Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘Woods’

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In April 2014 I visited the Bavarian Forest, a landscape which, combined with the neighbouring Bohemian Forest in Czechia is the largest area of protected woodland in Europe. The Bavarian Forest or Bayerischer Wald, contains populations of lynx. In recent decades an outbreak of the spruce bark-beetle has devastated areas of conifer woodland. It is a remnant of the once vast Hercynian Forest.

The Bavarian Forest, Germany, April 2014

They burst from the slabs of granite like stony pillars. They are beech trees and they mask the view on all sides. They are giants imprisoning me on the path to Groβer Falkenstein. They are elephant limbs, they are victims of metaphor. Beneath them is a sea of copper and golden brown. The wind moves through last year’s fallen leaves and I think for a moment that it may be the sound of footsteps. Chunks of shining granite and smatterings of plant life break the spell of the endless leaves. Wood anemones, even this high, have opened their petals to the sun breaking through these yet leafing beeches.

I’ve travelled here over land and left the anemones coming towards the end of their annual cycle in London’s oldest woods. We have that in common, then, both species attempting to move through the woods of western Europe. Back home, I do my best to help them. Amidst my minute understanding of German and the feeling of isolation that brings as a lone traveller, I do get a sense of home from these white buttercups. Wood anemone is not the only plant to have made it up here, wood sorrel, one of the most common wildflowers in the Bavarian Forest, sits with its flower heads drooping, its leaves like the club from a pack of cards, still to be revealed. I continue on, touched by vertiginous thoughts as the path slaloms through the beeches, the mountainside steepening.

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A stream channels its music to my ear and the familiar spread of marsh marigold, a buttercup that I’ve planted in the marshy woods back home and dunked into my parents’ enamel sink-pond by the kitchen window. Yesterday I feared hypothermia in the snow around Zwiesel’s mountains but today I’m in a t-shirt and a large orange butterfly bursts across the stream. It drives around me in a circle, never taking a moment to rest, it must still be too cold for it to pause too long. Butterflies need a body temperature of about 32 degrees to fly and forage properly. They often hold their wings out to trap hot air and warm their hairy bodies. It’s not as simple a manner of basking as it may seem. I think it’s a silver-washed fritillary.

I have come to the continent with a sense of something missing from England’s wildlife. This butterfly is one that was more common in England but has declined. It is a butterfly of woodland rides, laying its eggs on dog violets, plants which grow in my front garden and in our local woods. Last August in London I visited the doomed Heygate Estate in the Elephant and Castle to shadow an invertebrate survey with local entomologist, Richard ‘Bugman’ Jones. Led through the fencing by private security guards with gigantic German shepherds caged in the boot, we stepped out onto the parkland under the shade of cherries and mature London plane trees. The flicker of a butterfly’s wing caught my eye and Richard threw his net into the air. Looking at the contents we discovered a silver-washed fritillary. I could not quite believe it.

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There is a sudden drop in temperature as I turn up the path, a chill wind skis across. In the shadows beneath boulders sits the remnants of yesterday’s snow. The spruce trees return, the snow thickening, slush on stone a recipe for serious injury. This is primary spruce woodland, or natural forest, formed without the helping hand of humans. However, the dominance of spruce lower down is due to the intervention of foresters (förster) in the first half of the twentieth century, as in England, when timber was needed to fuel either side of the world wars. It is telling – one of war’s casualties are woods.

From the boulders comes the drip of melting snow. Through the trees I see a large house that marks Groβer Falkenstein’s height of 1315m. A whisper passes through the highest spruce trees. A number of trees have been felled, the stumps cut with chainsaws. The ‘step cut’ in the stumps is still there, the torn wooden ‘hinge’ which the forester leaves intact and that helps guide the tree in the right direction when falling, throws up splinters.

