The small, wild things

Cow parsley on wasteground

When I was a child, I was given a book about becoming a nature detective.  By today’s standards for children’s books it was uninspiring: filled with dense text and black and white photos.  Still, it captured my imagination and I longed to be able to track and investigate the natural world in the way the book described.  But I was an urban child and I thought the experiences the book presented were out of my reach.  I’ve always lived in towns and cities, while longing to inhabit the wilder places.  I wish I could look out of my window and see open spaces instead of my neighbours’ houses.  The sea has always been my local untamed place, while I believed that the town had little to offer in the way of nature.  But years after I dreamed of being a nature detective, I’ve learned that even among brick and concrete, it’s possible to live the change of the seasons and to find the wild in the everyday.

At the end of my road, there is a small park.  It’s little more than an expanse of grass and a children’s playground, a space that has been cultivated and tamed.  But I’ve walked this park nearly every day for two years and I’ve noticed its secrets.  There are five species of trees here, most of them old, including three wild cherries that burst into blossom each spring.  There is privet and hawthorn, offering cover to songbirds.  You’d be forgiven for thinking the only wild plants that grow here are daisy and dandelion.  But look closer: ragwort and ivy leaved toadflax cling to walls.  Hart’s tongue and maidenhair spleenwort grow in the shady spot under the trees.  There is a small clutch of bluebells, red dead nettle, thistle and cleavers.  Field mushrooms, glistening inkcap and King Alfred’s Cakes fungi fruit in the darker, damp patches.  The obvious birds are the seagulls and the crows, but listen to the dawn chorus and you’ll know there are many others – great tits squabbling in the trees, blackbirds, thrushes, starlings and woodpigeons.  A dunnock has been singing an audabe from the privet each morning and, just once, I saw a greater spotted woodpecker high in a sycamore.

Just a little farther from home and here is the Dene, one of many deep valleys cut by streams that flow into the North sea.  This park too has been tamed, but not altogether.  Cowslips, marsh marigolds, yellow flag, water avens and shaggy inkcap all grow in the damp ground.  The pond, fringed with weeping willow, is home to mallards, tufted ducks, moorhens and the occasional heron.  I glimpsed a fox once, at the side of the road, but I’ve been told scores of them visit the Dene at night.  This week, I watched a pair of mute swans mating – he balancing precariously on her back, followed by a brief dance, where they raised their bodies and necks high out of the water and pressed them together.  Then it was over, off she swam into the rushes and left him circling the pond alone.

 

And then there is the business park where I sometimes work.  Dominated by office blocks, traffic and scores of people.  But look past the buildings and the tidy, cultivated plants and there is a host of nature here.  Follow one of the paths and you’ll come to areas tangled with trees and wildflowers.  Ponds with resident moorhens, coots, tufted duck and geese.  You may see a hare, a grey heron, or even a deer.  I’ve sat in meetings and watched rabbits at play outside the windows.  A weasel once crossed my path.

But nature always clings to the edges.  The smallest patch of waste ground is rich with possibilities.  The horsetail colony, like a strange clutch of aliens at the edge of a crane hire yard.  In their fertile form, they appear like burnt stalks, later, they turn green and feathery  The froth of cow parsley on the side of a main road.  The gull, minding her nest on a chimney opposite my office.  The bulrushes beneath the pylons.  Herb Robert poking through a fence.  Mayweed, Green Alkanet and Shepherd’s purse by the roadside.  There is a small path nearby, no more than five metres long, a narrow short cut to a housing estate, flanked by a school on one side and a tangle of waste ground on the other.  Along this short path I’ve seen a whole clutch of wildflowers that I haven’t found elsewhere.  Now, alas, it has been ‘tidied up’ and all the wildflowers poking through the fence cut down.  But they’ll be back.  Sometimes, there is a particular kind of beauty to the nature at the edges, in the contrast between the ugly and the beautiful.  And no matter how we try to tame it, it always returns.

Towns and cities distract us.  They urge movement, rarely inviting us to be still.  Their attractions draw us away from noticing the small, wild things that are with us every day.  Nature is less obvious, but it’s there.  Even a weekly, regular walk to the same location will make a nature detective of you.  You may also have to change your view of what is interesting.  The commonest flowers are no less beautiful because they’re common.  When did you last look closely at a daisy?  Have you ever noticed the tiny lilac paws of the ivy leaved toadflax or the miniature heart-shaped seed pods that give the Shepherd’s Purse its name?

Only a year ago, I was blind to what lay around me.  Now, I’m building a mental nature map of my neighbourhood.  As each season passes, I add things to the map.  I know where to go to find a particular wildflower or fungus, the best place to see a hare or a heron.  I know where to watch the seasons change.  And I’ve barely scratched the surface.  I learn by experiencing nature at first hand.  There is nobody to tell me what I’m seeing.  Instead, I look carefully, noting colours, shapes, habitats, until I can put a name to what I’ve discovered.   There’s always something new to notice.  This week on my trip to the Dene, the buttercups have taken over.  The clover and yellow flag are beginning to bloom.  Hoverflies are everywhere and the spittlebugs have been hard at work creating their foamy dens.  I still long to live in a greener place than this, but I’ve learned that wherever I am, I can always find a little wildness.

