Secret Workings

19th October 2022

Autumn colour is here in all its glory. The yellows, oranges and reds seem to have a force of their own, pulsing out into the air against a clear blue sky.

In the hedges, the hawthorns are weighed down with red berries. They will remain there, a hanging larder for the birds and mice over the coming months. Underfoot, another very interesting kind of fruit has emerged.

I find it hard to get my head round the idea that the fungi sprouting at this time of year are really the ‘fruit’ of a much larger organism – neither flora nor fauna exactly – which has a huge and active life of its own underground.

We’ve encountered some wonderful specimens.

Photo: Hazel Smith

This is a shaggy parasol (chlorophyllum rhacodes). As they grow, the parasol goes up.

Photo: Maria Waldhoer

Fungi-lovers say it is edible, but there is a catch – another species is almost identical, but poisonous. The toadstool is one step ahead of us.

This beauty is definitely edible, even delicious, we are told.

Photo: Alison Spagnoletti

It’s called ‘chicken of the woods’ (laetiporus sulphureus) though in fact this one is not in the woods but is on a tree beside the Ware Road.

As we approach the season of falling leaves and gathering darkness, I tend to think of this as a ‘dying’ time of year, but the view from an underground perspective is very different. Deciduous trees are shutting down their processes, but fungi are upping theirs, powering the essential task of regeneration.

‘If we look at a fallen tree in the forest and imagine it is composed of building blocks, we can understand how decomposition works: fungi weave their way through the blocks, loosening them until they are “free” and ready to “rebuild” in another form,’ fungi expert Giuliana Furci has written, celebrating the necessity of ‘rot’.

‘For too long this process has been considered distasteful, under the once-upon-a-time understanding that life is a linear process.’

Her organisation, The Fungi Foundation (www.ffungi.org)  has the simple and delightful mission statement: ‘We envision a healthy planet in which Fungi are recognized as the interconnectors of nature.’

It seems to me that the whole ecological system of trees and fungi challenges humans’ blinkered, linear view of life, the view that feeds our exploitative ‘use it up and move on’ culture.

‘Tree roots spread out like curiosity, linking with mycorrhizal fungi in symbiotic relationship, feeding each other with information, messages from the underground, suggesting, hinting, telling, guiding, warning, feeding the soil-mind with the oldest and kindest wisdom,’ writer and activist Jay Griffiths says in her book ‘Why Rebel’.

I love the idea of this ‘soil-mind’, going about its purpose of sustaining life on earth, quite distinct from human activities and, most of the time, unknown to us. A ‘Secret Commonwealth’, to borrow the title of Philip Pullman’s novel.

So much of what we think of as ‘countryside’ (certainly here in East Herts) is just cultivated fields, which are really quite a fragile construct, totally dependent on human intervention, fed with artificial fertilisers and protected from other elements of the natural world (aka ‘pests’) by toxic chemicals.

The knowledge that in the copse beside the field, organisms are quietly getting on with the business of sustaining themselves and each other, I find very cheering. Let’s learn from them.

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Fruitfulness

28th September 2022

It’s a great morning for walking – fresh but sunny. In the last few weeks green has returned to the land, apart from the open fields which are ploughed and brown, or else pale with stubble. Up at Rickneys, it could almost still be summer, with swallows skimming across the blue sky and pink waterlilies blooming in a pond.

Although I have read that leaf-fall could come early this autumn, trees having suffered in the summer heatwave, there is little sign of that at Rickneys, where oak and ash trees are showing strongly green, even though this former gravel quarry is an inherently dry environment. Perhaps the mature trees here have already adapted to challenging conditions.

But autumn colours are also shining through, especially in glossy scarlet rosehips and bramble leaves starting to turn.