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I hear voices, laughter and that peculiar zenith-community that exists atop well-attended mountains of this kind. Four happy Germans appear to be double dating. I sit on a picnic bench by a cleared space of spruce, the scene hazy at best, the cloud cloaking the valley below. I hear a dunnock singing, a shy garden bird that instead nests in dense upland spruce plantations in this part of Europe. I eat some nuts and chocolate and head past a lady walking a hund, to the other side of the peak. The snow is deep, I clamber over spruce trunks to get to a plateau. One path back down has been closed due to nesting peregrine falcons. In London, 2014 holds 27 pairs.

I take a seat down on some soft, dead grasses, all around me are the dead and rotting stands of spruce said to have been killed by a spruce bark beetle outbreak. Many of the trees have been allowed to rest for fungi and other smaller, subtler wildlife, one of any woodland ecosystem’s most important aspects – the recyclers. I take it all in – the hazy folds of mountains, the glistening rooftops of immaculate Bavarian churches and towns. I head off and down through the spruce woods, under the song of the ring ouzel and firecrest. This path will take me to the realm of the lynx.

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Csik lo-res-6

In April 2015 along with my hiking pal Eddie Chapman I travelled to Romania from London by train via Germany and Hungary. We had agreed two years ago to do this trip, something I had suggested after reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the woods and the water where the 18-year-old Fermor documents part of his experience of walking from Rotterdam to Istanbul. That was between 1933-35 before the collapse of the old European order with the World Wars and before the eventual shift to communism. Fermor’s Romania was still a thriving rural culture of haymaking and rivers flowing free. What we saw was different, communism having ended and Romania now a member of the European Union, capitalism stretching its tentacles into the farthest reaches of this vast nation with its mounds of plastic waste and the invasive plant species which thrive in a free market, globalised economy. But we still saw elderly people digging their own fields each day, hay ricks in back gardens and plenty of horses ploughing fields and transporting people around. We visited on the back of a sudden cold snap and so it was still winter, nevertheless we saw some wonderful wildlife and landscapes. We are very grateful to Barbara KnowlesRóbert Biró and Laci Demeter for showing us more of the Csík mountains and teaching us about the local culture and ecology. I also would not have known about this region without the work of Nigel Spring and EuCAN who run conservation trips to that part of Transylvania.

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We entered Romania by train from Debrecen, passing through to Cluj-Napoca. The manager of our guest house in the Hortobágy in Hungary had told us instead that Cluj is Kolozsvár, and is in fact a Hungarian city. This was of course not the first time we had heard about the issues between the two nations after the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 that saw the dissolution of the Kingdom of Hungary and two thirds of Hungarian territory passed to Romania. The Hungarian argument is that Magyar people have been present in what is now Romania for over 1000 years which gives them ownership (of course even that is a simplification on my part). Romanians point to Dacian settlement 1850 years ago, before the Hungarians were present in Transylvania. This is covered in greater detail by Walking the woods and the water, a book by Nick Hunt about retracing Fermor’s route to see what had changed in 2011.

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The journey across the border was not what we had expected. The detritus of the failed communist system was plain to see with vast areas of industrial land and infrastructure abandoned. I like what nature can do with these ‘wastelands’ but to see people still having to live in and around these places was a shock. This, allied with the amount of rubbish strewn through what would have been species-rich farm and meadowland, was disturbing and added to the toll of the long distance travel we had undertaken. I will never forget the sight of people having to live in tents of rubbish, with plastic nailed to pieces of timber to keep them dry. The argument for good housing for all struck home here.

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In Cluj I have never seen such sickly street trees with branches hacked to bits and choked by the wires that thread the streets together. Cluj as a city was best viewed from Cetățuia Hill where you can see the sensitive design of the Cluj-Napoca football stadium and the Apuseni Mountains in the distance, the city itself is a melange of capitalist-era hotels, communist apartment buildings and centuries-old architecture preserved in the old town. We had wanted to get into the Apuseni Mountains, famous for the skeletons of cave bears which were discovered in the 1980s, having become extinct 30,000 years ago when much of Europe was covered by ice.

