The ‘blue-buzzed haze’ and passing days…

Amidst all the rain this May Bank Holiday weekend, Sunday 6th opened a window of sunshine – so we grabbed our chance, headed out to Westonbirt Arboretum

And stepped through into this…

It’s so difficult, via a photo or words, to convey the sheer sensuousness of being amongst bluebells. Almost impossible to convey the intensity of colour, the subtle layers of scent; the stunning effect as you turn a corner and see them there, spread at the feet of moss-rimed oaks – or splashed across the grass, gleaming in the light…

‘And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes’

– Gerard Manley Hopkins

In the serenely beautiful video clip below, Robert Macfarlane sits in a Billericay bluebell wood and responds to these lines from The May Magnificat. He reflects on how he came to fully understand Manley Hopkins’ words, and to appreciate the accuracy of their imagery; how they capture that effect of ‘aqueous shimmer’ and ‘marine wash’ (Macfarlane’s own description) when you walk and sit amongst bluebells.

Reading Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places (one of the most deeply mesmerising books I’ve ever encountered) is like experiencing a kind of meditation – an underworld of deep thought. This clip is from The Wild Places of Essex – a televisual accompaniment to Macfarlane’s book, and part of the BBC’s Natural World series back in 2010. It gives a flavour of that mesmerising quality of Macfarlane’s nature writing, and provides a visual feast of ‘blue-buzzed haze’ (Gerard Manley Hopkins again):

Bluebells are one of the specialities of the British Isles, our (blue) icing on the biodiversity cake. More sparsely present in continental Europe and absent elsewhere, they are a national – a world – treasure. We are guardians of around half the world’s population of Hyacinthoides non-scripta. It’s so easy to take things for granted. Even within the very essence of the bluebells’ transience, we feel a trust in their never-ending return.

Trust, familiarity, noticing. Do they always go together? Today, in flower all around us, there’s a very common plant indeed – one hardly ever heeded – which is also putting on a fine display.

The bright yellow shaggy manes of dandelions are spread out in the sun, with the occasional seed clock counting its time until the breeze breaks up its perfect globe.

For me, it is a plant so bound up with my childhood; with handstands on scruffy lawns; with tree-camps on the wild edges of playing fields; with searching out its jagged, pungent leaves so beloved by pet guinea pigs; and with gently blowing the time away on the wind… There’s so much, even the most commonplace, that we would miss if it were gone.

Golden lads and girls all must
As chimney-sweepers come to dust’

…writes Shakespeare in Cymbeline. Those ‘chimney sweepers’ (dandelion clocks) are an image of passing time embedded, from our earliest days, in our consciousness and culture…

Here in Silk Wood (the arboretum’s ancient woodland) – this April/May window of emerging leaf canopy, and tree-scattered light, not only belongs to the bluebells – but is also the moment when the early purple orchids step forward and come into bloom. After carefully keeping a lookout for them in likely places, the first one we see creeps up on us from behind, jumping into my vision as I idly glance up from admiring an “elven doorway” amidst the moss.

When we follow the path round to the woodland edge, we find, as we did last year, that hosts of early purples are thriving in the grassy clearing maintained for their benefit.

And we discover more in other clearings and on the wildflower meadow rides, where we have also found them in previous years:

Early purple orchid, Orchis mascula

Earlier today, we noticed the leaves of other orchids emerging from the soil – common spotted:

…and twayblades:

We sit on a bench for a while, jumping to our feet when we hear the yaffling call of a green woodpecker immediately behind us. We don’t manage to get a glimpse of the “Yaffle,” but moments later a great spotted woodpecker lands in the tree above our bench. It’s very far up, but I point the camera towards it on maximum zoom, and hope for the best:

With the naked eye, and through binoculars, we get wonderful views of its black, white and red plumage as it fidgets and shifts along the branches.

