Desire lines

June 5th

It always pleases me to find evidence of the tracks that animals have worn through the undergrowth by their passage. I can’t explain why. Perhaps it’s something about the reassurance of knowing those animals are there? This is only a small area of woodland after all, ringed fairly tight by estate housing and roads, yet within it there are clearly populations of undomesticated creatures leaving their mark, simply by doing what they do, going where they go, following their instincts.

   20170605_174726 20170605_174335 (1) 20170605_174852

I also know they’re there because I see them. If I’m lucky, I’ll happen upon deer on a weekly basis, and more so in the winter when there is less vegetation to hide them. They typically freeze with what seems like fear, but will calmly hold your gaze until you realise you’re no longer breathing, often only fleeing once you move on again. Squirrels are plentiful but rarely on the ground. Foxes are more elusive, and tend to keep their distance – I smell them more often than see them. There are surely other mammals around – mice, rats, voles, hedgehogs (although the latter of these are easier to encounter in the garden than the woods). Badgers I’m hopeful but not sure about. I keep on the lookout for the telltale entrance to a sett, without success so far.

Humans beings have made paths too, but by the more deliberate, co-ordinated use of earth-movers, aggregates and vibrating whacker plates, rather than the gradual weathering action of their feet. An army of dog-walkers, pram-pushers, cyclists and joggers criss-crosses the woods every day, and largely keeps its feet and wheels free of mud. We’re well-behaved on the whole, going where we’re ushered, following routes that someone else decided we should take. There’s little incentive to do otherwise unless you’re determined to stray no matter what – the paths are well-made and extensive. And there are nettles and fallen trees everywhere!

A “desire line” (or “path”, though “line” sounds better and is more familiar to me) is the term used by landscape architects, parks authorities and planners to describe what happens if we don’t behave ourselves when going from A to B, and instead go off-piste, following our own course rather than the one suggested and provided for us. This usually means a lazy shortcut, cater-corner, directly through the middle rather than around the outsides. We’re creatures of habit too, it seems.

800px-desire_path_281981158136629

Image: Metro Centric

I don’t imagine that cutting lazy corners, seeking a swifter route, is what the animals who made the tracks in the three previous pictures were necessarily doing, whichever species they were. Not deliberately, anyway. They were, and are, probably looking for food, seeking safety or returning to a reliable source of water. They have probably been doing it for centuries.

 

Ash Dieback

May 10th

Wandering through the woods in early May, it would be a simple assumption to make that all is well with the world, and that spring is now unfolding furiously, just as it should, just as it always does. The understorey is becoming dense and complex, flowering plants, ferns and moss all competing for space, and feeding off a rich diet of accumulated organic matter. The canopy overhead is starting to colour itself in with new leaves, and soon the sky will only be visible as pinpricks between them, shifting at the whim of the wind.

But if you look a little closer – and I’m always trying to – you’ll see that in certain places, something is going awry. The picture is not as healthy as it appears on the first, cursory inspection.

The Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) is a stalwart of Britain’s woodlands, as well as our municipal parks, gardens and urban spaces. The bark of its new growth is a distinctive olive-green, its hard black buds bursting in the spring to form fronds of multiple leaf-lets. It can grow to 35 metres and live for 400 years. The tree and its timber have been part of life and folklore for centuries, evidenced by the regularity with which it appears in place names.

Ash Dieback

Young ash tree showing typical signs of the disease – discoloured stems and branch lesions

Since 2010, the fungal disease known as Chalara or Ash Dieback has been infecting Britain’s ash population. It may have arrived as wind-blown spores, or via saplings imported from mainland Europe. There is no cure for the disease. Common symptoms include discolouration of the bark, blotches on the leaves, and lens- or diamond-shaped lesions on branches and trunks. In Denmark, 90% of trees are reckoned to be affected, and the most pessimistic opinions predict the eventual disappearance of the ash from most of Europe.

I can’t tell you when Ash Die-back reached these parts. I can tell you that this is the first year I’ve noticed it in these woods. I’m sure it has been here longer. And the speed with which it has taken a hold – particularly amongst young saplings – is astonishing.

Ash is not the most well-represented species in these woods – it is easily outnumbered by sycamore and Scots pine. But it is one of the most prolific species when it comes to regeneration. In certain parts of the woods – usually where a mature parent tree is close by – ash seedlings reach skywards in spectacular numbers. Not all are destined to survive to maturity, of course, but in their first year, they can grow to human height and beyond.

Now you wonder whether any of them will survive at all.

And what would that feel like – to have such an emblematic species disappear almost entirely from the landscape? No doubt another opportunist tree species would fill in the gaps left behind, the biosphere never being a sentimentalist. The woods would not become full of holes.