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Our next destination was the Carpathian basin in eastern Transylvania, an area known as the Csík (Hungarian) mountains. The area is accessible by train from Brașov to Miercurea Ciuc (Romanian). The region is strongly Hungarian in culture and the city of Miercurea Ciuc is known in Hungarian as Csíkszereda. I had been in touch with conservationist Barbara Knowles who, through her project The Barbara Knowles Fund, was supporting local farmers in managing the mountain hay meadows in the region, some of which are the richest in Europe. Prince Charles has recently visited to highlight the importance of these habitats.

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Barbara put us in touch with Laci (pronounced Lot-see) Demeter, a local farmer and ecologist who owns a few hay meadows and acts as a local guide for the region. Laci was brilliant, with a great sense of humour. He knew all the birds and plant names in English as well as Hungarian and taught us a few of them in his native tongue. Marsh marigold, a buttercup that grows in damp ground and brooks is known as ‘stork’s messenger’ in Hungarian because its flowering in April indicates the arrival of the bird and the spring.

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We volunteered with Laci to remove some of the Norway spruce brash from the meadows so they could grow uninhibited in the coming months. Laci drove us into the mountains where snow still lay on the ground and butterbur and cowslip were the only plants coming into flower. The Carpathians were still shaking off winter. We saw nutcracker, raven and heard buzzards calling from overhead.

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In the valley below a group of men were working on constructing a small shelter for cheese-making in the summer months as part of a local common land cooperative. They were all being paid. How much could Britain benefit both ecologically, socially and economically from similar initiatives? The short-sighted, profit-driven focus of modern politics means we are unlikely to find out. At least Prince Charles is interested.

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We were invited for lunch with the workers and feasted on a pork stew with bread and the most common Hungarian ingredient – paprika. There was also enough beer for everyone, plus some watered-down pálinka. The sun was so intense even at this time of year that we had to inch our way into the shade while the Magyars sat comfortably in full sun.

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In the afternoon Laci took us to the top of one of the mountains, a gentle climb to overlook the unfolding peaks of the Carpathian basin. The meadows were still brown and wintry, snow melting under the sun’s rays. Laci pointed out the snuffling of wild boar and rolled their chocolate-like poo in his fingertips. He showed us the small dips in the ground which were evidence of the old style of felling trees – cut the roots in the soil and let the wind blow the tree over, leaving a space where the root plate used to be. It was thrilling to finally be in the Carpathians, a mountain range I had longed to see.

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On our second trip out with Laci we drove to a quarry that was a good site for eagle owl and where our esteemed guide knew they bred. We passed fields being ploughed by horses, a throwback to a bygone age in much of Europe.

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At the quarry I was distracted by the range of plants, particularly the anemones, and the above endemic to Transylvania, Anemone hepatica transylvanica. On the way here, in Bavaria, I had seen Anemone hepatica, a beautiful purple anemone and was very happy to be introduced to this special plant.

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That was not the only anemone growing in the quarry. The most famous and common, wood anemone (Anemone nemerosa), which I know well from the ancient woods of south London, was also present. This is a plant that struggles in the woods around where I live because of trampling and disturbance but in this part of Transylvania it grew in the old quarry with little to disturb it.

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There were signs of mammalian life in the quarry. Fires had been set in the quarry’s depths, with broken televisions and other detritus of the modern age. There was also detritus of another kind, with this possible bear or wolf scat. It was a pleasure to speculate on what might have passed through here, in both senses of the word.

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We rounded the quarry edge in silence, Eddie and Laci did, anyway. I sent down rock after rock as we made our way to the point where the eagle owls breed. Laci had been enticing us to overcome our apprehension about entering into this place by collecting a bouquet of feathers, not least this owl feather above. As we sat on the ledge where the birds roost, an eagle owl flew across the far side of the amphitheatre and out of view. Eddie missed it. He remained silent thereafter.

