Both Sides of the Track

Lockdown is bringing people closer to nature.

I hear it a lot. Is it true? People are physically outside far more than usual, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re developing empathy with our wild neighbours. What do people expect nature to be, anyway? After all, it’s not a themepark. It’s not a game, and animals and plants aren’t toys. Nature is exciting, fun, inspiring, unnerving and raw – written by rules much older than us.

Due to my village’s location in the Surrey Hills, I’ve had a front row seat as lockdown has propelled unprecedented crowds into the countryside. Many have been respectful of wild things; some most definitely have not. Visitors who ride bikes in ancient woodlands, gallop horses across wildflower meadows, pick rare flowers, drop litter, fly drones and light BBQs hurt the land, and cause real distress to local people who care for it.

So, I left the house very, very early yesterday, looking for nature as it’s meant to be.

Hillside path 19 May 20

What I found was this: wild strawberry, the sweetest, tiniest little thing.

Wild strawberry 19 May 20

Isn’t that one of the popular messages about nature – that it is good for us? We value it for clean air, working rivers, the ‘green gym’ and its health benefits. That defines ‘good’ as something with a physical or emotional impact. It goes without saying that these are of priceless importance. But there is more, I think.

A little further up the path, there was an altogether different fruiting bush.

Nightshade2 19 May 20

Belladonna, or deadly nightshade. Devil’s berries, they call its fruit – bright black buttons of death. In Britain, it likes chalky hills like mine, and clings to almost sheer hillsides, beautiful, garish and feared.

Nightshade3 19 May 20

It teaches us something that no strawberry can, lessons that might not be popular in this day and age: that reckless bravado has consequences, that education is better than guessing, that small choices – as small as swallowing a berry – can have major outcomes that are not always possible to put right.

Like volcanoes, like grizzlies, deadly nightshade reminds humanity that we have limits, and should handle life with a certain respect and care.

That is not a bad thing. It is the health in the poison.

Bright Bunting

I’ve been in an air raid shelter. Years ago, in the back garden of the old family house’s elderly next door neighbour – I used to play afternoon Scrabble with her, and she showed me the twisting stairs in the rambling lawn. Down there was the bunker where she had once had to hide.

This week air raid sirens blared again, but in memory rather than anger: Friday saw the 75th anniversary of the end of fighting in Europe. Of course, we are still in lockdown and street parties are impossible. But nothing can stop this village decorating its gardens, or indeed its hall, and the show was bright.

VE Day1

VE Day2

We are only a small community, but we lost 14 men in action during the war – one of whom was given a posthumous Victoria Cross.

I have no bunting, but I did find the right colours, more or less, in a fox pausing by flowers planted in our own uncertain times.

Fox in flowers 7 May 20

And then there was the milkwort: a tiny flower of chalk downland that is as varied as the sky.

It grows on the steep southern flanks of my parish, where fields that have escaped modern agriculture still support a rich tapestry of living things. My maternal grandfather walked there too, and photographed bee orchids.

Family2

He served in Burma as an RAF officer; my paternal grandfather was in France.

Now I am here with my own dog, looking for flowers, tracking foxes, watching the world change. We all know that many difficulties are ahead, but that cannot blind our gratitude that we are at least free to rise to that challenge.

The natural world still breathes. Flowers still grow.

Sunset 16 Apr 20

Colours in the Carpet

I’ve listened to the wildwood, that song from the old times that still grows in wolf-filled corners of eastern Poland. Black woodpeckers drum there, and red squirrels dodge pine martens in trees that stretch towards the stars.

Dawn reduced 160417

Białowieża Forest is older than any human empire. It is the European Yellowstone: a wildlife metropolis that forms a benchmark of what the wilderness used to be. Nature is not a fixed condition – it is not so very long since huge areas of the continent were under ice – but in the current epoch, the natural climax vegetation of much of lowland Europe is forest.

In Britain, we have a type of Białowieża that exists in a thousand fragments. We call them ‘semi-natural ancient woodland’ which, technically, refers to any wood that appears on 17th century maps. They are not wilderness, and many have been coppiced for timber over the centuries, but they are nevertheless relatively natural and support an immense range of living things. For all intents and purposes, they are irreplaceable. You cannot knock down an old native wood and replace it with a few saplings; it will take hundreds of years to regain the same biodiversity. If it ever does.

Surrey’s wildlife-rich grasslands and heathlands are celebrated, but it is also Britain’s most wooded county – and much of it is ancient. The carpets give its age away.

