The winter sun floods the dark stands of birch, oak and sweet chestnut. It glitters in the frost as it melts away from crowds of moss. Steam rises from the soil as the sun warms the ground between oak trees, where nuthatches pipe and skip through their upper reaches. I scan a fallen pine tree for small things, fungi, moss, and find an incongruous clump of slime mould. The mould is like an emptied basket of boiled eggs resting in the swirling heartwood of the pine, smoothed by rain and people sitting.
The slime mould has a rope of spider silk crossing it and it has begun to melt in the centre like poached eggs that haven’t cooked for long enough. I set up my tripod as a man and his two black Labradors exercise themselves nearby. He stares at them, hidden behind a tree. I thought he had gone and left them until I stepped back and his monolithic profile appeared.
Mud squelches grey and beige under foot, still on the Wealden clay, with the sandy soils of the High Weald sitting only across the gill. Speaking of the stream, I can hear it gushing down below. The rain has fallen heavily all week, with the Arun and the Rother both bursting their banks and swallowing fields whole. This feels like the first sunny day of the year.
A song thrush scampers across under holly, with redwing dotting the branches overhead. Their contact call is a bit like a hiccough. A stock dove’s wings beat in a way that sounds to me like the gentle yaffling of a green woodpecker, stopping abruptly as they land on a branch. A real woodpecker, my first of this year, hammers in the top of an oak. Robins rise up onto waist-high branches and sing their songs. Spring is building in the winter wood.
At the foot of the High Weald’s heathland, where the clay comes to an end, frost looks to have crashed down over night onto the bracken. The fences that protect the heath are topped with barbed wire, itself entwined in honeysuckle. The warm weather (eleven degrees on Thursday) have given the green light for some plants to grow. The honeysuckle spurts small green tongues, its leaves hold the water beads of melted frost. In the droplets the shape of pines, sky and open heath glow, in a world turned upside down.
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.
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.
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 cloud bares blue sky wounds above the Cowdray Ruins, as mist rises from the Rother. The sun breaks from the cover and melts the frosty rushes, droplets glimmer in brambles. Bull rushes thaw like over-frozen choc ices emerging from the bottom of the freezer.
A song thrush sings from the woods nearby and it has little competition. Except for a couple shouting at their dog as it flashes through the low rushes. Imagine if a song thursh was actually just saying ‘kids, go to school’, ‘where’s my breakfast’, ‘what’s the time-what’s the time-what’s the time’. Its beauty would shrivel away and it would become an annoyance. The mystery gives it life.
The dog runs free through the rushes, its paws sloshing as it seeks the scent at the end of its nose. Its owners’ cries grow louder, angry, fear creeping in. With it a small bird, a wader, bursts from the rushes and arrows out towards the town. It has a white breast and a long, thin bill, curving as it reaches the tip. Its wings are sharp like a modern fighter jet. I’m sure it’s a snipe.
The bird will have been roosting over night in the rushes and now will seek more wet grasslands, probably where the Rother snakes behind Midhurst and where there are less people. Not that there are really so many here. On spring evenings they perform an otherworldly song flight, something that I first heard over reedbeds in Poland a few years ago.
They sing in a bizarre, electronic kind of way, but also like someone skilled at blowing through a large blade of grass. That evening I watched it soar and swoop over the reeds and river. Birds hold such potential for us, the promise of their weird songs, in these dark winter months, offers hope.
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!’
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.
These are autumn’s final moments. The frosts are creeping in, our breaths stolen away on the air as they leave our lips.
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.
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.
At Ebernoe I enter the yard of a church with neon algae glowing on the brickwork. In among the graves meadow waxcap mushrooms grow, one with its cap curled up and over like a pale petalled poppy. ‘The church is open but the handle is stiff’ reads a sign on the door. I turn it and enter inside. That cold stone church air hits my skin, no one else is here. At least no one human.
There is a bird in here. It flies across the aisle and lands on a hanging lampshade, rocking with the force delivered by its flight. Then it moves to one of the windows clinging to the iron frame that separates panes of glass. It’s a blue tit. I wonder how long it’s been in here, perhaps overnight. I think for a few seconds of what to do and walk to the church door. I pull it wide open, moving away to give the bird space. Within seconds the little blue tit flies through the open church door and back out into the woods where it belongs.
I sit on the bench and experience silence but for the dripping of water on the roof. There is a peace in here that I only ever seem to find in places like this. In the stained glass windows images of Jesus Christ, stories depicted that I don’t remember from childhood. The glass’s vibrancy is at odds with the dark and glowering morning that has crept in over one of sun-drenched hedgerows and beech trees lit like fires. I write a word of thanks in the visitor book and make my way back out into the churchyard.
Nightfall. The traffic throbs white and red along North Street. The streetlamps light a line of trees penning the cars in against the buildings that crowd one side of the road. The illuminated frame of a church window stands between two black trees like a section of the Taj Mahal.
I’m here to drink in the swelling night sky. Above Midhurst the Plough sits like an advert for something half-formed or untranslated. As the night deepens more stars cluster around iconic constellations I can’t put a name to.
People pass on a couple of occasions, one man greets me, his scotty dog with a green collar glowing around its neck in the dark. The night has not dimmed its senses, it seems enlivened, sniffing at the night with ears pricked up.
Over the Rother, where it funnels past the Cowdray ruins, the moon draws up mist from the river, matched in the cloud that sits beneath its white beam. Who knows what could be creeping in towards me under that white veil.
Aeroplanes blink and roar in the sky, male pheasants clash in metal at the margins of the wet grasslands separating the Cowdray ruins from the Midhurst traffic. The stars seep through yet more.