Csik lo-res-16There was also evidence of owl prey. Laci gathered together the remnant plumage of raven and buzzard. The size of the prey of this owl is astounding.

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Satisfied with our visit to the quarry, Laci drove us to one of his favourite sites, a 10-12,000 year old pond created during the last glacial period. Laci had bought pieces of land around the pond to try and protect it. Some farmers had been filling it with rubbish and trying to drain it for agriculture. It was a treasure trove of biodiversity, with the moor frog its most colourful species, turning blue in breeding season.

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Laci perched on the small mounds of sod dotted throughout the pond and fished out a great crested newt as he tried to collect a sample of fairy shrimp to show to us. It was in its breeding gear, a beautiful animal that is rare in England but common across Britain to the point of Asia. Its protection measures in Britain are famous for their severity and the ensuing failure to prosecute for any breach.

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We said goodbye to Laci, Barbara, our host Magda and the small village of Pauleni-Ciuc (Romanian), its centuries old spruce barns and horses. Now it was time to travel south to Brașov and then to Sinaia in the Carpathians proper.

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We arrived in Sinaia excited by the ascent of the railway into mountains that would eventually reach more than 2000m. We stepped into the tourist office in search of a map. The attendant thought we were idiots, rightly so: ‘The hiking season doesn’t start for another 60 days, do you have the right equipment? I shouldn’t really give you this map.’ His English was impressive, his scolding even more so. We whimpered and said something about how we wouldn’t do anything stupid.

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Our first hike was the only one that seemed accessible from Sinaia. We crossed through the railway station, literally across the tracks, over a bridge and through a pack of feral dogs (whose bark is far worse than their bite, by the way, we grew to appreciate them) and into the beech and spruce woods crowded by the snow-capped Carpathians. Entering into the mountains we were immediately met by signs warning us of the presence of bears.

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We got a good whiff of bear as we made our way up into the mountains, reminding us of our true place in the food chain. Homo sapiens has, through our cognitive revolution and technological march, excelled to the top of the table in one respect but the fear of large predators presented Eddie and I with a different feeling. It was frightening and exhilarating to find the bear prints congealing in the mud. We were reminded of our fragility as animals but I felt a sense of calm from the fact that, for once, I knew my place. We couldn’t be expected to deal with a bear.

Carpathians lo-res-19There were signs of them everywhere. We didn’t dare open our salami.

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The principle timbers of the Carpathian woodlands were beech and Norway spruce (the tree of choice in the Csík region), with some sycamore and hazel. We encountered these horses dragging beech trunks down from the alpine woods to a little camp guarded by angry dogs. The whooping calls of the woodsmen alerted us to their presence.

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Though we were in a truly wild landscape regarding large fauna, the rivers were in a sorry state. Many of the rivers around Sinaia, and indeed much of Romania, were concreted and dammed, some choked with plastic waste, others with logs caught on the lip of the concrete. These rivers were clearly once great but were now tamed, throttled by man.

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Away from the rivers and woodsmen we hiked for hours in complete solitude with only the company of jay and nutcracker, an eerie silence pervading at higher levels beyond the sound of our boots scuffing rocks and boulders as we scrambled.

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At the top of Mount Compatu a line of tracks was visible in the snow. Were these the footprints of wolf? There was absolutely no chance of encountering a wolf, but the fear simmered all the same.

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Whatever four-legged animal had left those prints, it was the closest we could get to the wild heart of the Carpathians. To walk in a landscape with signs of wolf, bear, boar and more was a dream realised.

