What would they say to us and our hasty lives?
No one knows how old the yews of Kingley Vale National Nature Reserve might be. Local legend says that they were planted after a battle with the Vikings in the 9th century; other estimates vary from 500 years to 2,000. In country where most ancient yews haunt churchyards as solitary wardens, in a continent where the 15th century craze for longbows drove a insatiable demand for yew-wood, a grove like this is exceptional.
Age adds to the atmosphere of tangled boughs and trunks that bulge and burst into impossible shapes, like a clay pot being worked on a very slow wheel.
The yew has special significant to us; people have been building with its wood since the Palaeolithic. Their presence in churchyards may date to the bubonic plague – they were allegedly planted on the graves of victims to purify them. It is also said that they were a deterrent to locals looking for a place to graze cattle; their extremely toxic fruit is deadly to livestock and to much else.
Birds get by with the yew, however, swallowing the fresh and excreting the stone. Their dense structure gives protection to small species like goldcrests. But a yew grove can be silent, still, a place where thoughts grow and are left to hang in the air.
Beyond the yews, Kingley Vale opens into chalk downland.
A riot of colour in the summer, but the flowers are sleeping now. They will return.
The yews have seen it all before.
Not the human type.
Approaching the four month mark, these fox cubs are lanky, lean and confident. Having spotted one learn about woodpigeons yesterday, I ventured out very early again this morning with my big 600mm lens. They took some finding, and before them I stumbled across rabbits, nibbling in meadows in the pre-dawn light.
Britain has only one native member of the rabbit family: the shy and beautiful mountain hare, an upland species these days. Brown hares and European rabbits were both introduced by the Romans. Last year, a rabbit bone was found in Fishbourne Palace, built in 75AD. In the two millennia since, rabbits have become a naturalised part of our landscapes.
In their native Spain as much as in England, rabbits need to be alert to foxes. But the cubs were more interested in me.
I had a press interview for my book yesterday, and was asked what foxes do when they see me. I said: they sit down. Like this.
Sitting is such a big part of a fox’s character that I named my first blog after it. But of course, they are alert and watching, whatever their posture. And waiting to see what the day will bring.
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.