Deeper in the ancient woodland, among tree stumps transforming into fantastic, fairy tale sculptures…

…we come across a single white bluebell

and a male orange tip butterfly is busy feeding nearby:

Orange tip butterfly (male), Anthocharis cardamines

On April Fools’ Day, on the same path – almost on the same spot – I managed to get this picture of a comma butterfly:

Comma butterfly, Polygonia c-album

And just around the corner, almost a year ago to the day, I photographed this rather ragged red admiral basking in the late April sun:

Red admiral butterfly, Vanessa atalanta

…whilst nearby, this beautiful peacock butterfly was feeding on those wonderful, nectar providing dandelions:

Peacock butterfly, Inachis io

Today, we are accompanied by the call of a chiffchaff, whilst all around, the birdsong is swollen by other recently arrived summer migrants, adding their voices to those of the resident birds. All along the edge of a plantation, there are clumps of stitchwort – and also water avens, bowing its meekly folded petals:

Water avens, Geum rivale

Lots of bugle is in flower everywhere and we find some red campion flowering too. And out in the damper, grassy areas of Silk Wood, lady’s smock – food plant for orange tip butterfly caterpillars – is also in flower. We pause to admire it, whilst two orange tips, a male and a female, flutter in courtship above the windmill whirls of pink flowers:

Lady’s smock (cuckoo flower), Cardamine pratensis

Tiny, fresh green hazel leaves are brewing energy for their future fruits, and the cherry blossom is still blousy against the blue sky. Last year, the blossom burst into spectacular, candyfloss profusion after the previous harsh winter – and gave a display that made the very earth seem to hum with bees:

On a high bank, a false oxlip is in flower, though now past its best… But, again, by the magic of time travel, a photo taken on this bank in May 2009 can whisk you back to when we managed to catch a previous year’s incarnation in a moment of full glory:

On the same bank, and on the arboretum’s downs, cowslips are in flower:

Cowslip, Primula veris

Beside some beech trees at the woodland edge, more twayblades are scattered profusely through the dog’s mercury, their flowers still bunched low, tight and closed, waiting their time.

And on the path where ramsons rule, their deep, damp wild garlic aroma fills the air. They are just beginning to unwrap their starry flowers:

– but soon they will fully reveal, in turn, their moment of stunning glory, when this path will be an avenue of billowing white.

Now, as the day – and our window of sunshine – begins to close, we watch swallows and house martins dash and twist in the sky. And a whole succession of moments lingers around us, blowing through the passing of the years – like the seed from those dandelion clocks, so perfect and waiting; playing their part in the cycle of things…

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A Peace of Nature

Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees…. while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.’    John Muir

I am a little piece of nature.’   Albert Einstein

 

Utter calm. Often, it appears unexpectedly and by chances, stealing in when you think it’s somewhere else. It’s not easy to come by. But it was there that day – not in a deep, remote landscape, but in Bath’s Botanical Gardens, with the sound of the Easter holiday fun fair thumping persistently from Victoria Park.

That elusive peace enfolded us – my husband, daughter and me – as we sat on a bench, watching the spring sunlight pulse its reflection amongst the leaves over the pool, just letting the life of the gardens come to us…

In the early afternoon, with the morning cloud dissolved, and the blue skies of the preceding days restored, we weren’t the only ones enjoying the warmth and awakening earth in that hidden corner. Above us, by the ‘Temple of Minerva,’ where a natural spring glints the spare-coin offerings of passing wish-makers, a woodpigeon cooled itself in the cascade – and a dunnock splashed amongst the lower tiers of rock.

Earlier, the dunnock had sprung from the ground to the top of the bush close beside me, threading the air with its clear, piercing notes, marking its territory. Now, a male blackbird torpedoed the underside of the leaves overhanging the pool, picking off an insect as it made contact. As he landed, another male blackbird collided into his space, assessed his dilemma, twitched in an uneasy stand-off, stood his ground for a second and then startled away.

Blackbird photographed at the same spot by the pool in Bath Botanical Gardens, June 2010.

