We’ve been timing our walks to catch as much sunshine as possible and today we got a big hit of blue sky.
Though some fallen leaves crunch underfoot, the trees have not yet undergone any big changes. But there are small, arresting spots of colour and I try to notice those, follow them, and take in their tones and forms.
First, today, it is these berries on a hedgerow spindle tree (euonymus europaeus). They are not only a beautiful coral pink, but also strangely formed, like four little fruits fused together. This tree is loaded with berries: they are poisonous to humans but perhaps not to birds, so there is plenty of food here.
A nearby dog rose has a Robin’s Pincushion on it, a prickly ball alongside the rosehips. ‘Robin’ is Robin Goodfellow, Shakespeare’s Puck, I think, as there was considered to be something magical or uncanny about this formation, which is not a flower or a fruit. In fact, it is just a growth caused by the larvae of a tiny gall wasp, and doesn’t harm the bush.
Other arresting things:
Ivy flowers alive with bees.
A kestrel hovering motionless while a red kite rides the breeze; both making flight look effortless.
The beauty of dry things: the foamy mass of old man’s beard (traveller’s joy, clematis vitalba), not very noticeable as a flower but wonderful as a seed head; viper’s bugloss, so vibrant and spiky a few months ago, now a gentle, smoky grey.
This breathtaking display of virginia creeper cascading into the pond at Southend Farm.
The sparkle off the river Beane, which is flowing fast and full like the goddess she is, after recent rain.
Anxiety has been building in me recently: mindfulness advice tells you to counter that by being in the present moment. I find that easier said than done. But here, outdoors, when we take the time to stop, and look, I can tap into the moment. I can put down tap roots into the experience and drink it in. Appreciating and acknowledging the living things making their way into autumn.
The last few days have been filled with sunshine and it has been wonderful to get out and walk .
On Wednesday, R. and I went to Panshanger. The vegetation is tired and spent, the leaves on the trees a dull green, clinging to their last drops of chlorophyll. But the sunlight felt rich and life-giving; the lakes sparkled below us.
The wild mewing of buzzards alerted us to two birds tumbling in the sky above. They parted and flew off in different directions. A border dispute.
We hadn’t walked to Panshanger since the Spring, and last time we saw the Great Oak it was barely in leaf. Now its upper storeys are green and thriving. I feel that the sap must take so long to rise through this huge and ancient tree that its top twigs are still in summer.
Much of the dry waste ground is a mass of tall teasels, growing so thickly they could be a crop. A crop of prickliness.
Today, Sunday, is another day of blue skies. K. and I are picking blackberries. They are plentiful, and sweet – but small. We’d need a lot more time and patience to pick enough for jam, so we settle for enough to make several crumbles.
The most magnificent fruit are the rosehips, which glow like jewels.
I’ve never tried to cook rosehips, though K. and I remember having lots of rosehip syrup as children. I think it was supposed to give us vitamin C, but was so sweet it was probably mostly sugar.
As we pick, two donkeys in the next field come over. Do they like blackberries? Yes they certainly do, though I’m reluctant to give them too much of our hard-won harvest.
In between the brambles are blackthorn bushes, full of sloes, beautiful with their powdery, lavender-blue bloom. I pick a bagful, to make sloe gin. I have a recipe for sloe gin which starts: ‘Get a bottle of gin. Drink half of it…’
I feel that we’re gathering sunlight. Stocking up on vitamin D, in preparation for winter.
The writer Maria Popova, whose blog Brainpickings is a treasure trove of insights from science, literature and philosophy (https://www.brainpickings.org), suggests that autumn, ‘between its falling leaves and fading light, is not a movement towards gain or loss, but an invitation to attentive stillness and absolute presence.’
I like that. Every year I struggle not to feel crushed by the loss of light as we dip into winter, and ‘attentive stillness’ is perhaps what I need, to cope. But our society is not very interested in stillness; instead it seems, to me right now, to be in a frenzy of panic-buying, blame and bickering. All distractions from the real things that need to be addressed in the world.
Maria Popova writes: ‘We call it ‘Fall’ but something swells in us as the days grow shorter – the quiet uprising of resilience that readies us for the self-renewal of wintering’.