I have no great knowledge about trees, and the diseases that afflict them – or how they might or might not be cured. Personally, I feel a tremendous sense of helplessness, like all I can really do is walk through the woods and try to enjoy the fact that these trees are here, for now at least.

Nettle Soup

April 15th

These woods don’t offer exceptional scope for foraging, but it’s become one of my personal annual rituals to make nettle soup every spring using leaves harvested fresh from the undergrowth.

NettlesIf you’ve never tried or even heard of nettle soup, it might seem an unlikely dish. Nettles are more renowned for their stinging capabilities than their culinary value, but they do make a very nutritious and palatable broth. In fact, they are one of the most historically useful wild plants to be found in the British Isles, having been employed in the past to make herbal remedies, dyes, beer and even rope.

They are at their best just now. The new shoots and leaves which have emerged in the past few weeks are still tender, and relatively easy to digest. Later on, they become stringy, fibrous and a much chewier prospect. In the past, they would’ve been a precious source of vitamins at this time of year, which was traditionally known as “The Hungry Gap” – the period when the previous year’s stored harvest was all but depleted, and the new season’s crops were still far from ready. It was a time when foraging for wild sources of food would’ve been a matter of survival rather than just curiosity. Knowing which plants and fungi were edible and nutritious – as well as tasty – was essential.
Nettle soup
I choose nettles for harvest which are growing well away from any paths, and therefore – hopefully – where dogs have pissed. I wash them well before using them in any case, but I figure such selectivity increases the chances of them being uncontaminated! I’ve handled so many nettles over the years that the tips of my thumbs and forefingers appear to be immune to the stings now. I’ve heard it said that nettle stings used to be (and perhaps still are) reckoned to prevent arthritis, but I’d advise wearing gloves all the same! The sting is neutralised by cooking, so your mouth, gullet and stomach will be unaffected. It’s possible to add other vegetables to your soup – e.g. carrots, leeks – but I like to keep mine simple.

You’ll need:

1 onion;
2 or 3 medium sized all-purpose potatoes;
3 or 4 good handfuls of nettle leaves and/or tops, washed and roughly chopped;
2 pints of vegetable stock;
Butter or oil for frying;
Salt and pepper to taste.

  • Slice the onion finely, and fry gently in the butter or oil in a saucepan until softened.
  • Cut the potatoes into small cubes – I prefer not to peel them, just scrub them well.
  • Add the potatoes and stock to the pan and bring to the boil.
  • Reduce to simmer and cook until the potatoes are almost soft.
  • Add the nettles and cook for a further five minutes.
  • Season to taste. Liquidise if you prefer your soups this way. Adding a little cream or milk is also an option.
  • Nettle soup is particularly great served with homemade wholemeal bread.

Enjoy!

The Rookery

April 1st

Like people, some birds are territorial by nature, while others flock comfortably together. Sometimes there is safety to be had in numbers, in knowing your neighbours, even when you live cheek-by-jowl with them.

Every year, in the same south-eastern corner of the woods, dozens of rooks gather, and build their nests high up in a dense cluster of sycamore crowns. Seen just now from a distance in silhouette – before the trees’ leaves have fully unfurled themselves – each nest resembles a tangled bundle of cells in the complex map of a nervous system.

Rookery

The rookery cannot be missed. Piles of sticks and twigs – having either fallen accidentally from the nest mid-construction, or been rejected as inferior, inadequate material for the project – litter the ground beneath. Rook-shit spatters the emerging leaves of understorey plants, and threatens the heads of joggers and dog-walkers using the footpath curling by below. The noise, the endless chatter, is hard to ignore.

2200746587_35eba45b4c_zIn flight, rooks and crows can be difficult to distinguish. On the ground, and at close quarters, rooks are identifiable by their greyish bills and spectacled appearance, their more upright, striding gait. I find them less sinister-looking than any of their corvid cousins, than crows in particular, who seem able only to scowl. In fact, I find there’s something almost professorial about rooks. Were they to have hands instead of wings, you could imagine them clasped together behind their backs as they strolled earnestly around some college quad, beaks bowed deep in thought. In reality, they’re more commonly seen loitering alongside the main road leaving town, looking for worms, or grain discarded by passing trucks, at the edge of the withered grass. They’ll eat carrion – roadkill – too.

But why that particular spot for a rookery, that cluster of trees? And nowhere else? They’ve presumably been nesting there for many, many years, well before the housing estates that now circle the woods were built. Since those trees reached maturity, perhaps, and became strong enough to support their hefty nests?

