Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘Spring’

The Sussex Weald, March 2019

My time in the woods has thinned. Just like the seasoned photographers in magazines tell you, planning your time is key to getting the photos you most enjoy. It also becomes dependent on weather forecasts. A few years ago a friend of mine was leading me around his favourite sites in the Czech Republic and he made a point I haven’t forgotten. Nothing matters more with photography than light. You could have the most amazing scene in front of you, but light is everything. It adds contrast, shadow and colour. It makes you feel good.

Bearing that in mind, I had a few hours in the afternoon before the sun went down to visit an ancient coppice woodland in the Sussex Weald. The Weald is a chunk of southern England that runs from the Hampshire border of West Sussex all the way to Kent in the east. It was once an ‘impenetrable forest’ but now is a large mosaic of oak-dominant woodland with a Conservation Board to protect it. Coppicing is the practice of cutting trees low to the ground to harvest the materials for wood products. It’s effectively farming the woods. Our ancestors have been doing it for thousands of years. Even beavers do it.

It produced the multi-stemmed trees see above and allows light to enter in, often resulting in a profusion of flowers indicative of a woodland that has remained there for over 400 years. March-May is the time when these flowers arrive, benefiting from the fact the canopy is still open. Wood anemones are the first of this swathe.

Like many people before (and after) me, I fell for this small white flower when I learned of its charming lifestyle. The petals close when the sun is gone and they are punished for this delicateness. It takes about 100 years to spread 2 metres across the ground. In the past it has been my job to try and protect wood anemones from trampling. I agonised over it.

Wood anemone is a member of the buttercup family. The similarity to buttercups is in the number of petals, the leaves and the reproductive parts of the flowers (the stamens and anthers) that protrude from the centre. At this time of year in continental Europe purple anemones push through crusts of snow that we don’t really have in the UK. Our friends in Europe have wood anemones, also.

Bluebells and anemones can create beautiful spreads of flowers in woods. But they don’t always make the photos you want. Anemones look wonderful with a bit of early morning or evening light passing through their petals. I went with that thought in mind to see the Sussex anemones.

This is a special time – perhaps the best in the year? – when winter has been overcome and the promise of longer days, of warmth and green is on the cusp. It could also be a genetic memory we have from our ancestors who found winter to be more uniformly cruel than we experience today.

It’s really important for me that photographing any wildlife does not add to disturbance. With woodland flowers it means taking photos from the path or sparse areas. I’ve already said how long it takes them to travel. The photo above may reinforce that: a vulnerable, delicate flower isolated in a darkening wood.

You sometimes find a single flower left over from a trampled population, like a single cottage left from an abandoned village.

Everywhere in wild corners of the UK ther are signs of a micro-shift in a season. The wood anemones hold the floor today, but the first bluebells are unfurling. In this old coppiced wood the bluebells will run rampant and the wood anemones will be squeezed. It’s just the natural order of things.

For now the windflowers, as they were once known, break out from beds of dead bracken in still leafless woods.

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North Downs diary, Banstead Woods, March 2017

A bench has been built in a patch of recently churned clay, a rusty red. The bench matches the colour, dedicated to Jamie Eve who passed away in 2016 aged 26. His dedication tells passersby that he loved this place. A bouquet of tulips and ivy lies on the seat. Around Jamie’s bench bluebells peek, it is that special time. All across this wood the lilies push through. All around us life is returning, our side of this earth is coming closer to the sun, and wildlife is responding.

Edward Thomas, a poet made famous, really, by the success of Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways and sense of invigoration given to the subject of nature writing, wrote about the Banstead Downs. It is only because of reading Macfarlane’s books that I know of Thomas and for that reason that this time of year, when bluebell leaves threaten to reveal flowers, when the earliest pipings of blackbirds don’t quite progress to nightly songposts, reminds me of his poems. I have never truly got on well with his style, but Macfarlane’s success is the ability to bring you closer to the lesser known authors, walkers and naturalists. The line ‘Spring is being dreamed’ is one that is quoted across media formats at this time of year. It perfectly encapsulates that rough and wearied time when winter has bitten in and bitten long, but spring’s presence is unmistakable.

