Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘St. Leonards Forest’

SLF - 5-12-2019 blog-24

St. Leonard’s Forest, West Sussex, December 2019

The path slopes up between ranks of birch, beech and oak. On the banks bracken is encrusted with frost and the addition of oak and beech leaves. I love the sight of a silver-lined oak leaf and December is the month to find them.

It’s about 9am. Mist lingers up ahead like the faint hang of smoke from a campfire. All around I can hear the falling of droplets of water. Looking at my sleeves there is no sign of rain. Then I realise it’s the frost melting in the tops of the trees. Water only falls from their crowns.

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In among the trees small birds flock and feed. These mixed groups of species have been building since September. A trio of bullfinch slip away from me in birch branches and bracken. Their fluty calls are faint and sweet. A white bib on their backs marks them out as they escape deeper into the dripping woods.

St. Leonard’s Forest was once more open than this. You can find huge beech trees dotted around from when they had the freedom to grow uninhibited. Now many more trees compete with them for light in the sky, good and water in the ground. One of the beeches has been damaged in a storm. A third of its trunk has fallen, splitting in two directions. Its summer leaves are still held by the fallen branches, shielding the scene of its collapse.

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This is not a catastrophe. It could result in the tree living centuries longer. Looking more closely the trunk glows green with moss and algae. It raises one limb still high into the air. This is its lifeline. Its heartwood is now exposed and soon more insects and fungi will move in. This is not a symptom of human error or mistreatment. Its is the true wildness of a tree stepping into the realm of the ancient.

The Sussex Weald

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SLF - 30-11-2019 blog-11

St. Leonard’s Forest, West Sussex, November 2019

The last day of autumn. The final patches of beech, oak, hazel and birch leaves are all that resist the darkest greens and browns of a winter wood. The green leaflets of an elder dangle out across the path, the only ones left on the entire tree.

Grey squirrels round the trees in small groups, like people wrapping a maypole in its ribbons. They are elf-like in a place where little else moves. I stop to take a photo of a biscuit-brown pine tree and a woman waits alongside me.

‘I thought you’d seen an animal,’ she says when I look, her dog carrying on ahead of her.

‘Just squirrels,’ I say.

She laughs: ‘Oh, yes. Plenty of those!’

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The gill is full as it slaloms down through the woods. In a pond at the edge of the path fallen oak leaves rest in perfect stillness.

At the foot of the heath, golden mushrooms grow in the soil amidst the remains of bracken. They are so easy to miss. They’re trumpet chanterelles, a species as edible as the original. Like all the mushrooms I photograph, I’m not here to pick or eat them. Their trumpets curve out like gramophones, their stipes sinuous, yellow and tapering like a birch trunk.

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These are autumn’s final moments. The frosts are creeping in, our breaths stolen away on the air as they leave our lips.

The Sussex Weald

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SLF - 17-11-19 blog-38

St. Leonard’s Forest, West Sussex, November 2019

After so much recent rain, the water flows fast through the s-shaped streambed of Sheepwash Gill. Clouds have consumed a sunny morning, Wealden clay clogs under foot. I’m trying to cross the gill by treading across the buffed sandstone which is usually above water. This is no ‘Robert Macfarlane climbing a mountain up a stream in his pants’ kind of effort. The water runs ankle-high against my boots.  On the other side a dog bounds down off the leaf-littered slope and barks at me, stopping my crossing. It’s big. It jumps around at the water’s edge in that ‘I’m trying to pretend I’m going to eat you’ kind of way. Its owner calls it back and I find another way to cross.

A girl watches me as I find a short gap to hop over. The dog is her family’s. They’re gathered around dens made from branches and logs on the banks of the gill. The eldest man is grappling with a thirty-foot long birch tree that’s hung up in another tree. He’s getting advice from his young son on how to get it down. The man is wearing brown leather safety boots, a sure sign of a construction worker enjoying a Sunday with his family in the woods.

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The birch won’t move much and he gives up. St. Leonard’s Forest is covered in birch. It’s the most westerly point of the High Weald’s heaths, much of which is covered by wild birch and gorse, or otherwise planted up with conifers for forestry. Birch is seen as an enemy or nuisance but it is a special tree that has benefited our species in our evolution. Its wood makes excellent spoons, its bark can be used as fire lighter, its sap tapped for syrup, its branches make brooms. Its Latin name ‘betula’ means ‘to beat’. Getting walloped by birch branches was once a recognised punishment, sometimes in public.

The birches are all yellowing and dropping now, turning to their deep, purple and leafless phase. The small yellow leaves catch by the petioles in mosses and on the splintered fibres of broken heartwood. In the dark pine plantations of St. Leonard’s Forest they fizz and spark.

SLF - 17-11-19 blog-49

Explore the Sussex Weald

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Owlbeech - 18-10-2019 lo-res-28

St. Leonard’s Forest, West Sussex, October 2019

After a night of stormy weather, the high winds blew through the woods and really I probably shouldn’t have been there. But October is such a special time in the woodland year that any time spent there is to be cherished.

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I walked for three or so hours in the Forest and found lots of species, masses of small brown and grey mushrooms in the leaf litter that don’t make great photos. My first find was a lovely species known as twig parachute.

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Staying in macro mode these miniscule bonnets were were growing from a bed of moss on the buttress of a tree.

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There is a small clearing I’ve recently found, well hidden from paths but obviously the secret space for other visitors as well. Here a thick humus of leaf litter and, in particular, beech nuts were creating good fruiting ground for mushrooms. This little brittlegill (I always prefer their Latin name of Russula, indicative of their redness) was one of those to benefit.