The idea of winter as a time of gathering ourselves inwards, to reflect and renew ourselves, is a valuable one. The pandemic has been its own long winter, forcing us to go inwards. But I feel there has been little reflection, and, so far, no renewal.
September is a time of movement: back to school, back to work, a fresh start.
Pandemic restrictions are easing; the streets, offices, pubs are busier. People are circulating and so is the virus, seeking out carriers.
This morning is warm, still and grey. What we notice most on our walk to Bramfield is the quiet. Summer is over, but I can’t detect the excitement of a new season. There’s a flatness about the landscape. Crops have been harvested and the fields are shorn. Hedgerow plants, gone to seed, have been bashed down by the recent heavy rain. Around us, colour has leached out of the picture, while the autumn reds and gold have not yet been kindled.
The trees are waiting to change.
But in places, colour surprises us. On the edge of one field, the dead brown vegetation is spangled with yellow, from the small, dandelion-like flowers of lesser hawkbit (leontodon taraxacoides) – one of the commonest and most overlooked of wild plants, but here so pretty.
And here, creating a striking colour combination, a chicory still in flower, its china-blue looking even more special against the grey-brown backdrop of dry thistles.
Farming doesn’t wait. We cross a field which had barley in it last time we came this way. It has already been resown and the rapeseed plants are coming up, for next year’s crop.
Nature has been planning ahead all summer, creating seed and fruit, and what looks to us like brown deadness is a sign that preparations have been made, for the big new start in the spring.
We pass a huge burdock, its seeds full of hooks to catch a passing coat and be carried to a new home. Magnificently ugly, it waits in hope.
A wonderful change of scene: we’re in the French Alps, at Le Grand Bornand, in a landscape that is very dear to us. This is dairy country and in the summer months the constant background sound is the clank of cow bells. Here are the beautiful Abondance cows whose rich milk makes Reblochon cheese.
These ladies graze at 1500 metres and are coming down for their afternoon milking. They seem to be heading down of their own accord, with no farmer or dog to collect them. Cows like their routine. A nearby herd of goats, in contrast, has climbed a rocky outcrop and has to be rounded up for milking by the farmer and his dog, with a tremendous amount of shouting and barking.
Unlike what you might think from adverts and travel brochures, these alpine cows do not browse in lush green grass. Their pasture, at this height in the mountains, looks like this:
Grass is only one element here, among many others. Here, for instance: scabious, marjoram, St John’s wort, dandelions, harebells, knapweed, yarrow, wild carrot, bird’s foot trefoil, astrantia. The cows eat what they like and avoid what they don’t. No wonder the cheese tastes so good.
I love seeing these plants as most of them are familiar flowers of chalk and limestone in England, but here they grow in such profusion, in intricate cohabitation with no single species dominant. Now, at the end of summer, the marjoram is the particular favourite of the bees and the leaves, warmed by the sun on the rocks, release their scented oil, filling the air with the aroma of the south.
If the underfoot is full of delights here, overhead is something astonishing. This is the gypaete – termed the bearded vulture or lammergeier in English, (though only rarely has one strayed to Britain).
They are magnificent birds, with a wingspan of nearly three metres. The pale head and lozenge shaped tail marks them out from the buzzards and kites that also soar over these mountains.
Though elegant as an eagle, they are vultures and as such are scavengers rather than birds of prey. There’s nothing they like better than finding the carcass of a dead chamois and cracking open the skeleton. They can actually eat and digest bones. See them in this video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZKT-mZY071I
Unfortunately for them, in Europe, for centuries, the legend was that they would carry off not only livestock but human babies too, and they were hunted to extinction. Then, about 35 years ago, conservation bodies began to reintroduce them to the Alps, and in this part of Savoie the birds have found a strong foothold.
I saw my first gypaete here four years ago. This year, when we arrived in the village, as we walked up to the bakery a shadow passed over us. We looked up to see a vulture gliding calmly down the street at about roof height. A couple of days later, walking on the mountain which, in the winter, is criss-crossed with ski slopes, we encountered another gypaete only a few metres above our head, and more were circling over the summit.
I find it hugely cheering to see the success of these beautiful birds, whose comeback is even more of an achievement than the reintroduction of red kites in England.