‘In all of nature, in trees for instance, I see expression and a soul,’ Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo in December 1882. I’ve been reading an article about Van Gogh and an artist named Etel Adnan (who died a year ago aged 96). Adnan used intense colours in her paintings and had a great affinity with Van Gogh. ‘Colour is a sign of the existence of life,’ she said, while Van Gogh wrote, ‘One can speak poetry just by arranging colours well.’ It seems to me that Van Gogh used colour in his paintings to express the soul of nature that he perceived and tried to convey to the world.

I think about this while faced with these glowing reds and greens. Nature arranges its own colours, to create its own poetry. Technically, the red of the bramble leaf is an indication that the leaf has lost chlorophyll and is dying, but what these colours add to the landscape is life – the life of autumn.

It is proving to be an exceptionally fruitful autumn. Blackberries are over now but a few weeks ago we picked kilos of them. Apples are everywhere – people are leaving boxes of them outside their house, with a sign ‘help yourself’. We spot gorgeous purple plums, dusted with blue bloom, on a tree beside the path and I try one, expecting it to be sour. It is deliciously sweet.

On Waterford Heath we come across a tree even more heavily laden with fruit.

I think these are little yellow crab apples and am foolhardy enough to taste one, (to demonstrate to R. that they are inedible!) but in fact it has the texture of an eating apple and is almost edible… but not quite. It makes my mouth pucker and I can only manage one bite. We wonder if the birds might find the fruit more palatable.

Right now a feast of wild and semi-wild fruits has been laid on for any creature that wants to eat it. I’ve read a suggestion by an environmentalist that this abundance is a bad sign: plants stressed by the extreme summer heat have burst into fruit in an effort to reproduce and ensure the survival of the species. This notion makes me feel the kind of confusion and anxiety I wrote about in my last post – faced with the idea that something that seems good (sunshine, plentiful apples) is really a sign of the climate crisis.

So maybe the abundance of rosehips and plums is nature saying, ‘Help!’ Or maybe it is nature saying, ‘Here – this is what I produce. It’s good.’

Either way, we should be listening.

Dry

10th August 2022

I love sunshine and warmth and I never in my life thought I would complain about a hot summer in England, but the climate crisis is tilting the earth under our feet. Values are upended: something that once seemed good (sunshine! blue sky!) now feels like a portent of disaster. It feels very disturbing to see summer as something to dread, rather than enjoy.

Despite knowing that this weather is not good for us, I can’t help feeling cheered by the blue, cloudless sky this morning. But then conflicting emotions crowd in – is it irresponsible to feel cheered?

I’m confused and anxious. The climate crisis is making itself felt, hitting us with 40 degree heat, soil baked hard, brown leaves carpeting the woods as if it were already autumn. It’s a harsh message and I don’t know personally how to respond. My efforts to use less water and switch off the lights when I leave a room seem utterly feeble.

I look down and take heart from what’s underfoot. The natural world might be coping with the heat and drought better than we think. All the fields are the colour of straw and the wayside grass is pale and brittle, but most trees are green, particularly the oaks.

What strikes me is how many plants are persisting – flowering in the driest of baked earth. The daisy family seems particularly tough: there is pale blue chicory (cichorium intybus), white mayweed (tripleurospermum inodorum), pineapple mayweed (matricaria matricarioides) and the little yellow dandelion-like flowers which are some sort of hawkweed (hieracium). I don’t know what sort, as even my Collins guide says hawkweeds are ‘an exceptionally variable and difficult group with some hundreds of microspecies’!

The amazing viper’s bugloss (echium vulgare) is positively thriving, a little misshapen but glowing with vibrant blue and purple, and buzzing with bees.

We walk through the field at Bullsmill that a few months ago was scarlet with poppies. Now it is equally remarkable in its way, carpeted with little dried poppy heads, all packed with tiny seeds. They don’t mind about drought: for them, and many other plants, their job for the year is done.

And on Waterford Marsh there’s an antidote to the dry. Part of the river bank was fenced off to prevent the cattle going into the water, and this damp spot has turned itself into a lush wildflower sanctuary. The plants are scruffy, many already gone to seed, but they are tall and strong and, importantly, there is great diversity.