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A beech tree has dropped a large limb and deadwood fungi have begun to colonise it. This is a splitgill and only really comes to life after prolonged rain. It’s a process of re-hydration. They’re tricky to photograph but always look nice with some bokeh (the baubles of light) in the background.

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In the mosses growing in the dark and wet corners under holly trees, species like what-I-think-is curry milkcap were fruiting. This species is said to have a curry-like taste.

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St. Leonard’s Forest sits on the edge of sandy heathland soils and Wealden clay. Passing into the heathy areas which make it a ‘Forest’ (forests were open landscapes used for hunting by the aristocracy, and don’t denote woodland alone) fly agaric suddenly arrived. These shrooms are thought to have given Father Christmas his red and white outfit and provided the hallucinatory impact that gave visions of reindeer flying. I’ll write something about that one day but still, these should be treated as deadly poisonous.

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While we’re on deadly shrooms, this relative of fly agaric is panther cap. It’s definitely poisonous and is more photogenic when it’s in its bulbous stage. Again it’s common on sandy heathland soils.

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There is some constant pleasure about seeing boletes. Perhaps it’s because the cep/penny bun/porcini is the tastiest. This bolete scares me. Can you see the smiley face and squiggle of hair on the cap?

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Days of cloud were broken up by the storm and it was a relief to see some sunshine. This footbridge runs over a gill that cuts between the clay woods and the heathland on that travels further east into St. Leonard’s Forest and the wider Weald. The gill was as full as I’d seen it because of torrential downpours.

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On my way back home I found a gang of clustered bonnets on a trunk that crossed a path. It had been chainsawed in half so people can still walk through. It’s the perfect height and position for photos.

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The sun broke through the trees and lit the bonnets where they had squeezed their way out from behind the bark. To me they look a little bit like they’re hiding from something beyond the wood they cower behind.

Read more:

The Sussex Weald

My Wood-Wide-Web

 

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SLF - 13-6-2019 djg-6

St. Leonard’s Forest, Sussex Weald, June 2019

Gentle rain falls as dog walkers share tales in the car park. Squirrels saved from their pet’s jaws giving thanks with a bite of their own. Birdsong swells from the understorey, perhaps five song thrush sing to sure up territories. Either side of the track is a wall of green, from the shrubs to the canopy of oak, birch and beech.

There is a feeling of a deeply wooded landscape here, the continuity of the Weald stretching away east to Kent. Of course it has now been broken, so many times, but there is a sense of the wilderness that faced the Romans and later the Saxons upon their respective invasions of Britain. It is thought St. Leonard’s Forest was part of a wooded landscape that stretched all the way to the New Forest, as recently as a thousand years ago.

The rain has drawn me out here. It is such a relief that this June is one of mini-monsoons, compared to last year’s heatwave hell. The nearby South Downs were rendered brown for months. At the side of the path, under the darkness of a beech, mushrooms glow. They sprout peach-coloured, or maybe apricots on sticks, from a tree stump. They are sulphur tuft, one of the most common species but very photogenic.

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Further into the forest chiffchaff sing from the pines, a distant willow warbler’s melody decaying in the darkening evening air. There is a scale to this landscape that feels expansive. Woods challenge our human senses of depth and time. Moving along the footpaths the woodland shifts from clay where beech and oak prevail, to the pine and birch dominated sands where heathland once was kept open by local people expressing their rights of common.

Down a track through birch and holly a single flute-like note comes from the trees above my head: a bullfinch. It calls over and again. It’s a beautiful sound.

Returning round through dark areas of oaks and veteran beeches, I find a small toadstool uprooted at the edge of the footpath. It’s an amanita of some kind, a ring around its neck like Shakespeare or a ruff, patches of white webbing still on its grey-brown cap. Amanitas are a fearful family of mushrooms, being home to the deathcap and destroying angel, to name but the most potent. But I’m not here to eat these marvels of nature, so I take my photos, capturing memories to take back to the town, to ease the sense of dislocation from this ancient wooded landscape, its bullfinches and mushrooms.

Explore the Sussex Weald

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lp+ob woods - 19-1-2019 djg-17

St. Leonards Forest, The High Weald, West Sussex, January 2019

Gunshots echo from St. Leonards Forest, while up here on the dank January heath, woodpigeons fail to settle in pine branches. Within their paddock the sheep in deep black coats are startled by the scuff of my camera strap on my shoulder. They lift their heads from grazing, soon returning to their business. One with a white beard and human face gazes back at me, old man of the heath.

A powder-white and gold mushroom has been uprooted and left on a feathery bed of moss, an image of early autumn in this sodden midwinter. On the stumps of felled pine trees cup lichens grow like green, towering cities. I read that because they are a partnership of algae, fungi and cyanobacteria, they can’t truly be defined as a standalone species. Here they hold droplets of water like a precious stone in the top of a staff.

The birch bark is zebra-like in this land of deep purple, black and brown. The birches are routinely removed from heathland but to me they feel like a key part to it, a haven for many species of insect, a resource we seem no longer to know about. Every bit of this tree cut has a use for us: bark for firelighter, slippers, canoes and boxes; sap for sugary syrup; branches for brooms and spoons; wood for a fire. It follows us around and, unlike so many of our trees, is not facing an epidemic of imported disease.

Coming down off the heath, I walk up past a stream bed with alder trees climbing high to the canopy. They form dark clouds of branches and catkins at their tops. Alongside the track home holly woods stamp their permanent-feeling darkness. I turn to look left into a small break in that darkness. A silent sparrowhawk glides in touching distance of the ground, preying on blue tits that call in alarm. Those little things miss nothing until caught. It’s a reminder of how hard life is out here in January woods. It is eat, or starve trying.

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