Definitely ground-blue. Because sky-blue and the sea-blue cannot rival it.
Every spring, they turn the woodland floor into a carnival, swaying in their thousands in the rain and lobbing perfume into the air like so much confetti. The UK has about half the world’s bluebells, and considering that a sizeable bulk of them are crammed into the 2.5% of the country that is still ancient woodland – well, you get the idea. In early May, you cannot really tell if trees have roots or are just afloat on a fragrant sea.
Occasionally, their show adds a stichwort or two.
Or frames a passing fox.
England has an extremely rich plant folklore; even the most obscure flowers have acquired strange connotations over the centuries. Bluebells, upfront and demanding on the senses, stirred imaginations forcefully in their bell-like shape – they rang for fairies, so they said, but any humans who heard the tolling were doomed. More practically, their bulbs provided starch that stiffened Elizabethan collars and their sap deterred insects from attacking book binding.
Today, they have protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act against commercial gatherers, although there is also concern that the introduced Spanish bluebell is hybridising where it escapes from gardens. But mostly the blue show goes on. And it is, as you can see, almost entirely blue, except for the odd moments when it is white.
Like white wave caps on the woodland sea.
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.
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.
…which can be white or pink
And then, there is the music. Whatever is happening in the human world, the woods continue a conversation all their own.
To see what the woodpecker’s art project on the birch will become.
To learn where the buzzard chooses to fly.
To listen to the woodlands, and hear them grow.
Keep safe and well, all.
You see it, smell it, hear it as it rustles in the spring breeze.
They’re so emphatic that they have an entire habitat named after them – bluebell woods – as if the year is defined by their show.
Woodland glades are theirs, but some surprise old meadows with their company.
And then they’re gone, and the flowers of early summer take their turn.
With the springtime wild world and a backdrop of Easter bells ringing. Not real frost, of course, although the Surrey Hills had a few flakes of snow a fortnight back – hard to remember in today’s sun.
It’s blackthorn, spring’s showy pioneer.
The ground, too, is waking, and dewdrops brighten the flowers.
Bluebells are now at their peak, carpeting our oldest woods in shimmering sapphire.
I must have seen a thousand cowslips on Saturday’s walk.
Meanwhile, the mysterious toothwort sprouts flowers without leaves. Unlike almost all other flowers, it doesn’t photosynthesize, instead getting its nutrition from its host. That is usually hazel or alder.
Spring is beautiful, but there is an intrigue and depth to that beauty, and a lesson in how different strands of life support each other. I am grateful that there is always so much more to see and learn.
I can still see it: rain peppering an inscrutable sea. Clouds rolling through the pines on grey mountains, the light milky, if it came at all.
Eleven years ago, I moved to a very remote and troubled town in Canada’s broken wilderness and tried to make sense of the fragile truce between human fear and those wild creatures trying to live alongside us. I have more words about that, but for another time, perhaps.
Through all the travel, drama and rain, a small German shepherd was beside me: the most irrepressible, opinionated and original creature in the forest. Chiara made me laugh, often, nearly drove me out of my mind a few times too, and was a reassuring presence on dark days. After we returned to England, my mother adopted her, and that bond forged in wild forests resurfaced in the gentler landscapes of the Surrey Hills.
Chiara left us this week. I will miss her zeal, her humour and her friendship. She was, simply, unique. The memories are powerful. And now I will cherish rain, for it reminds me of her.
I sketched this when I realised that she was dying. It is how I want to remember her.
It has been raining here, too, off and on.
Time rolls on. Summer is almost here.
The world is alive, and it is very beautiful.
Bluebell – Hyacinthoides non-scripta
Cuckooflower – Cardamine pratensis
Wood-sorrel – Oxalis acetosella
Toothwort – Lathraea squamaria
Wild cherry – Prunus avium