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…

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)