Clearing the decks

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Quite unexpectedly, spring has given birth to winter.  Through the trees, a milky mist appears to cling to the land.  In fact, it is an illusion.  The meadow, sloping upwards from the river, is sheathed in frost.  We slip out, keen to see the effects of this wintry dawn up close.  Frost covers roofs, fields, fenceposts, trees.  It is a washed out, pearly landscape.  We can’t see the sun that is rising behind the hills, but we see its light, casting a bronze reflection on the trees.  As nature fights for balance, approaching the spring equinox, winter and spring wrestle for dominion.

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By the time the sun has fully risen, spring once again rules.  The forest is filled with life.  The robin that greeted us on our arrival is trilling loudly at the peak of a spruce.  Like a liminal messenger, the bird of winter announcing spring.  Bold and fierce, the sight of a robin always makes me hopeful.  Songbirds are plentiful in the woods: blue tit, coal tit, great tit, blackbird, chaffinch.  The tits and the robin come singly, the blackbirds in a pair.  But the chaffinches arrive as a gang – unruly, squabbling acrobats accompanied by the soft whirring of wings.

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The birds jewel the trees, one on each branch, a feathered heavy-mob trying to intimidate us into giving them food.  There is movement everywhere: birds fluttering down to the veranda, hopping and flitting across the forest floor.  A treecreeper shuttles up the tree outside the window and then spirals down to begin the ascent once more.  Large crows shadow the smaller birds, keeping to the heights.  The jay, a colourful assassin, is a distant visitor.  We hear the woodpecker before we see its monochrome plumage through the trees.

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There are pheasant living nearby, fat colourful characters with their long tail feathers.  Strutting across the ground, perching on piles of wood chips, or scuttling across fields.  Their harsh, barking alarm call is a regular sound.  And the grey squirrel, who seems to have forgotten he can climb trees, sinuously stalking the forest floor in search of seeds.  The roe deer, with his fledgling antlers who wanders past each morning, given away by his white, fleecy tail.  In daylight, we wander along damp and muddy paths, dappled with sunlight, overlooking sunlit fields, our thoughts turning to picnics.

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But at night, spring sleeps.  The sky darkens into a crisp, cold night with plunging temperatures.  The moon is a bright, waxing sliver and the stars are clearly visible, Jupiter shining brightly beyond Orion.  I walk out onto the veranda one evening, just at the right time to see a shooting star sear across the sky between them.SAMSUNG CSC

This visit to the forest is a last tranquil week before spring truly unfolds and brings with it the call to action.  My thoughts turn to clearing the decks, preparing the way for new projects to grow.  I’ve spent hours de-cluttering my creative work – unearthing old drawings and writing.  Surprised to find stories dating back to when I was 17 or 18 and at college, as well as the beginnings of at least three novels.  Novels I’ll never finish – too immature in theme and style.  But it’s interesting to read these old stories and note how they are permeated by the interests I had at the time – vampires, new age travellers, saving whales, cities in the sand.  Interesting too to see the places I spent my time used as locations for the stories.  Life weaves itself into fiction without us even meaning it to.

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What is also clear is the lack of importance I gave to this work – piled haphazardly into a box, scrawled in old exercise books and on pieces of paper, drawings rolled up and torn at the edges.  No wonder it took me some time to work out what was what.  That I’d started three novels, when I could only remember one.  That the character I clearly remembered from one story was from another altogether.  And while this work isn’t important for what it is, it has value for the pedigree it gives to my work now.  This is my writing before I took it seriously, but it’s also the writing that made me the writer I am now.  And so I’ve begun the process of organising and preserving it.

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The equinox is about balance, before the sun comes into its own and works its magic.  For me, this week of repose and all the creative spring cleaning leading up to it, is about creating a balanced space out of which action can come.  I’ll be taking the ideas that have germinated into stories and sending them out into the world, hoping that they will bloom.

Dark and deep

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

– Robert Frost

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I’m waiting for the moment when dusk tips into night.  At dusk, clarity comes to the woods.  Trees are sharply silhouetted against a luminous, milk-blue sky.  Just after sunset, I can still distinguish the deep greens and grey-browns of the larger trees.  The smaller, leafless trees appear black against the sky.  There is still an ochre glow in the distance as the sun dies, but the moon has risen, waxing a vivid sliver towards the west.  Darkness doesn’t fall immediately.  Waiting for night, dusk seems to last forever.  Imperceptibly, the pale sky darkens into a truer blue and the tree silhouettes become blurred at the edges.  The birds continue singing well into the darkness, until the sky, finally, becomes a midnight blue, the last blackbird quietens and the stars become visible in the sky.