Nature proves its resilience over and over again. Sometimes it needs a little help from humans, but mostly it just needs us to stop harming and interfering.
A few days ago, we were sitting at the top of the garden on a warm evening. Our garden is on a very steep bank, so at the top you are level with the branches of some of the hornbeams. Gnats and small flies were dancing in the air. Then a predator arrived: a large dragonfly. We admired its swift moves, the way it could change direction 90 degrees in the blink of an eye, as it snapped up insects.
Dragonflies are usually regarded as creatures of the riverbank, but it seems they have a whole other field of operation. We don’t normally see them in this domain, among the trees far above our heads.
It made me think about layers: the whole kingdoms of living things that as humans we rarely enter. There are the worlds in the soil and in the water, of course, but also much else we don’t know about, because as humans our perception is pretty limited, and our attention is fleeting. We know that we pick up only a fraction of the smells that dogs experience and see a smaller colour palette than bees can view. What else are we missing?
Walking on Waterford Heath today we stop to look at the strata in this dug-out bank, left behind by the gravel workings. It creates its own rich, rather gothic, little landscape.
The basin of the gravel workings is also now a rich space, compared with the arid desert it appeared to be 15 years ago. The variety of vegetation has increased year on year. Today I admire a beautiful mass of yellow fennel (foeniculum vulgare), a plant I’ve not spotted here before. Its delicate umbels, drying to brown, add to the yellow of St John’s wort (hypericum perforatum) and the more vivid gold of the ragwort.
At the entrance to the Heath, a man from the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust has set up a stall, promoting the Trust, which manages the Heath and the Marsh as nature reserves. The Trust has 40 nature reserves, which is remarkable really for a county so heavily-populated and close to London (https://www.hertswildlifetrust.org.uk/).He tells us about the walks they organise to spot bats and badgers – animals I see only rarely, which live in the kingdom of the evening. I resolve to explore that domain when I can.
In this blog I focus on the things I do see, mainly plants and birds and the occasional insect. I am trying to shine a light on the less-noticed things in the underfoot stratum. Today, in the woods near the railway, I’m pleased to spot the tiny white flowers of enchanter’s nightshade (circaea lutetiana).
What a name! Even in Latin it is called after the enchantress Circe. Surely it must have a powerful magic?
Yet the flowers are so small, the plant so unassuming, hidden in the undergrowth. My book on plant names suggests that it is all a mistake: circaea was originally the name of the terrifying mandrake and somehow became erroneously attached to this member of the willowherb family. It’s not a very convincing explanation.
Richard Mabey in ‘Flora Britannica’ writes that woody nightshade (solanum dulcamara) was reputed by ancient herbalists to be the plant Circe used to turn Odysseus’ men into pigs. ‘But the Parisian botanists favoured this species’ – lutetiana meaning ‘of Paris’. Whether the medieval Parisian botanists managed to turn anyone into a pig with it is not recorded.
Mabey comments that ‘no great powers or medicinal properties were ever claimed for it in this country’ but that it is a delightful plant nonetheless. Here the little flowers shine in the woodland gloom. I like to think that it does have magical powers, though perhaps in a domain humans cannot enter.
After my gloom in the previous post about swallows and vanishing wildlife, we are greeted by a lovely sound at Chapmore End – a constant, background twittering as swallows and house martins flit through the air and swoop over the duck pond. They even perch, in classic swallow fashion, on the telegraph wires, though just for a rest, not yet in preparation for flying south.
It is a joy to see them. In this village, conditions must be right for them. The pond provides insects, and maybe the old barns and houses here still have eaves where they can nest.
It’s August and crops are being harvested. The barley and wheat that are still in the fields have gone from gold to a sandy beige. Despite the rain, things begin to have a dried-out feeling at this time of year. There isn’t the freshness and hope of spring. There isn’t the novelty – I’m not getting excited every time I see a new flower.
I can’t help feeling a sadness. I like summer and don’t want to see these signs that it will end. Even though I know that, six weeks after the solstice, the nights are perceptibly longer.
Really, though, there’s a lot of hope surrounding us as we walk. It’s the hope packed into the ripening seeds. The wild carrot, once the flowers have been pollinated and the petals dropped, curl in on themselves to create an intricate little basket where the seeds develop. Eventually all the white will be gone and the field margins will be full of these shapes like little birds’ nests.