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We left Romania exhausted by travel but with fond memories of the Hungarian region where we had spent time in the mountains and villages with local people. April is the wrong time to go for those who want to experience wildflower meadows and spring birds. It’s also the most dangerous time to encounter bears if cubs are present. Thankfully we only got a whiff. Romania and Transylvania has a great deal of bad press in Britain, mainly because of xenaphobic political positioning in the past few years from right-wingers (Boris Johnson) and liberals (Nick Clegg) alike and a book written by an Irishman over a century ago. In reality Romania is a massive, complicated country which cannot be generalised over and has no vampires. It is a place of great natural and cultural riches but also urban poverty and decline. Whether Hungarian or Romanian, its landscapes are species rich, wild and vast, its people welcoming and good humoured. Please support wildlife conservation and the people who enact it in this wonderful country.

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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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Dog stinkhorn Coulsdon, London, November 2014

In Devilsden Wood we tiptoe around fallen beech logs, slipping at times on beech leaves and clay, and the emptied mast. The nuts will have been eaten by hungry jays and squirrels. Over the past few weeks I’ve crouched down around these logs photographing their fungi: beech jellydisc with its almost caucasian flesh, purple jellydisc creeping out by the week from wisps of moss. Most startling for a layman like me was the glaring eye of dog stinkhorn, named after its canine stench. Lodged in a piece of black deadwood it had the appearance of a fox or wolf skull looking up at me. The long, finger-like stems that it had produced had collapsed, orange tips like finger nails. As Julian Hoffman has written recently, referring to the poet Rilke, we are surrounded by a world that beckons us to perceive it, to engage with it, to look and to touch. To me the fingers of the stinkhorn could be pointers to something worth seeing. Today only the jellydiscs remain, as well as a brown mushroom that reflects the white break of cloud between the trees above in its glossy cap. My friend Philip is searching for something behind me and as I look up the sharp dark shape of a sparrowhawk slices between us in silence. If we were little woodland birds we would not have seen a thing.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014
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Daneway Banks

Daneway Banks, Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, Cotswolds, July 2014

Figures stalk this tumbling chunk of meadowland. Severe expressions are worn: eyes drawn to-and-fro, either side of the gently worn path. But all they see are the scattered clouds of marbled whites. This is where the wild thyme grows, creeping along the turf, appearing in small spreads on the miniature hillocks of ants. And here you have the reason for all the skulking souls, though some boast of their sightings as they lay flat on their bellies in wildflowers, with camera lenses mounted by donut-shaped flashes large enough to save a life at sea. The wild thyme is the food plant of the large blue butterfly, once extinct but now successfully reintroduced from Swedish stock, this insect depends on the work of red ants taking its pupa into their nests as one of their own. The large blue pupa will then eat the other ant grubs it’s lodging with, eventually destroying the entire colony. To find something that was once extinct is, to many, to contend with the immortal. We haven’t seen it, instead we hear stories of large blues sunning themselves beside gate posts ‘just fifteen minutes ago’. We also hear of the creature’s phased movement, down the hill with the sun’s heat. We meet a softly spoken man making his fifth visit in search of the ghost. He identifies the yellow spike of flowers that is agrimony. He suggests we look it up in my friend’s wildflower guide (one which I tossed, jokingly, into the air out of faux-botanical disgust some minutes ago). There’s much more to see: clustered bellflower, common centaury, yellow wort, pyramidal orchid, lady’s bedstraw (which we shamefully contended ourselves with as golden rod), the simple colours of bird’s-foot-trefoil, and edibles like marjoram and salad burnet.

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Rain comes and we leave these meadows of lost souls, leading up into Dorvel Wood. There is that change, the sudden loss of colour, all has become green and brown – leaf and leaf litter. The wood flowers appease the loss of butterflies – the underlying stench of wild garlic, the sight of violets, wood spurge, wood melick and no desire for the unusual. No man can be found here lying in mud and puddle to capture a photograph he can later sell on. But the ash leaves, crinkled, brown – is this ash dieback disease, the greatest threat to British wildlife since Owen Paterson? This was a moment I had expected but had somehow felt to be too far away. The canopy leaves are curling and dying, too. Is this the end for the common ash? We ponder it and tread out of Dorvel Wood, into the beating and blazing meadows of Sapperton.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014
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