There is a magnificent yellow plant which could be marsh hawksbeard (crepis paludosa), together with sedges and grasses, thistles, purple loosestrife (lythrum salicaria), figwort (scrophularia nodosa), spearmint (mentha spicata), hogweed (heracleum sphondylium) and another umbellifer which might be water parsnip (sium latifolium). All a joy to see.

Orchids and ruins

30 June 2022

A change of scene: we’ve been in the Yorkshire Dales, which were beautiful in the sunshine and brooding and powerful in the rain. It’s a landscape enlivened by water, from the boggy, reedy tops of the fells to the numerous rivers, spilling over waterfalls and creating strange formations in the rocks.

I was delighted to see swallows and house martins in numbers for the first time this year. The Dales farms with their old stone barns offer them places to build their nests, which are so lacking in Hertfordshire and many parts of the country. It was wonderful to see them threading through the skies, swooping low in front of us as we walked, signalling rain clouds approaching.

Flowers were everywhere, and for me it was like a repeat of early summer. The foxgloves and elder flowers that have finished and turned to seed and berry in East Herts, were here in full bloom.

We went to Jervaulx Abbey, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jervaulx_Abbey) once one of the great Cistercian Abbeys of England and now a peaceful and picturesque ruin. At the height of its prosperity, the abbey owned half the valley of Wensleydale and was the original home of the famous cheese. On the dissolution of the monasteries, Henry VIII granted it to his niece Margaret and her husband the Earl of Lennox. It is still private property, but open to the public.

The ruins of Jervaulx Abbey were full of flowers: wild roses flowing over the broken gothic arches, marjoram a reminder of the herb garden that doubtless the monks once tended here, hart’s tongue ferns and dainty maidenhair spleenwort finding a home in the broken remains of columns.

An unmowed patch of grass was full of wild orchids: these are common spotted orchids (dactylorhiza fuchsii).

Further along the Ure valley, at Aysgarth Falls, we found more orchids: this a pyramidal orchid (anacamptis pyramidalis). Lady’s mantle (alchemilla vulgaris) sprouting in the fissures in the rock.

This Yorkshire landscape, of course, is not just shaped by water but also by sheep. Or rather, sheep have laid bare the landscape. Nibbling the vegetation down to the quick, so that bushes and trees can never grow, they give us a landscape in which we can see every mound and curve, every rock formation, every little ravine carved by a stream coursing down to the river.

Here’s the view from Simonstone over to the little village of Hardraw, and beyond that, the market town of Hawes – where Wensleydale cheese is now made. The hills above are divided up into long fields, delineated by drystone walls, each field with its rich grazing at the bottom, for cows, and its thin grazing for sheep on the moorland at the top. Almost every field has its old stone barn, winter quarters for cows and their hay. Centuries of patient care and skill have gone into creating this landscape and the lives it supports.

We find this landscape beautiful, as we do all the English uplands: the Lake District, Cotswolds and Downs. All man-made, because all shaped by grazing animals. There is growing thought that the bare hills we are used to are not the best way for our environment to be; that letting land revert to scrub and eventually to natural woodland would be better in terms of capturing carbon and containing rainfall, so preventing floods. Some experiments with this land management are already happening in the Lake District: https://www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/rewilding-projects/wild-ennerdale

It’s a controversial idea for obvious reasons – what are the farmers supposed to do? Most are barely making a living as it is.

Perhaps more profoundly, it affects our belief about what the English landscape is. I try to imagine these fells as wooded. It is difficult; I’m accustomed to the bare contours – challenging and shelterless for walkers, but also giving marvellous views from the top. Reaching the top of a mountain and seeing nothing but trees is not what many countryside-lovers expect. Wildlife and vegetation would be different. Would we have swallows without farmyards, or ground-nesting birds like curlew without moorland?

