There’s only one way to beat the heat. I ventured outside at 4:15am this morning with a dog who was surprised but instantly approving. With the mist in the valley and the sun still hiding, we spent time with the foxes – notably an ambitious cub who hopefully charged a woodpigeon, and ruefully learned that birds can fly.
But the grand sweep of chalk grassland to the north of my village holds other lessons – of the mind-boggling variety of small wild things. This wolf spider carries her young with her on her travels. The Russians say that wolves are fed by their feet, and the eight legs of this spider will let her catch her next meal.
But other stories are of people, and the names that we have found for plants. Fragrant-orchid makes literal sense, although there was no perfume that early in the day.
As does greater yellow-rattle. One of the UK’s rarest plants, the seed pods will rattle as they mature.
It is the worts that are most human. St John’s wort, still used in traditional medicine – albeit with limited evidence – is said to flower around the feast day of St John the Baptist. Which is today, as it happens: June 24th. It was named in 1551 by William Turner, a botanist and reformer.
Much less famous is dropwort. Wort is an old English name for a herb, and ‘drop’ in this case refers to tubers on its roots. It is no relation to hemlock water-dropwort, which unlike this innocent cluster of white petals is extremely poisonous.
But to finish, another orchid, and one whose name of pyramidal needs no explanation.
And some bonus mammals. But to start, here is today’s flower: lesser celandine, the hopeful splash of sunshine on our puddle-strewn roads. Or, as William Wordsworth put it: telling tales about the sun, when we’ve little warmth, or none.
This has been a long, wet winter. But as Facebook readers will know, things have become rather exciting in the garden. The foxes have a neighbour!
A badger – the first one documented in the garden in forty years! While badgers do not disperse from their families as readily as foxes, they will do so under some circumstances. He has a healing bite scar on his rump, evidence of a family squabble no doubt.
As for the foxes, their breeding season has ended and cubs will be born very soon. Here’s one expectant mother whom I did not expect to see again: ‘Pretty Face’, the grand old lady of the garden. Not only did she stun me with a sudden reappearance after a six month absence, but she is heavily pregnant.
She is very small, but she is a survivor, and she is strong. The younger foxes who have moved into the garden in her absence are rapidly learning that she expects to be in charge.
I hope that her cubs inherit her irrepressible spirit.
A mountain hare’s footprints patterned it.
Flowers weave a carpet over it.
St Bruno’s lily
The Findelbach washes it – watercolour most literal.
And the mountain stirs storms above it.
Hard to believe, all this in three nights. I didn’t even know that I was going to Switzerland until less than 24 hours before I boarded the flight. But life does that sometimes.
This land is art. And it has made an impression on me.
That is what great art is supposed to do.
The poppies still in bud will have a surprise: they won’t flower alone. Every plant here has its attendants – winged, busy and bold.
Butterflies are abundant, and so are smaller creatures.
The red and black stripes of the minstrel bug warn predators that they taste foul.
And of course, the colouration of bees signals their ability to defend themselves.
But despite subtle warnings, the path is peaceful, winding over gentle slopes of meadow and coniferous forest, the shockingly tranquil toes of the Alps’ mightiest giants. Not that the mountains let you forget them; there is still a snowpack flanking some streams, and all the water ferries glacial dust into the Vispa.
That milky hue – the colour of a snow leopard’s eyes – is mountain blood and bone. Glaciers scratch the peaks as they move, scouring rock to powder and sending it to the river via by their outflow streams. It is a familiar story from mountain ranges everywhere, but I’ve not seen many that do it with such haste. Water here is hasty; it has to be, with valley rims on both sides soaring over three kilometres above the river. Streams leap from the glaciers in waterfalls so numerous, I suppose that no one has ever thought to give them a name.
Yet this is a valley of humanity, as well as wildlife. The village of Täsch is at least seven hundred years old. Today it largely survives on tourism rather than agriculture, but relics of former times are in the streets – a drinking trough for livestock lives on.
Flowers, insects, water, people – none are alone. They are all part of the fabric of the Mattertal.
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’ve been reflecting on the nature of memory lately. The basic themes may set the tone but the small details are what bring thoughts alive. That holds true with the outside world, too.
Take Dorset, for example. I barely knew the county before last month, but it is easy to describe in broad brushstrokes: an erratic quilt of heath, farmland and trees, heaped up high into grassy hills, threaded with tiny lanes and dotted with quaint villages. To the south it is underscored by vivid white: mighty chalk cliffs guarding the channel, crumbling cradle of a thousand dinosaur bones.
The Jurassic Coast is a World Heritage Site, of course. Even away from it, the countryside is refreshingly free from motorway noise.
Zoom in a little, and exploring is flavoured by small details. Sundews are not unique to the south-west, but are intriguing little things. They are carnivorous plants that eat insects.
Another heathland predator is very seldom glimpsed. This is the shed skin of a smooth snake Coronella austriaca, Britain’s rarest reptile.
I have only ever seen one, and that was in western Surrey last year.
Back in Dorset, the flowers are shining.
…or not. The twayblade is one of the green orchids and easily overlooked.
Quiet and reclusive perhaps, but it is just as important ecologically as any of its brighter peers.
Keep looking. Keep remembering.
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
The mapmakers built it, long ago. Lichens write the years upon it, and autumnal mist steals its vista from human eyes, but it remains our grey witness to the hills.
The Ordnance Survey’s trigonometry points crown hilltops throughout Britain. Surveyors used them to triangulate distance and draw this island upon maps for countless purposes. They are a monument to scientific brilliance, but only in chorus. One trig point makes no more sense than one limb of a tree.
But its sister hill with its own trig point is still there, 11 miles away, wreathed in cloud. Trig points may have concrete hearts but they share wild nature’s habit of hinting at greater tapestries beyond our sight.
Fungi like these shaggy scalycaps are only the fruiting bodies of the mycelium, the thread-like organism that lives unseen within soil or tree.
A slime mould is only one life stage of the wood’s strangest lifeform: it existed as single cells before aggregating and becoming sessile.
Goat’s rue is a quiet monument to human hope. It is not a native species in the UK but has been here since at least the 17th century, given passage as a forage crop for livestock. Perhaps these dew-spotted petals are descended from plants tended by farmers who walked these hills in centuries past.
Crystalline clear skies seldom provoke questions about what lies just beyond our view. Mist is the master of those.