daisies

Snails, dung beetles and burial mounds

I set off from Sutton Poyntz – a pretty village with a duck pond, hunkered down below the eastern haunches of the South Dorset Ridgeway. A chalky path led steadily upwards through a green landscape towards an intensely blue sky. To the south, an equally blue sea defined the Jurassic Coast. Buttercups glowed beside the path as though varnished by the sun, there was vivid blue germander speedwell and the enamelled white petals of daisies. Above these, a froth of sour-smelling cow parsley.

As the path got steeper I focussed on the ground in front of me. The track was strewn with empty snail shells – all different sorts from small lemony yellow ones to large tawny swirled snails and, in between, stripy humbug shells and chalky blue/grey ones. All the shells were empty. If a thrush had eaten the contents, I would have thought the shells would be shattered, but each one was intact. Perhaps the snails were venturing from one side of the path to the other when the heat of the sun dried them out. But there were no decomposing corpses so ‘snail mile’ remains a mystery.

By this time I was at the end of the path and just cresting the ridge of hills. Below me were clusters of houses, their windows winking SOS signals in the bright sun. This litter of habitation looked like terminal moraine at the end of a glacier. I stood on top of the world surrounded by seeding grasses and the strong lanolin smell of sheep. Dreadlocks of sheep’s wool hung from barbed wire fences and a newly shorn pristine flock skittered anxiously around seemingly self-conscious in their naked whiteness.

The tall grasses were topped with multi-coloured seedheads – rust red, purple, brown and pink. At ground level were swathes of candy-coloured clover and a creeping mat of buttercups. Out of this tapestry rose a pillowy tumulus. I chose my patch carefully and lay down on the barrow among the nettles, thistles and sheep dung.

Coppery dung beetles with shiny peppermint thoraxes scuttled among the grass stems, occasionally taking off, their small whirring wings hardly adequate to carry their bulbous bodies along. In Egyptian mythology the dung beetle or scarab was immortalised in the form of amulets. The sun god, Ra, rolled across the sky each day transforming bodies and souls, just as the dung beetle rolls dung into a ball as food. The dung is also used for a brood chamber where the beetle lays its eggs, and where these later turn into larvae. Consequently the dung beetle was seen a symbol of the heavenly cycle and associated with rebirth and resurrection. I read a report that the dung beetle is tuned into the circadian rhythms, being a crepuscular flier. It seemed a suitable companion on this burial mound.

I lay rather uncomfortably with a stone in my back imagining the skeletons buried beneath me in that cold dark earth. Above me, clouds were spaced out like continents. A skylark sang distantly and I could almost feel the spinning of the world as I lay balanced between land and sky on the top of that burial mound.

I turned my back on the pylons standing sentinel on the summit of the ridgeway and started the steep climb back down to Sutton Poyntz. On the lower stretch was a woodland – Veteran Wood, a conservation area owned by Wessex Water. A board explained that the copse contained several veteran trees of over a hundred years old. I stepped into the cool shade of the wood and the scent of wild garlic. A clear stream meandered between the trees whose roots stretched out to paddle in its coolness. It was quiet here apart from muted birdsong. Green ferns uncurled beside the water and I imagined weary travellers slaking their thirst and resting in this peaceful place before journeying on.

Autumn’s mood board

When the wind is in the east – that’s when spiders spin their webs. So the saying goes, and the wind has been easterly for a while. Outside our front door, a garden spider is digesting a fly in the centre of a splendid web. As I walked through the village, I noticed several houses were being painted and it occurred to me that autumn, like spring, is a time of renewal. The dust and frippery of summer is being shed, leaving bare structures and neatly packaged seeds in storage.

The hedgerows were like a decorator’s mood board of texture and colour – the nuts and bolts of a bigger structure starting to emerge. The bare timbers and scaffolding of the countryside yet to be outlined against the sky in midwinter. In the meantime plants were beginning to reveal their geometry – the stark radial spokes of hogweed, lacy dock leaves, intricately designed seed pods and high-gloss berries, horse chestnut leaves damaged by the leaf miner moth, leaving blotches of paint-chart colours. A frieze of wild hops wreathed sprays of elderberries and swags of blackberries.

Flowers were still blooming halogen-like among the shrivelling leaves – the sugary-pink of Himalayan Balsam, retro-yellow ragwort and dandelions, daisies, mauve stripy mallow, clover and tissue-paper bramble flowers. I walked along through an intermittent shower of things falling to the ground – sycamore propellers, drifting feathers, curled leaves like peeling wallpaper and sandpapery beech nuts. A speckled wood butterfly zigzagged in the shade.

The low sun shafted through the trees on the lane and everything felt silent and restful. A group of workmen sat drinking coffee beside their van emblazoned with the word ‘Inspired’. I walked on to my special place near the old way. Suddenly a tawny owl hooted – a moonlight sound in the middle of the afternoon. Thirty seconds later a train echoed the hoot on the nearby crossing.

Swans decorated the margins of the chalk stream and a trail of litter was caught in the grass verge – piece of paper with the headline ‘Forward to Seeing’ and a concertinaed newspaper like a giant butterfly, wings spread on the tarmac. Squashed wild cherries and damson made red and yellow splotches on the pavement. Burdock in various stages of growth showed either burgundy centres or wire-brush seed heads.

The hedgerows were stippled with exquisite seed heads the colour of brown paper, but with finely drawn patterns and shapes like stencilled stars. Bright yellow lichen curled like flakes of paint on a twig. I saw wads of thistledown caught in the branches along with feathers, spiders’ webs and tufts of sheep’s wool, giving the illusion of an old mattress disintegrating on a dilapidated bedstead of rust-coloured hogweed.