Change is hard to imagine and easy to resist.

‘Unimaginable’ change swept through England with the dissolution of the monasteries, upending centuries of land ownership and social organisation. Henry VIII’s motive was money, of course, but in retrospect it’s clear the medieval church was finished anyway. It had had its day.

Over-exploitation of land has had its day. What can we imagine in its place?

Daylight

21st June 2022

I woke this morning at 4.30 and went out into the garden. Technically, sunrise would be at 4.42 but it was already daylight, with clear, pale skies. I thought of the people gathered at Stonehenge, waiting to celebrate the sunrise on the day of the solstice, one of the pivot points of the year. So often, the 21st of June dawns grey and rainy but the Druids (and many others of all beliefs) celebrate anyway. Finally, I hope, they’ve been rewarded.

I can’t see the sunrise from my garden – too many trees to the east – but it was wonderful to be outside at what, at most times of the year, I would term ‘the middle of the night’. Collared doves made the only sound; the scent of roses carried in the still, fresh air; in curtained bedrooms, people slept.

Early morning, on a fine day, carries that feeling of promise. The day is a gift, which most of the time, we don’t do much with. This morning I had an immense feeling of gratitude and humility. Gratitude, partly that I am here in the garden, able to appreciate it, but also that the days keep coming, the sun keeps rising. Humility because no matter what misery there is, no matter what mess humans are making of the world, no matter whether people are awake or asleep, the day dawns anyway. It is its own self.

I thought of people in Ukraine sheltering in basements for weeks on end, unable to tell one day from another.

Philip Larkin’s short poem ‘Days’ came to mind. It is a masterpiece of simplicity.

What are days for?

Days are where we live,

They come, they wake us

Time and time over

They are to be happy in:

Where can we live but days?

Reading it again, I saw there is a second verse which I had forgotten:

Ah, solving that question

Brings the priest and the doctor

In their long coats

Running over the fields.

Running to spoil the simple gift of days, in my interpretation.

This unassuming dark-stemmed plant in a tangle of Goosegrass is Mugwort, artemisia vulgaris, our native member of the artemisia family of plants, whose exceptional chemistry makes them a key ingredient in medicine, drinks (from genepi to absinthe) and magic. Mugwort is a close relative of Wormwood, artemisa absinthium, which can be found wild in the UK as an escape from herb gardens. The powerful compounds in Wormwood meant it was used to kill intestinal worms, but also mean it sits on that pivot point between medicine and poison, between blessing and bane.

Mugwort is your milder, everyday version. This one is not yet in flower but by August Mugwort will dominate the verges round here, its grey green flower heads and silver-backed leaves adding to the dusty feel of the hedgerows.

In Ukraine, and many places (I read) Mugwort is burned on the summer solstice to give protection – to protect one’s dreams. In Britain it was used very much as a herb for women, to bring balance to menstruation. Perhaps this is why its Latin name is taken from the Greek Goddess Artemis, protector of women in childbirth.

Mugwort was one of the nine sacred herbs of the Druids (https://druidry.org/druid-way/teaching-and-practice/druid-plant-lore). In the grave of the so-called ‘Druid of Colchester’, unearthed at Stanway, Essex, in 1996, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Druid_of_Colchester) among many fascinating 1st century items buried with this person – whether woman or man is unknown – is a cup with traces of Mugwort pollen. Archaeologists take this to be a ‘herbal remedy’ and other items of medical equipment suggest the person was a doctor rather than a druid, but our modern dividing line between medicine and magic might have made no sense to people at the time. Mugwort could have a practical use, for women, or a psychic use, to protect against evil.

