I've had a re-organise of my time. Prompted by being unable to remember the last time I had a day to myself to potter. I've given up a few things and am being strict with myself about not taking on anything new.
As a result, the dogs and I have spent three blissful hours over the last couple of days walking through the woods and fields, along green lanes and beside ancient hedgerows.
I am learning winter twig IDs (having recently had to work on a hedgerow survey, an impossible feat unless you can tell what species you're looking at). I knew a few already- ash is a good one to start with because the bud tips are always black- and it's surprising how quickly you can build on this knowledge by walking in the countryside with a good key like the FSC guide above. After a while, you begin to recognise the look of a tree and you find you know it without needing to examine the buds on the twigs. Hazel, for example, has new stems that stand upright with an alternate bud pattern, while Field Maple has opposite buds and the new stems look like tiger bread- you know the mottled crust effect? Wild cherry has concentric rings running around the bark and blackthorn has a dark purple sheen to it.
There is an old, old, hedge nearby (close to, but not the same as the one I've written about before) and I found myself airily waving a hand at the various species that are in it this morning as the dogs scampered through the frost-framed grass and I followed along behind. Breezily, I informed them what they were running past without having to press my nose to the twigs to be sure. Field Maple, Hazel, Sycamore, Beech, Oak, Willow, Buckthorn, Blackthorn, Hawthorn, each has a character, a look and feel that is quite distinctive and once you know them they announce themselves quite clearly.
You can age a hedge by knowing the secrets of its species, depending on where you are. Hazel and Field Maple are rarely planted here and make for poor colonisers, so if a hedge contains them then the likelihood is it's Old. The plants along the margins tell a story too: Lords and Ladies, Dog's Mercury, Butcher's Broom, Primroses, Wild Daffodils, Bluebells, they all whisper of a past that contained, at some point, an ancient woodland.
I like to amble through the fields learning the plants and listening to their stories. It makes me feel connected to the land, a part of its story. It helps me understand it.
I spent some time with an old Yew yesterday, my hand on its bark, my forehead pressed against its trunk and waited for it to tell me its story. Yew is slow-growing. Many of the Yews in the UK are our oldest living trees, some believed to be thousands of years. This one felt old and although it now stands like a hunched-up guardian on the outer edge of a thin strip of woodland on the margin of a field, as I stood quietly in its company I got a sense of how the land once looked there, before the woods were cut down and stripped back to make way for the fields. Once, this Yew was deep inside an old, old, wood and all manner of woodland creatures passed beneath his branches and knew him well. Now he feels like a sentry quietly guarding what's left of it.
Not far from the Yew at the bottom of the hill there is a badger's sett, still very much active with many doorways and shining white mounds of freshly excavated chalk. The sett is carpeted with bluebells and the badgers' pathways thread between them. The sett has probably been there hundreds of years, in the way of these things, with countless generations of badgers treading those same paths through the wood until they were well-known and well-established. At some point in the last hundred years, the wood that once stretched over acres and acres of this land retracted around them leaving behind this small thin strip among a sea of green fields. I spent some time wondering how the badgers felt about the loss of their wood, did they know what the old place used to be like, had a muscle memory been passed down?
There's a lot of pathos in that and I found myself feeling an overwhelming urge to give the land back to the trees. If ever I found myself in possession of a farm I know exactly what I would do. Plant some wildflower meadows, create bare ground, lay existing hedges and connect them up so a complete network was established linking wood with wood. Plant native trees, put in a pond or two, cut some rides through the woods for the butterflies to navigate, allow standing deadwood and rotten fallen wood to remain where it lies, reintroduce coppice on some parts and allow others to find their own cycle and balance. Remove the chemical load from the land and allow the wild things to find their way back. Wouldn't that be worth being part of?