Some plants are just coming into their own now: teasels showing a flush of mauve as their spiky heads flower; grey-green mugwort standing tall; ragwort still filling the verges with gold.
The different life-cycles of the plants, one coming in as another finishes, are visible on the ground. In one field is a mass of mayweed (tripleurospermum inodorum). Their daisy forms are echoed in silver and bronze by the dried heads of knapweed.
The most beautiful sight we see is a picture in dry, rusty colours. Nettles, straw-like grasses and the pale fluff of thistledown are lit up by a sweeping brush stroke of brick red, from the flowers of common sorrel (rumex acetosa).
These are all weeds of neglect, of dry and broken ground. But nature forces you all the time to look at things differently. These coarse plants have their own beauty. The season is challenging me to see things differently: to see hope in the cycle, instead of resisting the change. I find it hard.
I do see hope. The swallows over the duck pond, the crowfoot in the river Beane, the myriad plants and insects we see flourishing in verges, fallow ground, old gravel pits, all convince me that nature is very resilient and will not just persist but will come back – if only we let it.
These plants and creatures need the right conditions – and most of the time, I think, humans need to do nothing more than stop destroying those conditions. Our plants and wildlife will have to be strong, if they are going to be able to cope with climate change. And humans desperately need nature to be able to cope.
Somewhere a bit wilder than East Herts: the Scottish Borders, a few miles from Hawick.
We’re here on a beautiful day, with Scotland in the middle of a mini-heatwave, but for much of the year, under grey skies, this landscape would be described as ‘bleak’. Moorland and conifer plantation, few settlements and not even many sheep.
Yet ‘bleak’ is a human judgment. It says what the landscape makes us feel. We feel it would not be kind to us, would not feed or shelter us. It is far from bleak for the myriad plants and creatures that, when you get close in, are thriving here, fed and sheltered.
I am struck most by the billowing clouds of meadowsweet that cover the damp moorland banks. It has a mellifluous Latin name, filipendula ulmaria but the garden variety is generally known as spiraea – from which we get ‘aspirin’. This groundbreaking drug was first synthesised in 1899 from the salicylic acid in willows (the salix family) and meadowsweet. Willow bark had been used in herbal remedies for centuries to treat fevers, aches and pains and in this case, the remedy was not wrong.
The cream of meadowsweet is joined by the strawberry pink of rosebay willowherb which gives the moorland a great flush of colour. Meadowsweet and rosebay – what’s bleak about that?
What I notice here, too, are the swallows and house martins. Or rather, what I notice is that I don’t see them at home.
So far this summer, the only time I’ve seen swallows and martins in any number is over the lakes at Panshanger, where insects were abundant. On our walks through the fields we never see any, either swooping low or high in the skies.
They’re not there because the insects aren’t there.
I’m reading ‘Why Rebel’ by Jay Griffiths, after hearing her talk at the Hay Festival (http://jaygriffiths.com/). Part of the book is about her involvement with the Extinction Rebellion protests in London in 2019. The ‘rebellion’ got much media attention, but the ‘extinction’ bit is the one that really matters.
We should be paying attention to the insects. Griffiths quotes the stark facts: ‘A 2019 study published in ‘Biological conservation’ showed a 2.5% rate of annual insect loss over the last 25-30 years. In ten years, at that rate, there could be a quarter less insects; in 50 years only half would be left; and in a hundred years, none.’
As Griffiths says, this is a truly frightening prospect. This is what we should be angry about. It is all very well being urged to plant lavender in our gardens to feed the bees, but that isn’t going to cut it. Decades of the global use of pesticides – ie insect killers, because it turns out the chemicals don’t only act on ‘pests’ – have created a carnage which we don’t really see or acknowledge, but which could kill our great-grandchildren.
No insects means birds and animals starve to death and plants wither, unpollinated. The eminent biologist E O Wilson has written: ‘If we were to wipe out insects alone on this planet, the rest of life and humanity with it, would mostly disappear from the land. Within a few months.’
