Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘Sussex Weald’

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.

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Explore the Sussex Weald

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Ebernoe - 8-11-2019 blog-6.jpg

In memory of Joseph Reilly

Ebernoe, West Sussex, November 2019

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.

Explore the Sussex Weald

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Midhurst astro - 6-11-2019 blog-2

Midhurst, West Sussex, November 2019

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.

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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.

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Woolbeding - 6-11-2019 blog-1

The Rother, Midhurst, November 2019

Autumn is entering its deepest phase but summer’s life still has a breath. Along the Rother path a neon spider pushes across the mud into the wet grass. The young oaks stand like upright bonfires burning from green to gold. College students wile away their lunchbreaks on the urban netherlands of the Rother. One young woman sits on the exposed roots of a tree watching the sluice, while another rests her head on the concrete structure supporting a drainage pipe. Her male friend stands by, nervous, unsure of how to respond.

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Passing through the woods the trunk of an ancient hornbeam has been revealed again from the screen of saplings and bramble. The latter’s leaves bright yellow with flecks of red like nicks of flesh. A small flock of tits, wrens and robins lift up at the arable edges, ticking into the green bowers of a mature oak. They cross the felled and repurposed trunk of an old conifer with electrical wires, warning: RISK OF DEATH KEEP OFF.

At the gate into Woolbeding autumn crashes into view. Reds, yellows, and browns glow in a break of the sun from clouds. The South Downs loom in silhouette beyond austere pine plantations on Midhurst Common, framing the autumn trees that edge the fields I’m entering. In the meadows dandelions and knapweeds flower in isolation. The air has warmed in recent days and these flowers have taken their chance.

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Explore the Sussex Weald

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Warnham - 27-10-2019 blog-13

Warnham, West Sussex, October 2019

It’s so warm in the sun. Dragonflies touch the edge of the boardwalk as they mate in heavy flight. The sun glistens in the water. Flocks of tits have formed as winter approaches. I wait for one group to appear from shadowy alder carr but they keep their distance. Long-tailed tits chirrup and bounce between branches well beyond the boardwalk and space of water that separates us.

A couple of weeks ago we were shown harvest mice nests in the reeds and willows by a local ecologist. One of them is still here, the small bundle of grasses and leaves. Not much bigger than a cricket ball. I turn again to the alder woodland and a willow has crashed and fallen in the water. Its trunk has split, creating an entrance into its rotten core. The sun floods this wet woodland and the light brightens the dark glut of trees.

The broken willow again:
a movement in the shadows.
Whiskers and a pink nose.
Brown fur and paws.

It exits a hole where the heartwood used to be and slips back inside, down to water level. Out again it reveals itself on the willow bark with two paws spread out like furry stars, a white throat and breast. It turns its head to one side and sniffs the air. It dances back inside and disappears.

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A couple approach me with caution. Aware I am now kneeling on the boardwalk I stand up and turn to them:

‘I’ve just seen an American mink,’ I say.

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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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