A theory I’ve come up with is that they’ve chosen the corner of the woods that gets the most sunlight without being over-exposed to the prevailing westerly winds. But it’s only a theory. Maybe it was the first spot they came to? Maybe they just like the view?

Whatever the reason for it, watching the skies overhead when the rooks return to their nests to roost in the evening is some spectacle. It may not be quite as breath-taking as the murmuration rituals performed by starlings before they roost (something I have been fortunate enough to witness before), but there is a peculiar music to the calls the rooks make to one another as they circle the canopy, especially on a still day when the noise echoes through the trees. Sometimes, they will all appear to have settled for the night, when a noise or other disturbance sends them airborne again, shrieking. They fly round and round en masse, until the message is communicated that all is well, and roosting – properly this time – can begin anew.

There is no real beginning, so let’s begin there…

March evening, looking west

March 26th

Let me tell you where we’re at.

Five days have passed since the vernal equinox, and during the night, our clocks were adjusted for British Summer Time. I always find this so quaintly human, the way we need to invent a system for measuring time, and then still tinker with it every so often to make it work for us. So with this in mind, does it feel like spring? Well…

More than any other time of year, this one defies both prediction and pinpointing. Yesterday was a day of serious sunshine, barely a breath of wind, temperatures peaking around 16C; nothing to get excited about in many parts of the world, but eventful for here. T-shirts were being worn. Yet three days ago we had a flurry of snow, albeit a non-lingering one. Four days ago it rained without respite. As our planet’s climate changes, one of the apparent consequences for us in these parts is the blurring of the lines between the seasons, or even the disappearance of “seasons” as we used to understand them. It feels like their transitions have become stop-start and messy, and that almost any weather event is possible at any time of the year. But in truth, most of the general old markers are still there when you start looking and listening.

Three months back, the dominant colours in the woods were greys and browns. Now, the floor is washed with a palette of greens, as early starters take advantage of the lack of leaf canopy overhead. Snowdrops have already been and almost gone, thComfrey and nettles emergingeir flower heads withered, task complete. Now there are nettles emerging everywhere, still only inches high – difficult to imagine they’ll be five feet tall in a few months time, tumbling across paths, stinging exposed arms and ankles. The yellow stars of lesser celandine fill up many of the spaces where the sun reaches the ground. Comfrey is there too, even a few clumps of white violets – if you can handle such a contradiction. And threads of moss everywhere dead trunks and branches have landed.

The neighbourhood’s birds have clearly decided that a switch has been flicked. The frequency and volume of their calls has been cranked up recently. On any still morning before it gets properly light, the drumming of at least one woodpecker – often two – comes via the bedroom window. Glimpses of them are rare, but their beaks give them away. I always find the first annual instance of this – which can be as early as January – particularly enthralling. Some years, I even get to see them swooping down and making an unexpected foray into the garden.

I’m telling myself it’s only by chance that I’m starting to record these observations now. Spring happens to be my favourite time of year, but I could just as easily start during any season. Although I’ve always considered spring as a time for beginnings – not just for blogs! – I know that the progression of the seasons has no real beginning, no end. Spring is for rebirth, rather than birth. There is always something new happening in summer, autumn and even winter too. I’ve now had several opportunities to observe the various changes that take place in these woods within any twelve month cycle; the only constant is change itself. And there’s something reassuring in this – that the woods have been here for longer than I have, and know perfectly well what’s coming. They have no need for either calendar or clock to tell them what to do, what to expect.

Welcome to The Woods

For some time now, I’ve been wanting to experiment with the literary genre which seems to have become known as Creative Non-Fiction. I’ve never looked up a definition for CNF – as I’ve seen it abbreviated in several places – and although I’m sure they exist, I wonder if it’s something that’s easier to recognise than to define.

I’ve also been keen to give myself a reason to write something on a regular basis, methodically, rather than simply as-and-when. I’ve kept personal journals before, but they tend to become horribly introspective and analytical very swiftly.

Welcome to The WoodsSo I’ve decided instead to keep a journal based around the seasonal changes taking place in a small patch of woodland close to where I live. Not a very original subject perhaps, but I do read quite a bit of nature writing, and I’m pleased to see there has been something of a resurgence in this over the last few years. I’ve enjoyed reading books by the likes of Robert Macfarlane, Helen Macdonald and Richard Maybe – I’m not pretending my efforts will be on that level, but I’ll give it a go!

It’s also a subject that I won’t have difficulty seeking out, as it’s right on my doorstep, and I try to walk there every day – if only for fifteen minutes or so. It may not be the grandest bit of woodland you’d ever stumble upon, but then I suppose the challenge of Creative Non-Fiction is to be creative, to bring life to something which appears on the surface to be unremarkable.

Read on…