English bluebells

Bluebell wood 25 Apr 20

…which can be white or pink

White on blue 25 Apr 20

Yellow pimpernel

Yellow pimpernel 25 Apr 20

Red campion

Red campion 25 Apr 20

And then, there is the music. Whatever is happening in the human world, the woods continue a conversation all their own.

Nomads Amongst Us

If we cannot go out into the world, then the world can come to us. Everything wild, travels, from foxes to flowers.

Remember  ‘Spectacles’? He arrived alongside another adolescent male some years ago, but while One-Eye – his probable brother – remained a homebird for lifetime, Spectacles was a nomad. He loitered in the garden, quarrelled with the resident foxes, and took to the road, returning and disappearing apparently at random. Where he went, I do not know; but foxes can easily stray dozens of miles. It’s not unlikely that he voyaged to Kent or even Sussex.

Fox spectacles3 160317

There are a certain proportion of foxes who live like this. Territory is not an exact concept, although a family group will make some effort to evict or at least dominate trespassers. If you can imagine a map with multiple circles on it, Spectacles was the kind of fox who roamed loosely over those zones, knowing many but belonging to none.

I’ve known several other nomadic foxes. This young vixen, who was usually accompanied by a very dark dogfox, seemed perpetually baffled by the world even as she trotted haphazardly around in it.

Scraggles2 190308

And of course, the famous Vixen from Across the Road – whose territory was half-destroyed by construction workers – spent several years crossing the line, despite the best efforts of the neighbouring foxes.

Fox PF2 160327

As for Spectacles, he abandoned my village for good in 2017, after repeated squabbles with the tiny but fierce White Socks Vixen. Here’s one of their soundtracks! Like most fox confrontations, the noise is savage, but it was quite bloodless.

We have other wanderers, of course: redwings from Iceland over the winter, chiffchaffs from Africa in the summer. But on the woodland floor is a different kind of movement – where travel is not a matter for the individual, but something accomplished as a team over a hundred generations.

Wood anenome Apr 20

Most plants stay rooted for life, and wood anemones are no exception. These tiny white banner-bearers of spring are exceptionally slow to spread – a rate of six feet a century is the estimate. As we humans are currently learning for other reasons, tiny steps forward are no reason for any one individual to drop the ball.

And even while still, they travel. Anemones are known as the windflower, and how they bob in a woodland breeze.

Living in their own way, patient in the dappled sun.

The Tree and Thee

Or: the afterlife of a tree.

It was older than me, probably significantly so. It was almost unnoticed in life, tucked behind a conifer – just its roots highlighted by fly agarics, those garish fungi of fairytales.

Fly agaric1 30 Sept 19

And then, Storm Ciara knocked it east.

Silver birch down

Thus perished the silver birch of the garden’s right border. It had its revenge on the conifer from beyond the grave; the tug of its roots unbalanced its rival, which promptly followed it lawn-ward a week later in Storm Dennis. But while conifer wood is of limited value to wildlife and had to be removed, the birch trunk soon acquired a fan club.

Fox Spindle 17 Feb 20

This is Spindle, the garden’s resident comedian. He arrived last autumn as a gangly ‘teenager’ along with two vixens, who may well have been his sisters. His brush really was as thin as a spindle – not only was he suffering from sarcoptic mange (which causes severe fur loss) but he also appeared to have fractured the vertebrae. A few doses of Stronghold cured the mange, and his bones have healed, albeit at a strange angle.

Spindle brush 17 Feb 20

Now healthy, he is full of mischief, and the birch is his innocent accomplice. He sneaks behind it to leap playfully on other foxes – and is also the perfect vantage point for scanning the world.

Spindle4 6 Mar 20

I have slowed down the ‘March in Flower’ idea because unfortunately most of our plants are still firmly asleep, but I will keep posting species as they awake.

March in Flower: Sweet Archangel

Everything in nature is a cog that spins on something else. A little signpost, if you will. Last month, I was visiting a site on the South Coast when a wren trilled and a rabbit bolted from the hedgerow. Not random, not meaningless – they were set in motion by a force unseen.

Then it emerged!

Stoat NF 13 Feb

Stoat, known as short-tailed weasel in North America. I very rarely see these restless little predators.

Today’s flower is also here because of a quiet nudge, albeit a more human one. Back in the Bronze Age, when Stonehenge was built and agriculture was benefiting from new tools, farmers inadvertently introduced a number of new plants into the British wild. Sweet archangel – also known as red deadnettle – was among them.

Red deadnettle 3 Mar 20

Today it grows quietly, finding a niche for itself on forgotten road verges, painting sweet colour in this reluctant spring.

Soon bees will fly here because of it.

Nature’s cogs keep turning.