Turning a corner of the garden into a wildflower meadow is a big trend and has to be infinitely better for insect life than the green desert of a closely mown lawn. But… on the seed packet the wildflowers look beautifully dainty in tasteful colours like this:
Whereas a real wildflower meadow looks like this:
Dainty it is not. But it is bursting with life.
We pass this corner of a field often on our walks near Stapleford. It has been left fallow, as if missed by the plough, and up till now has looked generally scruffy. But the plants coming into bloom in July have transformed it. The white umbellifers are wild carrot (daucus carota), which flowers after the hedgerow cow parsley has gone to seed. The leaves smell like carrot, but apparently the taproot is thin and not worth eating: it must have taken years of breeding, some centuries ago, to produce the vegetable we have now.
In among these sturdy plants are a host of others creating a play of colours: dry, golden grasses, purple knapweed (centaurea nigra), pink musk mallow (malva moschata) and fluffy yellow lady’s bedstraw (gallium verum) which has a lasting sweet smell and was once mixed with the straw in mattresses.. If we waded in, we would probably find many more varieties. Butterflies, bees and many more insects weave in and out of the plants, touching and tasting.
It shows that even the roughest patch of land, which looks like nothing more than waste ground for most of the year, can come into its power.
On our walk today we see so many different blooms that I feel we are in one of those old Ladybird guides to the countryside.
Two particularly lovely ones are dark mullein (verbascum nigrum) which has a spike of primrose yellow flowers decorated with dark red stamens, and sky blue chicory (cichoriumintybus).
In English, chicory is the name given to the salad vegetable made up of closely folded leaves – which is called endive in French. Chicorée in French is the frizzy-leaved salad plant which we call curly endive… confused? On the face of it, neither of these appear to have anything to do with the flower in front of us, but somehow they are all the same plant, cultivated in different ways. Plus, the roots make the coffee substitute used during the war.
I’m fascinated by useful plants. The name ‘chicory’ comes from Arabic which suggests that, like so many herbs and vegetables (including carrots), its uses were discovered and refined in the middle east before coming to Europe.
But what is ‘useful’? Very many flowers we encounter today have the suffix ‘wort’ in their names: woundwort, nipplewort (yes really), mugwort, ragwort. ‘Wort’ specifically means a plant used for healing, so at one time, these flowers must have been sought after, valued. But not any more. Ragwort (senecio jacobaea) has a very bad rep as it can be fatally toxic to cattle and horses (though not to sheep). No-one wants that in their wildflower meadow mix.
And yet – the small paddock we walk through at Waterford is bursting with ragwort and it looks glorious. In amongst its golden flowers are blue viper’s bugloss, pink centaury, white clover, purple self-heal – a rich ecology. Ragwort is a key food for the beautiful cinnabar moth https://butterfly-conservation.org/moths/cinnabar and soon its fantastically tiger-striped caterpillars will be feeding on the leaves. To them, it’s still a wort.
The Latin name for the cinnabar moth is tyria jacobaeae, echoing the Latin name of ragwort. Jacobaea means ‘of James’ and in almost all European languages, ragwort is dedicated to St James and is supposed to flower on his feast day, 25th July (so it is early). The plant was used to treat sores on the legs of the pilgrims going to Santiago de Compostela (Sant Iago being St James) and also, paradoxically, certain diseases of horses.
Does this wort really have useful properties or were those beliefs merely superstition mixed with Christianity? Undoubtedly it contains chemical compounds that can be poisonous, as do a great many plants in Britain. The witchy mugwort – artemisia vulgaris – is a member of a family so chemically powerful that artemisias’ derivatives range from absinthe to a treatment for cancer. Toxins and medicines are often two sides of a coin.
The old herbal remedies are not the ones now stocked on the shelves of health food shops. Hedge woundwort (stachys sylvatica) was traditionally part of the countryside first aid kit, used to stop bleeding from a cut. Now, who would recognise it?
I look at these worts that have fallen from grace. What power lies waiting in them?
Now that we’re moving into full summer, there is a change of state. The countryside is becoming very tactile. The fields have turned golden and look soft and shifting as the barley wafts in the breeze. We can’t help stroking the feathery ears as we pass.