In the tree tops, blue tits swung and hopped from branch to branch, busy in constant conversation with each other. A couple of long-tailed tits emerged from a bush, like little pendulums balanced on the ends of branches. And then, above us in the vegetation by the cascade, we caught sight of our first orange tip butterfly of the year. It tumbled downwards, circled and then rose, like a visual representation of thought-patterns; playing out a dance of forgetting then remembering. And, all this time, the trees resounded with birdsong – enough to fill the mind’s focus, and to dismiss the thudding vibrations from the fun fair music and rides.

All around the gardens, the magnolia trees were in full bloom, their old branches twisting in a controlled, contorted dance. Holding up their flowers like cups offered to the sky, their petals spilled to the ground – and everywhere tree blossom buzzed with bees and drifted around us like pink snow. Earlier, we had lingered in the wildflower area – loving the chance to see snake’s head fritillaries. They were almost over with their flowering – reminding me that another year’s opportunity for a visit to Cricklade Meadow, to see them in the wild, would soon be slipping away…

But, for now, no matter; these park cousins are beautiful.

Snake's Head Fritillary, Fritillaria meleagris

Within the metal railings that encircle these gardens, nature is packed in, brimming with colour and variety, like the concentrated contents of a tin of assorted sweets. Sitting by the pool, the usual nagging inner voices and thoughts, for once, have shut up – for a brief time. It feels so good to sit here, in this little piece of nature, unwinding through the pulse of the day – and to unfurl, like the leaf buds around us, from the winter.

From our bench, we can glimpse the head and arms of Lee Dickson’s tree sculpture, Mankind’s Hand in Nature, similarly unfurling towards the sky through the vegetation.

Around seven metres tall, it rises from the ground, keeping alive the spirit of the sequoia from which it is carved.

The tree, one of the original twelve giant redwoods to be brought to Britain in the 1850s, sadly succumbed to honey fungus in recent years, and Lee Dickson, a local chainsaw sculptor from Radstock, was commissioned in 2001 to create the sculpture as a celebration of the tree’s life and place in the gardens.

And these gardens certainly are a place to celebrate life; to come to for peace and repose, and to fit back into nature’s cycles. We were here the week before too, with our son. Pushing his wheelchair as close to the railings as we could get, we watched the huge koi carp glide silently in the pool…

…and greeted a moorhen rushing through the light…

…before wandering through the gardens and Victoria Park, past the daffodils and blossom…

…past the flowering lesser celandine and violets…

…to Bath Abbey Churchyard to listen to the buskers.

On the Abbey’s face, the angels were engaged in their endless climb…

– and fall…

…on the ladder to heaven.

But it wasn’t a day for falling angels.

…Too much earthy life emerging – too much of the turn of the planet – all around and in our selves.

 

…And that seems an appropriate cue for a song that’s been our son’s favourite since he was tiny; his ‘magic song’ with the power to soothe like none other:

Follow the Heron by Karine Polwart

‘The back of the winter is broken
And light lingers long by the door
And the seeds of the summer have spoken
In gowans that bloom on the shore…’

It’s a beautiful celebration of both an outer and inner transition into spring. That cusp and co-existence of ‘ice’ (or in the case of today’s weather here, lots of rain!) and growing light… Enjoy!

Kent, Orchids, Belonging – (and the small infinities of Poem-Places)

From the end of May, through the first week of June, I was back in the county of my birth and upbringing – Kent; land of hops, orchards, nightingales and, as my Northumbrian husband says, of a million shades of green…

Within a day of being back there, I had taken root again – physically as well as in spirit. Wherever I am, my roots reach out for the memory of Kent – but, being physically back there, everything realigns itself, my tap roots travel downward, and the shape of me rediscovers where it fits the puzzle.

And it is the trees of Kent that have a lot to do with that – the sheer number and variety and extent of them; the ancient woodlands that give the place its special spirit and make me feel I’m back in my ‘right’ habitat.

