Wednesday, 25 May 2016
Walking Off The Path
We were in the woods early this morning, the dogs and I. Someone had cut the grass where the green lane meets the tarmac and the smell was redolent of summer, threaded through with undertones of mayweed.
The leaves in the trees and hedges are mostly all out and the canopy is thick, lush and a fresh lime green. Many trees put on a second flush of leaves after the first to allow for caterpillars to consume the first growth without damaging the tree. The second growth is noticeably less lime-like in colour, but for now the woods are bright and shining.
We followed the path between the hazel hedges and up past the two old oaks that stand like guards to the entrance of the ancient wood. The dogs raced on ahead, knowing the way of old, and coming back to find me only when I'd paused too long to listen to the blackcap singing in the bush and the goldcrests practising their scales unseen among the oaks.
Beyond the winter coppice and sinuous, newly planted hazel saplings, the path enters an area of pine. Two sweet chestnuts mark the division between broad-leaved and conifer woodland. Only one of the chestnuts is in leaf; the other is trying but I fear this winter may have been his last. They are old friends of mine; I always stop beneath their branches and have a chat to see how they are. The one without leaves feels old, strained and tired to me now, and despite my urgings that he summon up all his will to carry on, I fear he will not be able to.
Beyond the chestnuts the path weaves through the pine trees where a coal tit was singing and groups of long tailed tits were piping. In the distance a cuckoo started calling and Poppy, returning from a trip through the undergrowth where she'd set up a stuttering and furious pheasant scampered along the trunk of a fallen tree as sure-footedly as if she were a tight-rope-walker who spent her entire life traversing narrow pathways suspended high above the world. She bounced off the trunk back onto the path clothed in goose grass which no amount of shaking would dislodge, but, unlike Ted who always stops and asks me for help out of tricky situations, she threw me a look that said 'no bother! I'll just run it off' and disappeared off up the path.
On the far side of the wood, where the pines end and the broad-leaves reassert themselves, the path forks. One way goes up a field towards the lane where the badger sett is, the other opens out into another field bordered by the river. We have been taking advantage of the fact that the gate which usually bars access here is currently open, and wandered across to the water to see whether the voles were out. I've been checking this past fortnight and although I've found droppings I've yet to see any Small Brown Furries.
A Reed Warbler was chattering in the reeds and a Cettis Warbler threw out her loud and jaunty call from among some goat willows whose branches trace their fingers in the bubbling water. Swallows dipped and weaved above our heads and the cuckoo that had been calling earlier set up again somewhere among the oaks on the far bank. The dogs went off to annoy two moorhens who, bobbing nervously in the central channel, were in no danger at all but who kept the dogs' interest long enough to be embarrassing (Ted in particular was convinced that if he just stood still on the bank long enough they would eventually come over to him). As I kept half an eye on the dogs, an almost imperceptible movement in the vegetation on the water's edge caught my eye, and there he was: my first water vole of the year.
He fixed me with a steady regard from between his paws as he washed his face thoroughly and unhurriedly. They have such sweet, knowing faces. Then, quite suddenly and with no sound, he disappeared into the water which opened to receive him and covered over him again just as completely with never a ripple to betray where he'd gone. Water Voles are creatures of their element. I have often marvelled how adept they are at disappearing silently into water. They don't look like the sort of people who should be naturally lithe, slippery and subtle in the way of otters. They are more rotund, small, brown and squishable, and yet they can slip into water and vanish entirely in less than the blink of an eye, leaving you perplexed as to how they managed it.
Feeling that nature had already been kind as kind can be, we traced our footsteps back across the field (Ted reluctantly leaving his moorhens) and went back in to the wood. Something made me rebel against following the path that human feet have made for the return journey, so, as we have done many times already this Spring, we went off into the trees themselves and picked up a badger path instead. It took us into a different world: Early-Purple Orchids, blooming quietly in a clearing where no human eyes will have seen them; Pignuts, all feathery and delicate jostling around the base of a gnarled and stooped silver birch; Yellow Archangel, small explosions of colour like puffs of paint dust splattered among the green, the new plants apparently unconnected to their parents but all secretly linked together by the runners that snake beneath the good brown earth. A little further along we came to a place where the badgers had scraped a patch of earth bare in order to have a good roll and scratch, leaving a decent amount of their fur behind them in the process, and further still, as I paused to listen to the cuckoo, a Light Emerald moth slumbered beneath a leaf at my feet.
It occurred to me as we emerged near the entrance to the wood that all these things would have remained hidden from us, had we stuck to the path human feet had prescribed and not chosen the Badger Way. There is wisdom somewhere in that.
Coming home I was relived to hear the female Cuckoo's bubbling call down by the lake (they do this when they have laid an egg) and a few seconds later even more glad to watch her fly over the corner of the garden. A slow, precise, deliberate and unhurried flight. She was so close I could see the expression in her eye as she glanced down at me. I wondered where she was heading, and then five minutes later the question was answered as she flew right over my head in a less slow and deliberate fashion, because this time she was being driven by a small, furious and very vocal bird. A dunnock, I think, who had presumably flushed the cuckoo from cover where she was watching the dunnock's nest with a view to depositing tomorrow's egg in it. At least now I know she is laying and hopefully the next generation of CT's cuckoos is on its way.
Never A Dull Moment, eh?
Wishing you all a lovely day,