Vegetation is reaching out to touch us – some, the grasses, with a graceful lightness, but most with a rather in-yer-face attitude. All the stinging, scratching, pushy, prickly plants are taking over. Nature has abandoned springtime delicacy and is growing taller, wider, elbowing out competitors, armouring itself against attackers and clamouring to pollinators. To hell with subtlety – pay attention to ME.
It is not just the brambles and nettles, which have flourished in the recent rain. Thistles are now big and bold and other prickly plants are following them: burdock, teasels. While white campion, moon daises and common mallow are still going strong in the hedgerows and field margins, coarser plants like ragwort (senecio jacobaea) and hogweed (heracleum sphondylium, a Hercules of a plant) are becoming dominant. Plants that are not much loved by humans, but very popular with insects. The flat plates of hogweed flowerheads have numerous beetles happily crawling over them.
As we walk, and in some places, fight our way along the path, I wonder why there is this shift in texture. The extra warmth (and rain) nourishes the larger plants I suppose, and everything gets taller as it competes with neighbours and the growing crops. The number of species with strong defence mechanisms – prickles and stingers – suggests that this is the time of year in which they become more at risk from grazing animals (not that there are any round here, apart from the wild deer).
There are plenty of new beauties: field scabious (knautia arvensis), with its lovely lavender-mauve heads; knapweed (centaurea nigra) a rich, royal purple.
Skylarks are singing high above the barley. I hope they have raised their brood by now, before the harvesters move in. A yellowhammer is chirping from a hedge, the first bird call I ever learned to recognise I think, as a child. A little bit of bread and no cheeeese…
The touch of the plants turns us into their allies. As we pass by, burrs stick to our clothing, seeds are trapped in our boots. We carry the seeds onwards: we’ve been co-opted into the natural cycle.
It comes as a surprise. Here we are, early on a warm morning, taking our usual path along the river Beane. At Bull’s Mill we come out of the cool green trees and meet this:
We’re astonished. Surely it hasn’t been long since we came this way? Last time, this fallow strip between the track and the wheat field was covered in tiny wild pansies – exquisite close up but looking like brown waste ground from a distance.
Now, nature has put on this fantastic display.
Poppy seeds must have been there in the soil, waiting to be given half a chance, which they’ve seized with wild abandon. It’s hard to tear your eyes away from their exhilarating scarlet. Seeing them in full flower, in the sunshine, they don’t bring to my mind their usual associations, of Remembrance Day, of war and death. November seems distant.
They make me think of one of Monet’s paintings ‘The Poppy Field’ https://www.claude-monet.com/the-poppy-field.jsp where the painted poppies surge towards you, as if seen from the point of view of the child almost up to his shoulders in the grass and flowers.
Individually, field poppy flowers (papaver rhoeas) are short lived, and quite fragile, but en masse they are a forcefield.
The real life of a poppy is in its myriad tiny, black, incredibly resilient seeds. The little grains have made this whole work of art out of seemingly nothing.
Up on Waterford Heath is another wonderful display. This time it is of blue – a rich blue, as subtle and satisfying as the colour of the bluebells a few weeks ago. This is not a romantic, beloved bloom though. It is viper’s bugloss (echium vulgare). A rebarbative name. Nothing good ever came from a viper and what is a bugloss anyway? The plant seems to say ‘go away’. The coarse leaves are sharply hairy and look like they might sting (though they don’t).
But this is the most generous of plants. Tall and in full bloom on this sunny morning, there are at least 30 flowers on each spike, all full of nectar. Each flower is a lavender blue with touches of pink, some darker, some paler, giving the overall colour a shifting, three dimensional effect. Each flower spike has four or five bees moving up and down it, visiting the florets with calm purpose. The whole thing is alive. As I move closer to take a photo, another dimension is added as the scent of the wild roses joins in.
Like the poppies, the viper’s bugloss seems to come out of nowhere. It grows in this dry, gravelly soil and even where there seems to be no soil at all. It lines the bridge over the railway, sprouting from the tiny gap between brick and tarmac. On the Heath it mingles beautifully with yellow plants – the bright yellow stonecrop (sedum acre) which carpets the gravel, and the gentler yellow of the evening primroses (oenothera glazoviana), plants of the American prairie, which seem to feel at home here.
I am in awe of all the beauty, growing out of this scraped, starved ground. It is a free gift.