A book in which I can capture that feeling wherever I am, is my treasured copy of Elaine Franks’ The Undercliff, A Sketchbook of the Axmouth – Lyme Regis Nature Reserve (published by J.M. Dent & Sons):

Picture of The Undercliff by Elaine Franks

Elaine Franks’ beautiful illustrations, so full of the life of an English wood, always transport me to that ‘right’ habitat – and the book’s foreword, written by John Fowles (of French Lieutenant’s Woman and The Magus fame), is a treat in itself. As well as being an extremely accomplished novelist, Fowles was a passionate lifelong naturalist, and in the book’s foreword he captures, for me, that sense of the ‘rightness’ of place; of the return to a wild world where the tuning realigns to ‘as it should be’; all the notes in perfect pitch with our own deepest nature. He writes that the Undercliff, the extraordinary nature reserve near where he lived in Dorset’s Lyme Regis is:

‘…quite simply one of those places one always thinks of as one does of a poem or piece of music; not quite of this world; or, of this world as it should be, but alas so largely isn’t.’

For me, Kent is a place full of such poem-places, made all the more potent through their connection to my most formative years. During our holiday exploring those small, and yet vast, places of childhood memory, the woodlands were always a framework, gently easing us in and out of the lilt and change of the landscape as we travelled.

Walking along the North Downs Way on a hot early June day, we explored the edges of different worlds – crossing the line where the open chalk downland emerges from the green shadows of yew and beech, like a blaze of white-green heat, sparking the blue of butterfly wings (holly and common blues) and the yellow-red flames of birdsfoot trefoil. Such places are a botanist’s dream; every square inch stuffed with plant delights, many so tiny it’s a must to get your nose near the earth and alter your world focus to the microscopic. Moving my mind beyond the edge of usual perspective, that tiny world seems to expand into a whole universe, and I become lost in a new shift of seeing; a perspective made of that simplicity and enormity held in the palm of the opening of William Blake’s poem, Auguries of Innocence:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.

My parameters of perception always play and shift in this way whenever I come across wild orchids – those jewels of the Kentish woods and downs. There is earth magic in these little shape-shifters. They are strange, exotic and yet so belonging to that ‘right’ familiarity of the world as it should be. They are full of character, beauty and attitude – alive like animate creatures in their mimicry of bees, flies; in their hallucinatory resemblances to imaginary ladies in crinolines, monkeys, soldiers and lizards; in the uncanny accident of botanical features grinning at us like impish faces, triggering fond sympathy in our brains. When you peer up close, focusing in on ‘the infinity’ in the texture of their petals, you can see that their surfaces are often like the wings of butterflies – iridescent, sparkling with the glitter of light. I am completely held by their spell – a total devotee.

I have yet to read any of John Fowles’ novels (something I must rectify – and soon!) but ever since I discovered that he was a passionate naturalist, truly bitten by the wild orchid bug, I’ve felt a kindred spirit waits in his writing. Once you have been bitten by that bug, it is like a drug; the fascination must be fed. Kent is a treasure trove of orchids; famously the county of Darwin’s ‘Orchis Bank,’ where those inspirational plants, so like little worlds in themselves, played a huge part in the development of his theories of evolution and natural selection. Like many plant species, the orchids seemed to be flowering late this year after our heavy winter, so, having missed seeing any early purple orchids near where we live in the West Country, we hoped to see some still in flower in the South East.