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The woods are a different place at night, full of thick darkness and echoing mystery.  In places, they’re steeped in a cool green glow from the lighted path, from within which the trees appear to emerge.  The woods at night are silent, other than the rush of the wind and the intermittent hoot of tawny owls.  I’ve never been afraid of the dark, but here, at night, I have a sense that there may be something to be afraid of.  A wooden cabin seems somehow insubstantial.  Out on the veranda at night, smoking, anyone could approach us in the darkness.

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Our stay in the forest has been accompanied by gales.  As the wind swells, the trees creak, rustle and finally roar.  At night, the bellow is ferocious and unrelenting.  Inside the cabin, there are disquieting thuds from above, as twigs and pine cones are blown onto the metal roof.  I’m usually energised by feral weather, yet here, my excitement is tempered by a touch of trepidation.  But what exactly is there to fear?  Every horror movie fan knows that axe murderers stalk the woods, but the forests of North Yorkshire aren’t their usual habitat.  The only large animals here are deer.  And though I believe in magic, I don’t imagine the woods to be filled with dreadful supernatural creatures.

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In her wonderful book, Gossip from the forest, Sara Maitland writes about the link between forests and European fairytales.  She talks about the ways that forests are places where we can get lost but can also hide; that woods are places of trial that can be both dangerous and exciting.  She writes about both the fear and the adventure to be found in the woods, advocating that we reclaim both our interaction with the forest and our fairytales for future citizens of the UK.

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And though there is that sense of unexplained anxiety I feel in the darkened forest, I also experience the thrill of being in what is, to a town-dweller, such a vast and enigmatic space.  In the woods, there are many things I can’t name and many things I don’t know are there at all.  I’m left with the impression of something immense and mysterious out there in the darkness.

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During the day, the woods are a playground.  People swarm out of their cabins in hiking boots and waterproofs, with dogs, on bikes, carrying picnics, forgetting the fear they may have felt in their cabins at nightfall.  They trudge through the forest, enjoying the well-marked paths and hoping to spot the wildlife.  This is plantation forest, where the trees are primarily Scots pine, Norwegian spruce, larch and birch.  They stand in narrow serried rows, separated by lines of stumps and drainage ditches.  The floor is a soft mulch of rust-coloured needles, discarded cones, twigs and branches.  There are some shrubs and small beech trees, but in many places the landscape appears barren.  It isn’t ancient woodland, but still, I find those sentinel trees very atmospheric.  They bow and flutter in the wind, the crowns throbbing like jellyfish moving through water.

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But even in daylight, the woods can make me nervous.  I walk uphill, alone with our dog, through the trees behind the cabin.  It’s lonely up here.  Twigs snap loudly under my feet with virtually every step.  Someone has constructed a domed shelter from fallen branches.  It’s well-camouflaged and I don’t see it for what it is immediately.  I step inside to explore, though my first thoughts were about the nefarious purposes it may have been put to, in this strange spot behind the last clutch of cabins.  We carry on, the dog and I, weaving our own path through the trees, moving further from the cabin, and although I know that I’m not far, that I only have to head downhill to get back to civilisation, I still can’t help but feel anxious.  We town-dwellers don’t often walk where no-one else walks.  Suddenly, I hear a muffled knocking.  I freeze to listen, feeling vulnerable.  Then, there’s a loud creak, and I realise I’ve been spooked simply by the effect of the wind in the trees.

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It’s almost a tradition for my partner and I.  Wherever we go on holiday, there’s always at least one day of rain.  We love this, experiencing the different moods of a place.  And the forest is different again in the downpour.  Smells are more defined and birdsong seems louder.  Colours are more vivid.  There are no people around.  We walk to a different part of the woods, where beech trees grow and bronze leaves still obscure the ground.  The sky is full of rain and in the distance the trees are thronged with mist, but as we walk, the rain stops.  The landscape is bright with colour, scent and the patter of water dripping from branches.

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The woods at dawn feel still but are far from silent.  The wind continues to roar through the trees and birds trill, chirrup and yak.  At dawn, the light is thin and washed out, the day still fragile, and there’s that tranquillity that comes from other people still being in their beds.  The wind brings us treasure on our first morning.  A small mound of lichen-encrusted twigs, jewelled with pine cones, lies against the veranda door, as if in offering.  It’s a welcome from the forest: our own windfall.  These gifts will make the trip home with us, to be used for decoration at Beltane, as a reminder of our time in the woods.

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The woods are a place of inspiration and contemplation.  They’re the perfect place to take a break from normality and brew creative ideas.  There is no mobile signal, no broadband, only five television channels.  When I’m in the forest, I see endless views I want to sketch and paint.  When I’m in the forest, ideas for stories swirl around my head.  I photograph the woods obssessively, taking reference pictures for future projects, wanting to hold onto the insight I have while we’re here.  And on our last morning, the wind finally abates.  This dawn is serene and sentient.  The birds I’ve heard all week make themselves visible, as if from nowhere: tits and tree creepers and robins, revelling in the stillness.  It has rained overnight and on the ground there appears to be growth where there wasn’t any before, startling greens sparkling in the damp morning sunlight.  The forest has shown us all its sides this week, but it has finally divested itself of all its disguises and revealed its exuberant splendour.