with a curved bill and talons should be killed.’

‘Do you know the hunters?’ I ask.

‘Yes, I know them, and there is no reason for their killing of these birds.’

‘And are goshawks protected by law?’

‘Of course.’

We pass out through the fields, a pine wood on the horizon.

‘A few friends and I managed to get the pine forest protected as a nature reserve,’ says Karel.

That was not enough to save its most unique resident. 20 years ago it was home to more than twenty singing male ortolan buntings. Today there are none. Karel laments this fact as we take a swerve in the road, our passage halted by a pair of white storks treading through a field. Karel reverses and I photograph these graceful birds. They watch us, too, turning away and moving further into the pasture.

White stork

Arriving at Mutěnice fish ponds we stand on the rickety wooden footbridge where the River Kyjovka dams, the water splitting off into the ponds. Leaves cover the surface, a red admiral arriving to bask on the enforced stillness. Karel points to a stand of dead poplar trees on the other side of the river.

‘That’s the beaver’s work,’ he says.

They’ve been here for thirty years. About five years ago the manager of the ponds attempted to eradicate them, but he failed and so the beavers remain. They arrived here from Austria from the Morava, the river that gives this district its name, running the border with Austria and reaching the Danube in Slovakia. When they first appeared here one beaver was captured and interred in the local zoo. It escaped within 24 hours and returned to the fish ponds.

Turning to step off the footbridge, over a few missing slats, Karel glimpses a kingfisher as it lands on a rock in the Kyjovka. I lift the camera to it but can’t switch it on in time to get the shot. Off it goes, electric blue bolt into the willowy shadows of the river. And as we trample through the long grass alongside the river Karel picks out the calls of young kingfishers and a perch that bears the signs of the birds, no leaves, just bare and worn.

One abiding memory of these ponds will be the stench of the water. It’s nasty. More than once Karel has stopped and pointed at the water’s edge and said, ‘this is not water, this is coffee.’ It’s brown, frothy and pungent so not far off. We continue along the Kyjovka, the large pond on our left meeting the path which we’ve already passed down this morning. Karel has seen something up high in the hazy summer sky:

‘Yes,’ he says. ‘White tailed sea eagle.’

Marsh harrier attacking white-tailed eagle

Marsh harrier attacking white-tailed eagle

Through the binoculars I see a huge animal beating its great wings, with primary feathers so long they look like fingers that could dictate some deep, magical changes to the world below. But no animal is safe or indeed at peace for long on Earth. Karel has seen alongside the eagle a marsh harrier attacking it, and moments later another appears. I set my camera and start clicking. The eagle looks overdressed in its Gogolian greatcoat of brown feathers, its white head and neck protruding out from under, yellow talons dangling out below like down-turned coat hangers. The marsh harrier strikes again and again, forcing the eagle away from the sky above the huge pond and towards the trees, until the battle is over and all three have left my field of vision.

‘We had no idea that the eagles were here,’ Karel says. ‘A Swedish hunter had a permit to hunt in the forest and when he was leaving he said, “I see that you have eagles nesting in the forest”. Our response was, “we didn’t know that!”.’

We tread the path already taken, a dead bat splayed on the ground, its deathly grin drawn wide and rotting. It’s our waymarker. A small van rolls along the track, a Czech man with short black hair and ski-glasses steps out, handing Karel a metal tag that reads ‘Budapest’. They discuss something and then say goodbye, the man getting back into the car and driving away. The ring is from a young cormorant that was shot the other day. It had been ringed by ornithologists in Hungary and died here at Mutěnice. This seems familiar to Karel:

‘The migration patterns of cormorants are well known,’ he says.

This is an extract from an upcoming collection, Travels in South Moravia

Links:

Karel’s website

Conservation in South Moravia

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014
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Ivy leaf

I remember when I first became interested in woodland. Through my lack of knowledge and understanding I thought ivy was a tree-killing force that scaled a trunk like a cancer and had no other purpose. I looked at the fat stalks of ivy growing on a poplar in a nearby park and thought it might be an idea to cut them. In my local area there are people who go around doing just that.

The fact is that ivy is fantastic for wildlife. When ivy grows up the front of a house and sparrows are nearby they’ll use it. Blackcaps, one of my favourite songbirds, nest in it. Entire bat colonies can roost in it. Hoverflies, bees, butterflies, they all use it for different means, be it a leaf to perch on or flowers to drink nectar from. Walking in Crystal Palace Park recently I was passed by a man remarking to his friend about a line of trees with ivy growing up them:

‘Look at those trees,’ he said, his companion turning to look. ‘The ivy grows up them and just kills them off. I’m thinking of writing a letter.’