With great good luck, our walk around some Kentish cobnut platts scattered that orchid magic our way on the very first day of our holiday. The cobnut platts were like a time portal to a bygone era of farming – like walking into the pages of an H.E. Bates novel – and beneath the cobnut trees, little groups of early purple orchids stood tall, and very much still in flower:

Picture of Early Purple Orchids

 along with the more greenly inconspicuous Common Twayblade:

Picture of Common Twayblade orchid 

Amongst the orchids were vetches and this Broomrape:

picture of Broomrape

…The whole place alive with the freedom of an ancient habitat allowed to unfold its true rhythms over and over again…

Dormice apparently thrive here – and we could see the trails made by badgers. Interspersed between the cobnuts were big old orchard trees, lichen draped and insect busy – and in the nearby woodland, we were met by drifts of yellow archangel, vivid blue bugle, red campion,

Picture of woodland

many more twayblades:

Picture of Common Twayblade orchid

the delicate stars of ramsons, filling the air with their wild garlic aroma…

Picture of Ramsons

…And, finding our way through the mix of vigorous growth and life-giving decay of fallen trees (casualties maybe from the 1987 Great Storm), we discovered yet more clusters of early purple orchids, one the shade of raspberry ripple ice cream:

Picture of an Early Purple Orchid

Picture of an Early Purple Orchid

Picture of an Early Purple Orchid

Picture of Illustration of Early Purple Orchid by Elaine Franks

Illustration of Early Purple Orchid from 'The Undercliff' by Elaine Franks

Amongst the moss and fungi and all the buzzing decay and pulse of unfolding life of this ancient wood, we walked along another edge of worlds – a ridge of a sharp fall-away into the valley below:

Picture of a Kentish Woodland ridge

Such ridges are a familiar feature of these local woodlands, and this one had the characteristics of an ancient boundary – a faded hollow ditch, marked along by a line of coppiced trees – a mix of the cathedral skyward soar of beech and the crazy twist of hornbeam. These ancient woods are definitely poem-places; places to go to dream, to alter focus; to find ‘the world as it should be’.

One such place of past daily daydreams (and many a discovery of small-world infinities) was a tiny fragment of wildwood around the corner from my childhood home. On the final day of our holiday, my daughter (ace orchid spotter!) found more orchids in the grassy rides close by that wood – this time common spotted orchids; a selection of the usual pink:

Picture of a Common Spotted Orchid

 … and one pure white:

Picture of Common Spotted Orchid (white colour variant)

Returning through the wood itself, memories thronged. This is where my ever-ongoing journey to learning my wildflowers began, where I built camps with my brother and friends, fished for tiddlers in the nearby stream, where I walked my dog, long since gone with my childhood – and where I sat on a huge, fallen tree in chattering companionship with my best friend, each of us nursing the nettle stings on our legs and feeling happily lost in that ‘eternity’ of this small space of the wild.

Now, as we walked, each little landmark prompted another memory, a familiarity of sympathy and home. I reached out my hand and laid it against one of the big old oaks in silent recognition of an old friend. My rational side tells me this is a one-way greeting; that tree, that little wood, doesn’t care whether I’m there or not – has no sense of having seen me before. But, for a moment, it felt like some kind of pact between me and this place – a pact to always feel connected. My rational side tells me this pact is in my mind alone, but another part of me likes to believe in some spirit of a place in which there’s a mutual echo of recognition, and an acceptance of belonging.

I think maybe that’s what we all need – especially in this modern world where we wander and break away and have so little chance to settle; so little chance to find that world as it should be.

Bluebells, Breathing Space and Botanical Cuckoos…

A malaise seemed to have settled over us all on May bank holiday Monday (3rd May). It was one of those potter-about-the-house, can’t-be-bothered-to-get-our-backsides-in-gear days.

“Shall we go for a walk?” my husband asked.

“If you like, I don’t mind.”

“But do you want to go for a walk?”

“I don’t mind.”

Daughter – “Well…I was going to read my book…”

Son, as always, is happy to go along with whatever’s decided…

Cue exasperated husband, gripped by sudden decisiveness. “Come on,” he says, grabbing his shoes. “Let’s go!”

I knew he was right. The house had that stale feel to it. We’d been crowding it out for too long. It – and we – needed to breathe.