You can feel it in the movements and actions of birds, the great tit, chaffinch, blue tit, tree creeper all singing and moving across the wood. The consensus is growing. The hornbeam’s branches look different to the way they were two weeks ago, as the buds begin to break with their usual slowness. Small clusters of leaves spit from elder branches, hawthorns are never too ready to shift with the season. Throughout Banstead Woods large oaks stand in stoic silence. There is no hint of a leaf, their fistfuls of buds, many of which will never be needed, remain golden brown and closed. I remember last year seeing the tiny red leaves of oak coming out months in advance on the 25th January in south London, but this year there has not been the mildness to tempt the oaks out.

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These oaks, along with beeches, hornbeam pollards and mighty sweet chestnuts, suggest this wood was once more open, lighter and more intensively managed. These trees bestow a grandeur not quite felt in other woods I know along the North Downs, even the mighty beeches of Devilsden Wood. Here the trees are all on the plateau of Banstead Downs, their scale is not reduced by the steep slopes of the many valleys that cut through this chalky landscape. Here storm Doris has broken limbs and split trees, several by gusts blown along a ride that cuts widely through. Sometimes you have to squirm through branches to carry on.

I pass a man with binoculars and ask him of hawfinch and lesser spotted woodpecker, two birds that are rumoured to be present here. He has black curls with a touch of grey and says he has never seen them but ‘surely they must pass through’. He exhibits a sense of contentment in what the land holds for him this afternoon. It marks the end of Banstead Woods, signalled by a family passing, booted and offering a greeting as they make their way inside. At the wood’s edge the landscape opens out, a few of the typical farmland oaks stand in the centre of the field and along a hedgerow boundary. I follow the path along the wood’s edge where crumbling oaks and beeches dominate, with laurels and rhododendrons creeping in at their toes.

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At nearby Canons Farm a buzzard perches in branches, mobbed by crows, stirring starlings, sparrows and finches to leave their feeding until later. Above a lane enclosed by a close crop holly hedge birds explode across the grey sky, the buzzard following them in a blaze of alarm calls. Following the road round past a small clutter of houses where a man revs his van and reverses out, its emissions pungent, the buzzard perches in the branches of an oak. In the distance jackdaws roost and break in the tops of trees, closer at hand a crow swings low and short of the buzzard. It is unworried by the attention, taking its time, waiting for the right moment to move off over the fields again.

Tracing a path through leafing croplands that lead into the wealthy suburbia of Kingswood, the prospect of spring has been sidelined. It rings true – those who have no closeness to or desire to venture into woods or landscapes of the less manicured kind, can have little sense of the changing seasons. Treading the verge on route to the train station beside mansions with static laurel hedges, four cars and paved driveways, I can guess what Edward Thomas valued more.

Explore my North Downs diary

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The Chevening Estate

The Secret Garden, Sevenoaks, England, May 2015

I am walking the North Downs Way back to front, upside down and inside out. This is a view to Chevening House, where the British Foreign Secretary resides, currently Conservative Phillip Hammond. I’d rather be on foot.

Click through for my album of North Downs Way pictures 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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Swifts spread across

the sky and stop,

part starfish

brought by a retreating

surf, pigeons bolting

from a setting,

behind cloud.

 

Always, always,

the world is a

painting.

 

I listen to the tits

pleading from the nest

box, one bird out

and the other bird

in, a single note

between them.

 

Hawthorn flowers

are a tree lit

by snow in the

middle of May,

but is spring or

winter late?

I worry that the

old tree is dying,

that a part

of my youth might

not outlive me.

 

Happiness is the sound

of swifts screeching,

the migrants testing

the evening,

spring’s ending

 

brought on

by the declining

surf of sky,

or sea?

 

 










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