This is one of the biggest misunderstandings about ivy – it is not merely some dark demon from a tree-hating underworld, it flowers, too. In fact, the main reason it is even anywhere near a tree is because a songbird or woodpigeon has sat in the tree and evacuated its seed. It produces food eaten by a good number of birds and attracts insects that birds can feed to their babies. Beautiful and exciting birds like firecrests target it for food and shelter in winter when they pass through parts of the British Isles.

A tree brought down in a wood will give life to wildflowers and wake some that have lain dormant in the soil

Ivy does add extra weight to a tree and, in some cases, can weigh a tree down making it more liable to windblow during a storm. But the issue isn’t with the ivy it’s with us, Homo sapiens. In woodlands, it is completely natural for a tree to fall down, it’s good. The new light that will hit the woodland floor will improve the structural diversity, particularly in British woodlands that, since the Second World War, have gone largely unmanaged and have become overgrown as our economy has grown to rely more and more on imported materials.

A tree brought down in a wood will give life to wildflowers and wake some that have lain dormant in the soil, unable to flower because of the previous tree’s leaf shade. In the street, however, a fallen tree could mean death, damages and lawsuits. For all our love of woodlands and forests, perhaps the sight of new woodland is something that kindles a deep fear inside us, as if the open land is being overtaken, changing at a pace and in a manner that we’re uncomfortable with. Personally I find woodland reclaiming old developments and ‘wastelands’ as something to feel good about. It tells me the world can function without our intervention and can recover. Nature can make even the most barren place into a leafy oasis given time.

The chap I overheard in Crystal Palace later remarked on a c.200-year-old horse chestnut standing tall and true, though surrounded by ground dwelling ivy. If he had seen a horse chestnut wounded by blight, a disease spreading through global trade, might he have turned his ire on Environment Minister Owen Paterson for not tightening restrictions on imports? In the case of the healthy, happy horse chestnut, does it not suggest that what we love (or this man at least) is the splendour of individual trees, their maturity, their completeness. The common understanding of nature’s life cycle is a single sapling to a mature tree, without any notion of the stuff that might happen in between, the decay and lost limbs, all part of the picture. After a recent trip to the decidedly untidy West of Ireland, I read this quote from Oliver Cromwell on the state of the Irish landscape in Neil Hegarty’s The Story of Ireland:

‘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).

Cromwell couldn’t have been more wrong, though his rhetoric is plainly political. Those Irish ‘Boggs’ are one of the planet’s many ways of storing carbon dioxide emitted by the felling of woodlands (which thanks to the English has occurred in Scotland and Ireland through centuries of invasion and land grab) and is something we as a species are scrambling to mimic. Today we look at those bogs with a greater understanding, if not thanks. In County Mayo some are being turned into reserves, home to merlin, otter and grouse. But the main thing here has been capitalised by Cromwell’s old English: Neglect.

People get angry and feel they’re being forgotten when their grass isn’t cut by the council, when the neighbour hasn’t trimmed the hedge on their side, when the ivy suffocating those trees hasn’t been cut. Often these are measures to boost bee numbers and reinstate lost habitat for birds and bats. In England, if we are to help bees, birds and butterflies, we need to address our obsession with tidiness. In the natural world it does not equal good hygiene or ‘Cleanliness’, an untidy garden means more birds, more bees and more butterflies.

In Cromwell’s case it was the language of war, a debasing of another country and culture, rather than a comment on wildlife gardening. I don’t think it’s far off, mind you. If we are to overcome our uneasiness about ivy and trees we’ll need to loosen our grip, leave the mower in the shed one year and look at the benefits of the plant, the good it does for wildlife in these most ecologically trying of times. I like to think my original, misguided concern for trees came from a good place and has developed into something more reasonable having taken time to consider the bigger picture of the natural world.

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On Saturday (9th June 2012) London Wildlife Trust and the Old Surrey Downs Project held the annual Hutchinson’s Bank open day. With the Heritage Lottery Funded From Thorn to Orchid Project, Hutchinson’s Bank has been managed instensively by both local and travelling volunteers over the past 12 months to remove the encroaching scrub of young trees which, if left unchecked, will shade-out the foodplants of a diverse array of butterflies. Here are some of the butterflies encountered on the day, many of which will thrive thanks to the ongoing management of the 35 acre reserve. The small blue and dingy skipper are two butterflies suffering severe declines nationally.

Small blue (Cupido minimus)

Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni)

Green hairstreak (Callophrys rubi)

Dingy skipper (Erynnis tages)

Small heath (Coenonympha pamphilus)

Common blue (Polyommatus icarus)

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