The weather was a bit doubtful – a cake slice of changing flavours: cloud topping, warm sun in the corners, cool breeze in the centre. But, when we caught a full hit of sun, the warmth was like a melt-in-the-mouth moment – and the sense of release into somewhere spacious and full of colour, was like an intense burst of flavour, after the porridge blandness of the day indoors.

Our local woods that day were like a gift. We breathed them in – each of us glad we’d made the effort to head their way. Treading the familiar paths, every inch brought new discoveries – colours, light, texture, sound.

Since our last visit, the bluebell transformation of the woodland floor had swept in like a magic spell, and they were in flower everywhere:

Picture of bluebell wood

Picture of bluebells

Close-up picture of bluebell flower

Clumps of greater stitchwort dazzled the sunlight from their pure white petals:

Picture of Greater Stitchwort - petals reflecting sunlight

Picture of Greater Stitchwort flowers

..and yellow archangel spread in profuse, golden trails along the woodland floor:

Picture of clumps of yellow archangel flowers

Close up picture of yellow archangel flowers

The occasional red campion was in flower beside the paths:

Close up picture of red campion flower

…and we also discovered green alkanet and violets in flower along our route:

Picture of Green Alkanet

Picture of a violet

That morning, the dawn chorus had floated in through the window with added volume – insistently prising under the edges of sleep, to wake me with a startled awareness of its change in tone. (I heard on the radio recently that Thomas Hardy described the birds singing at dawn as ‘persistent intimates.’ I love that phrase – it captures perfectly that pleasantly inescapable mingling with the consciousness of spring birdsong.)  More spring migrants must have arrived, adding to the hugeness of sound that filled the growing light. And now, in the woods, the trees were bursting with birdsong, each bird flinging its voice into the air, so that the notes seemed to shiver and scatter through the fresh, bright leaves.

I’ve never heard a cuckoo around here. This is a semi rural area – a mix of suburb and patches of wild space so, no doubt, not prime cuckoo habitat – but perhaps they were here in the past, I don’t know. Due to the cuckoo’s decline, the present time is increasingly a place where hearing a cuckoo call seems a lucky chance, rather than an expected herald of spring. I’ve not heard a cuckoo for far too long…

However, there were plenty of botanical cuckoos in flower on May bank holiday. Cuckoo Pint, or Lords and Ladies, flaunted primeval flowers everywhere:

Picture of Cuckoo Pint or Lords and Ladies

 Picture of a Lords and Ladies (or Cuckoo Pint) flower

And we found two cuckoo flower, or lady’s smock plants along the damper areas of the main bridleway:

Picture of cuckoo flower (or lady's smock)

As we admired the delicately pink flowers of this food plant for the larvae of the orange tip butterfly – almost on cue, a male orange tip passed us by, brushing the air with the bright tangerine edges of its wings. But, generally, It wasn’t a butterfly day – there was too much of a chill in the air. The orange tip was confining itself to a sheltered, bluebell-intense dip, where patches of sunshine locked themselves to the ground, holding off the shadows.

But, as we began to wander home, those shadows suddenly crept across the paths – and the scent of bluebells intensified on the air – as a great, damp pall of cloud came out of nowhere and drew itself across the blue sky. Hurrying through the rain, we returned to the house, refreshed by this deep breath of the spring…

                                                 
                                                               

A Shakespearean take on cuckoos and cuckoo flowers:

When daisies pied and violets blue
    And  lady-smocks all silver-white
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
    Do paint the meadows with delight.
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for thus sings he,
                                Cuckoo;
Cuckoo, cuckoo: O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!

– From Spring song – Love’s Labour’s Lost – Act V, Scene II.

…And a beautiful description of a violet, with another link back to Shakespeare, from Ted Hughes; a perfect nugget of words to savour:

Only a purple flower – this amulet
(Once Prospero’s) – holds it all, a moment,
In a rinsed globe of light.

– From A Violet at Lough Aughrisburg by Ted Hughes (Flowers and Insects collection, Faber and Faber)