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…

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.

Wordsworth and those ‘Spots of Time’


Picture of books - Wordsworth's The Prelude & Lyrical Ballads

There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence, depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse, our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen

– William Wordsworth, The Prelude. Book 12. 208-218 (1850 edition)

I’ve been re-visiting bits of Wordsworth’s The Prelude recently – plus several of his shorter poems – and am finding, more than ever, what an antidote to jaded feeling those poems are. There’s something about Wordsworth’s poetry that stirs up your inner world – swirls through  the heart of your thoughts and self – and settles everything back down in its rightful place, refreshed and restored.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers

 – William Wordsworth, The World Is Too Much with Us – (1807)

We need an inner restorative against the ‘fretful stir’ and ‘fever of the world’; a place where memory connects us to the moments when we felt most alive (and perhaps most connected to wider Nature); where we felt the narrative of our truest self – or the self we most want to be – shift into place, take shape. Where maybe, even, we felt that ‘serene and blessed mood’ described by Wordsworth in Tintern Abbey:

In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened…

and ‘We see into the life of things.’

Memory facilitates our own stories and, the older I get, the more active and busy my own ‘spots of time’ seem to be. There is a more insistent chiming, too, of these memories, new events, things said and things read. All the time, there are connections. Multiplying, reaching further – increasing in resonance.

In Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth writes of his return, after an absence of five years, to his ‘wild and secluded scene’ where the ‘steep and lofty cliffs…connect/ The landscape with the quiet of the sky’ and delights in that landscape and his personal connection to it:

                                These beauteous forms,
Through long absence have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye;
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ’mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owned to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart

A ‘renovating’ moment my mind has often turned to in times of dead-end ‘weariness,’ is a special, snowy day spent with my husband when we first met. We escaped the city, and wandered Padley and Yarncliff Woods in the Peak District. Those woods were magical places, full of mossy rocks and gnarled, ancient oaks; a place from a fairy tale or from Middle Earth. I loved their atmosphere of deep age and waiting – enhanced that day by the silence of snow. Recently, I met that woodland again (well…one that, though not exactly alike, echoed with reminders of it) within the pages of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

 …a deep forest, densely overgrown,
with ancient oaks in huddles of hundreds
and vaulting hills above each half of the valley.
Hazel and hawthorn are interwoven,
decked and draped in damp, shaggy moss…

– (Fitt II, 741-5, translated by Simon Armitage – published by Faber and Faber Ltd)

                                    … Such moments
Are scattered everywhere, taking their date
From our first childhood

 – The Prelude, Book 12, 223-4 (1850 ed.) 

From my earliest years, there are the deep memories of the North Downs. Mind pictures of the astonishingly huge Roman snails, clinging to the rain washed chalk; of the towering beech trees and shadowed yews, watching like knowing ancients. When I was a child, those hills seemed outside the rest of the world; an old, magic land wrapped close round the modern housing estate where we lived.

Just a step away from the pavements, rows of front doors, kids on bikes – there was this place of glimpses; hidden, hushed and full of happening. It was a land of wild creatures, and of stories – and the overlap of Time. There, I could wonder at the dart and slink of a fox, peer along trails made by badgers, and follow the ghosts of travellers along the old hollow ways; my steps falling on footprints hidden in layers long since worn away. Pilgrims had passed that way for centuries en route to Canterbury; and when, years later, I came to read the vivid tales of the Miller, the Wife of Bath and their ‘..compaignye/ Of sundry folk’ – I accompanied those characters on ‘my’ path along ‘my’ Downs, whilst Chaucer wove his magic.

Frequently now, whilst mind-drifting through ‘trivial occupations,’ scenes from novels (often those read many years ago) will unexpectedly pop into my head. Some secret synaptic connection between recent life events, and those past bookish moments, will fire into life; sometimes with flashes of new understanding and relevance; sometimes as a fond reflection on old favourites, to lighten the task in hand. Certain books are melded to various stages of life – they are the shapers and the keepers, forever related to those ‘spots of time.’ But they also endlessly make new connections; bringing new significance as experience grows, and as life and page continually overlap. Books, in several ways, become spots of time themselves.

Often, when in (a kind of) ‘vacant…mood,’ loading the washing machine, or during some other automatic-pilot task (there never seems to be much opportunity for lying on couches!) a special memory will ‘flash,’ like Wordsworth’s daffodils, upon my ‘inward eye.’ A mind-vision of a well-loved clearing in an ancient wood in Kent – a place to stand in wonder, surrounded by ‘hosts’ of wild orchids:

Picture of a Lady Orchid

Lady Orchid, Orchis purpurea

Picture of a Greater Butterfly Orchid

Greater Butterfly Orchid, Platanthera chlorantha

A few years ago, when I returned to that wood (after a twelve year absence and a lot of life changes) it was for me, in my own small way, a Tintern Abbey moment; an emotional collide of my past and present self, in a place that means so much to me. That day contained, like Wordsworth’s return to the hills above Tintern Abbey, a complex comfort; a celebration and a ‘sad perplexity’ – and something perhaps, ‘Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns.’ A moment where the self settles with a feeling of both homecoming and significant change; a complex, emotional interplay of past and present – and a tug between loss and gain, limits and possibilities, regrets and inspirations.

And so it goes on. Moments constantly chime – across life and literature, interweaving in memory and experience; in what we ‘half create/ And what perceive.’ A constantly developing process of connections that ‘spread like day.’