Esoteric beliefs swirl about artemisias. ‘Wormwood’ is ‘Chornobyl’ in Russian, and the word’s similarity to ‘Chernobyl’ prompted a frenzy after the nuclear disaster of 1986 among fans of Biblical prophesy, linking the catastrophe to the passage in the Book of Revelations, where a star called ‘Wormwood’ will bring poison and herald the end of the world. The other side of this coin is given in a book by Ukrainian-American journalist Mary Mycio, who, 20 years ago, visited the radioactive area around the abandoned power plant and discovered it teeming with plants and animals: ‘Europe’s largest wildlife sanctuary’. She called her book ‘Wormwood Forest: a natural history of Chernobyl’. Let’s hope the wildlife is surviving the war.

Stony soil, midsummer weave

Colour fields

14th June 2022

Last year, on our walks, we admired a vivid swathe of poppies edging the field at Bullsmill, where a strip of land had been left unploughed and unsown. Some months later, we met the farmer who said he was going to sow a wildflower mix there. In the first few months of this year we looked at the field every time we passed, but could see nothing happening.

And now it looks like this.

The whole hill, normally sown with wheat or barley, has been given over to wildflowers. The public footpath cuts right through the poppies, which are thriving on the stony soil.

Presumably, the seeds were sown as if a crop. The result is a monoculture in its way, but a beautiful one. In another field, the mix is poppies and a lavender-blue flower, which we saw flowering some weeks ago at Stonyhills, to incredible effect.

I think this is echium vulgare, which is the same plant as the viper’s bugloss that fills the gravelly soil of the Heath with intense blue in the summer. This seems to be a gentler version, less spiky and a softer shade. The bees really love it, more so than the poppies from what I can see. We also notice more butterflies than usual this morning so, with luck, the wildflower fields are doing their job and supporting insect life.

White daisy flowers of mayweed are also mixed in – whether sown or arriving there naturally I don’t know. Many other flowers have taken advantage of the undisturbed space to grow: white campion among the poppies and common mallow (malva sylvestris) around the edge.

Oats are being grown this year in the surrounding fields, their subtle, glaucous green interspersed with poppies like bright red buttons.

The sun is shining and yellowhammers are calling from the hedges. Summer is here.

Uprising

12th May 2022

A fight has broken out at Waterford Marsh. There’s a commotion in the air, a flapping and cawing, and we look up to find a tangle between a red kite and a crow.

We see this quite often at this time of year, when birds are on the nest. The predator floats lazily over and the crows launch themselves up to drive it away. When smaller birds attack the larger one like this it’s called ‘mobbing’, which rather makes it sound as if the kite or buzzard is the victim, whereas the crows (sometimes it is magpies) are actually defending their chicks.

Here the first crow is almost chased away by the kite, but the second one leaves the nest to come to its aid.

They succeed in seeing off the kite, as has happened in every such encounter I’ve witnessed. The birds of prey don’t like being mobbed. Sometimes other crows will join the fight but this pair have managed it on their own.

We’ve come out on a sunny morning after several days of rain. Waterford Marsh feels quite different from the last time we were here – it has increased in volume. Instead of walking through a flat area of green, we are surrounded by waist height cow parsley and feathery grasses. The warmth and rain have made it rise like a cake.

I love this cow parsley and may blossom time of year, when a frothy cloud of white surrounds us as we walk through fields or along hedgerows.

The Marsh is also zinging with buttercups.

In the woods on the Heath I spot a quieter plant, but one which is magnificent in its own way. It’s about a metre tall, with flowers that are small but a sophisticated shade of dark red.

Back home with my flower books, I have an identification problem. The colour of the flowers and the shape of the leaves point to this plant being Hound’s-tongue (cynoglossum officinalis). It has something of a forget-me-not look about it and is a member of the borage family, as are forget-me-nots. The officinalis in the Latin name of Hound’s-tongue suggests it had a herbal use and according to Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica it was considered effective against dog bites and the leaves ‘sometimes worn in the shoe as a charm to deter dogs’. This strange property seems to have been assigned to the plant merely because the shape and feel of the leaves reminded people of a dog’s tongue.

