Letter from the Deadnettle

A red dead-nettle. I photographed it last year when it ended winter by brightening the verges. Now it’s here again – nothing has changed. 

Red deadnettle 28 Feb 21

Well, really. More has changed than we would ever have conceived possible. But not this flower, this tiny leftover from the whims of our Neolithic forebears, who inadvertently introduced a palette of wild flowers along with early agriculture. Dead-nettle reminds us that as we work, play upon or explore wild places, we are writing a story whether we wish it or not – and pages from it can be read 4,000 years after their authors are gone. 

Read, that is, in the flowers, and more: in even the folds of fields. Ridge-and-furrow is the insignia of the Middle Ages: this field has not been ploughed for centuries. When the ancient historic landscape survives, so often does a rich community of wild things. Such places are alive, as well as a tangible link to what came before.

Ridge and furrow

In the trees, too: via coppicing, the art of felling a tree yet keeping it alive. Stumps sprout new straight stems that were useful for many things, including the supports for the Sweet Track – a causeway built across boggy ground in Somerset almost 6,000 years ago. Hazel was one of the species used, and it continued to produce many useful goods until coppice was finally overtaken by modern industry. Woods remember the past with clustered stems of old coppice.

Medieval bank

Dormice love them: hazelnuts to eat and safe places to hide. Many conservation groups encourage coppicing to keep this habitat alive. But there is a little more in the photo above – see the bank in the foreground? That, too, is a relic – post-medieval earthworks of unknown purpose. Whoever built them, whoever designed them, we do not know; but their legacy lives on, even with bluebells emerging upon it.

And pages from the past – and present – are written in the birds, too, and none as bright as the gorgeous yellowhammer, a bunting that thrived for so long in the hedgerows that the Enclosure Acts promoted, and suffered of course as agriculture industrialised. Their cry of a little bit of bread and No cheese is not as familiar as it once was, so I was delighted to see four of them on my walk yesterday.

Yellowhammer 27 Feb 21

We are still writing stories in nature. Future generations will learn far more about us than we might want them to know simply through reading the land, and it will not lie to save our blushes. Let us make sure that the stories we leave are honourable ones.

Drumbeat

Hear Time beating on these walls – march forward, forward, forward…

Walls1

See stones laugh at so many feet – they were building blocks of hills, carried here by Vikings, and humanity is a light burden compared to the sky.

Walls stonework

Nature creeps into them.

Walls ivy

They protect York’s markets.

York Shambles2

They are watched by York’s grandest towers – pause there, for ‘grand’ is a shallow cry in this most mighty of shadows. Few buildings anywhere soar into your spirit like the Minster.

York Minster5

Within it are books close to their 1000th birthday.

York old book

Under it were found the bones of the even older Roman building – and the footprints of a dog, running across a Roman roof slate.

York Minster2

The Romans left wolves here, too.

Wolf's Head York

And foxes are enthroned in glass on the great Eastern Window, celebrated in this modern sewing.

York Fox

The organ notes resound and music echoes with the Minster’s vaulted arches. The tune rolls forward, like Time, like the rolling of the becks in the Vale to the north.

Cod Beck

Travel with it, restless under the tempestuous autumn skies.