lichen

Looking for spring

Bramble leaves were purple with cold. Black fungi and yellow lichen crept over bare branches. A dead badger lay by the roadside and debris from fast-food outlets littered the verges. Overhead a buzzard was being mobbed by a crow – a macabre aerial ballet. The clear chalk stream of the River Frome was flowing fast under the bridge and a skein of mallards flew sketchily across the grey sky.

It was a gloopy sort of day. A curtain of thick grey fog hung over Portesham Hill. The road was covered in a slippery layer of stinking mud. Hedges had been flailed creating raw splinters of wood that poked through the mist. I was looking for signs of spring, but, apart from a celandine, some catkins and an isolated patch of fragile white blossom, everything was still steeped in winter gloom.

However, in my sister’s garden the surface of the pond was corrugated with clumps of frogspawn. It was all clustered on the shaded side of the water – a myriad of eyeballs , small black pupils unseeing, but warding off predators. I remembered the nature table at school and the excitement of watching tadpoles develop. I was fascinated by the change in the frogspawn from black dots to squiggles, and loved drawing the different stages in pencil on sugar paper, revelling in the word ‘metamorphosis’ which seemed to sum up for me the mysteries and excitement of the natural world.

When I was nine our class was occasionally taken down the road to a long sloping garden owned by an elderly lady called Mrs Fiddler. She kindly allowed the children to come and play on the grass in fine weather. At the top of the garden was a pond which drew me into forbidden territory. I would hide in the grass next to the water, watching the newts and other wildlife. In the spring I’d scoop a lump of frogspawn into a jam jar and smuggle it back to school, keeping it in my desk. I took it home at the end of the day and tipped the gelatinous soup into a large glass bowl. I once caught a great crested newt and somehow got it home. It looked newly painted with orange and black splodges on its belly, but it vanished overnight from its fruit bowl. I searched guiltily for a corpse for days but found no trace of it.

Today I lifted a lump of the rubbery jelly from my sister’s pond and drove home carefully with it in a washing-up bowl. All these years later, yet I can’t wait to see my frogspawn begin to turn into froglets.

Salt Cedar

Conditions are harsh where pebbles meet soil. Today at Abbotsbury there is snow in the air. A south-westerly has sculpted clouds into mountains which cast their shadows over the sea like a map of the world. A rainbow tints the sallow winter downs and I can taste salt in the sleet.

A thicket of tamarisk, or salt cedar, thrives here at the back of the Chesil bank – stout glossy stems like a fistful of coloured pencils – white, ochre, sepia, raw sienna, ultramarine blue and umber. No flowers, just a scribble of matted beards where the blooms have shrivelled. Deep in this tangle of stems are blotches of bright yellow-green lichen. On the sheltered edges of the clump, a fringe of spiky new leaves defies the winter gales. These tamarisk trees are tethered to the ground by long tap-roots which seek out deep water.

Last summer on the Isles of Scilly I saw a lean elderly fisherman by a tamarisk tree. He was brown and sinewy as the twisting twigs above him, limbs shiny with sun and salt. Fishermen used to weave the stems of tamarisk into lobster pots. The branches are pliable, strong enough to withstand the force of winter, salt-resistant and strong as rope – it grew in the right place and seemed made for the purpose.

This group of tamarisk trees is dense and tangled – an efficient windbreak. In Egyptian mythology it is said that the body of Osiris was hidden in a tamarisk tree in Byblos until it was retrieved by Isis. I imagine that a small creature sheltering in this thicket of tamarisk, to weather the winter storms, may have difficulty finding its way out – just like a lobster from a pot.

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.

Hedges and Edges

IMG_5498IMG_5507IMG_5508

In the sheltered valleys the matt greys and browns of winter hedges have been replaced by greens and silvers. Willows on the edge of the water meadows glow like candles. Even before leaves have appeared it is as if the sap is gleaming through the bark, as trees and hedges come back to life. Blackthorn, wild damson and cherry are flowering in a snowstorm of blossom – and now a traditional Blackthorn winter seems to be following with cold northerly winds.

In the last few days leaves have started to unfurl, as if plants have a built-in mechanism telling them when it is the equinox. Deep inside there must be light sensors weighing the daylight and triggering growth when day and night are equal. Even Horse Chestnuts are starting to come into leaf.

IMG_5488IMG_5419

However, nearer the coast, hedges have a different story to tell. Where sea spray had been driven inland during the winter storms, the hedges have been salt-burnt on their seaward sides. Gorse is brown and stunted. Conifers and other evergreens have shrivelled where the salty winds scorched their leaves. The only colour on the seaside hedges is bright green lichen, indicating the purity of the air.  Thorn trees are bent and arthritic, twisted from the strength of the gales off the sea. Spring is taking longer to arrive here on the exposed hills and coasts.

IMG_5400IMG_5407IMG_5412