However, both the Collins guide and Flora Britannica describe Hound’s-tongue as a flower of open sandy ground, with leaves covered in greyish hairs. This plant is in a wood and the leaves are green and fairly smooth. Collins mentions a Green Hound’s-tongue (cynoglossum germanicum) which likes woods and shady places and is almost hairless. Collins says this is ‘rare’ in Britain, but who knows – maybe it is blooming undisturbed on Waterford Heath?

The Second Time

20th April 2022

The advantage of having done so much walking and exploring last year is that R. and I now know the best places to go. So today we are excited to see whether the bluebells in the woods near Stapleford, which we had discovered last year, are out. With this sunshine, conditions seem perfect.

And they are.

Going under the railway and up the track, we are faced with the bluebells at eye height – a viewpoint which intensifies their mesmerising blue-purple colour.

This small patch of woodland is carpeted with the flowers, as is the next coppice we go to. Here, the sight is screened off by the fresh green of new hornbeam leaves. We part the branches, cross the ditch and step through the portal.

We spend a few minutes taking in the colour and the peace. I can’t detect any scent from the bluebells here but when we go out into the sunshine we both catch a waft of perfume. Whether it’s a gift from the bluebells or some other flower, we can’t tell.

At the new year, I did wonder whether to continue with this blog. I so enjoyed writing about the walks, discoveries and experiences last year, but would these things seem stale the second time around? To be honest (and you can check…) my photos of bluebells in 2022 look much the same as photos of bluebells in 2021. None of them truly captures the magic of the woodland in spring.

But this tweet I spotted by Irish farmer and writer Keith Brennan (@HawHillFarm), says something important:

First Swallow of the year! And it feels like a rightness has flowed back into my bit of world. A promise that the worst has gone and the best is to come.

That’s the thing about the swallows’ return. And the cuckoo call. About the wildflowers’ flush in the meadow. It anchors you to a repeated past. Promises a repeated future. What was is still what is. And that feels precarious. Not certain. And so we hold our breath until it comes.

The bluebells hold the past, returning year after year in the remnants of ancient woodland that survive around here. When they return, in numbers, with force, like these snowy drifts of wood anemones we saw in Broxbourne Woods, there is a rightness. What was, is still what is. The land is living as it wants to live – if we let it.

Of course, the rightness is being ruined by environmental degradation and the climate crisis. All over the world, what ought to return (and in many places that is the most fundamental thing – rain) doesn’t return.

Swallows and cuckoos are much rarer locally than when I first moved to this area. I’ve not yet seen a swallow this year. But there is still time. Perhaps they are on their way, returning.

Senses

Thursday 14th April

After a bout of Covid which meant for several days I had no smell, taste or hearing, it is wonderful to be out walking again and feel connected to the world through my senses.

I go on a slow walk by myself, stopping whenever I like, to take it all in. As soon as I step on to Waterford Marsh, I can smell the grass, warmed by the sun.

Up on Waterford Heath, I take the less-visited paths round the South Heath, a wooded area where a variety of trees and bushes have taken over old gravel excavations, pits, pools and spoil heaps. Birds are singing and cheeping everywhere. The different calls come from all directions and all heights; there are layers to it and I stand surrounded by nature’s part-song. Most of the birds can’t be seen – occasionally there is a flit of wings that betrays their locations, but really their presence, their stamp on the world, is through sound.

The path goes through a group of trees bearing white blossom, like a bridal arch. I don’t know what these tall, airy trees are: wild pear? Wild cherry? Perhaps an ornamental variety escaped long ago from a garden and thriving here, undisturbed.

On the open Heath the air is warm and the light soft. Butterflies are about, especially orange-tips which lay their eggs on the jack-in-the-hedge (garlic mustard, alliaria petiolata) now coming into flower everywhere.

Greenery is slow to emerge from the dry, stony floor of the Heath, but there are washes of dark purplish-red from spreading patches of ground ivy. I stop by a gorse bush in flower and breathe in the coconut scent, which reminds me of seaside clifftops.

In the Molewood, that remnant of ancient woodland which survives between the former gravel pits, the railway, the road and Bengeo’s housing developments, there is a treat: the first bluebells opening. I hadn’t expected to see them, but here they are, brought into flower by this lovely spring weather. Most are not yet fully open and offer a hint of blue among the green; in places they mingle with wood anemones.

Among them are yellow archangel (lamiastrum galeobdolon) – a more modest flower than its glorious name suggests but a reliable indicator of ancient woodland and something to be prized (here growing between jack-in-the-hedge).

The sun is waking up life, including the creatures we can’t see. Once the temperature of the soil reaches more than 10 degrees C, microbes which have been dormant over winter become active again, feeding nutrients to roots of plants and trees and recycling organic matter. All this is happening underfoot.

I pause and try to sense it all: the mingled blue, white and green, the birdsong, the sunlight through the trees, the myriad invisible activities. The layers and latticework of spring.

Open air

24th March 2022

Clear skies overnight have made for beautiful mornings this past week: the air crisp and the sun gradually warming us as we walk.

Everything is warming up, moving, and we can literally see this in the air. What I take to be a falling leaf turns out to be a butterfly – a peacock making its way uncertainly but determinedly across the field. We see more and the colours multiply – a yellow brimstone, a flash of scarlet in a red admiral.

Blackthorn blossom is lighting up the hedgerows.

In a stony, unploughed field on the way to Chapmore End, a shadow passes over us. It’s a red kite, gliding low, and when we look up, the air is full of activity. Two buzzards are circling calmly, gaining height, above Rickneys quarry, and a kestrel is hovering over a hedge. Small ground-dwelling creatures, venturing out in the sunshine, are in peril.

Over this field we can see three red kites, but they are being given a hard time by other birds. We often see buzzards being mobbed by crows but the birds throwing themselves at these kites are different – their black and white colouring and rounded wings show them to be lapwings, which are a rare sight round here. They are ground-nesting birds so at real risk from predators, in fact it’s hard to imagine them successfully raising a brood on this exposed land. They are skilful fliers, tumbling in the air and dropping on to the kites from above, until the larger birds move off.

The air above us has its own life, its own dramas.

There is birdsong everywhere and from time to time I can catch the distinctive two notes (slip slap) of a chiff-chaff, newly arrived from the Mediterranean. According to the Collins Guide, these little warblers nest in brambles and undergrowth, but need trees at least 15 feet high to sing from. Luckily, the woods around here in the Beane valley offer that combination, which just shows how important the messy understorey of brambles can be.

Flying insects are making the most of the warming air, and we pass a sallow tree (salix caprea), its fat catkins loaded with lemon yellow pollen, which is shimmering with the constant motion of bees. Hundreds of bees, large and small, are going from twig to twig, stocking up on the generous pollen. The tree offers its resources openly, with none of the tricks and obstacles many flowers present to pollinators. This is a male tree: the female tree is not so easy to spot because its grey-green catkins are less conspicuous than the familiar pussy willow buds of the male tree.

What is remarkable is that the tree doesn’t need insects at all: willows are pollinated by the wind. It is just making a free gift to the bees.

At this time of year there is a thrilling sense of openness even in the hornbeam woods, as the sun can come freely through the bare canopy. Windflowers – wood anemones – have opened their white stars in the woods beside the Beane.

And the green life in the river itself – the trailing mermaid hair of water crowfoot and other weeds – looks vivid and healthy in the clear water.

On the woodland floor, dog violets show through the brown leaf litter, and dog’s mercury lifts its leaves, offering up its little tassels of green flowers to the insects of the air: here I am. Take the gift. Let’s get this spring going.

I think what a gift this is to me too. I think of people in Mariupol trapped in basements, unfree, the open air lethal for them.