The white-stemmed bramble,
It sounds a bit rude.
The white-stemmed bramble,
The white-stemmed bramble,
It sounds a bit rude.
The trees, grasses and herbs assert their hegemony over the wild places, but diminutive actors stage a quiet rebellion. Lay botanists refer to them as ‘lower plants’, an unsatisfying epithet for a world of indescribable beauty and complexity. Under scrutiny of the surveyor’s hand lens they reveal their infinite secrets.
A specialist, a bryologist no less, would describe to you a world in miniature, an elfin form of the ecosystems and biomes that make up our planet. Arisen from the primal stages of the Silurian era, a vast collective of green and brown jewels occupying every ecological niche imaginable. They favour the damp places, of which the earth has many.
To most, moss is a singular term, describing the springy carpet that ruins turf and clogs the mower. It is so much more. Many hundreds of species inhabit the dank and dewy spaces, from cityscape to mountaintop and all in between. So many forms, from tiny facsimiles of forests to vast rafts of spongy emerald, each industriously working to produce the spores that give life.
The liverworts and hornworts, the lesser know cousins, are arguably more alien and magnificent. Ranging from the diminutive and dendritic to brown smears on clay that rank among the rarest of our flora, each is a testament to the quiet magnificence of simple life. These are the leafy and thallose relics of ancient times, the blessed meek that inherited the earth long ago.
The bryologist’s world in miniature is there for us to appreciate and enjoy. We just have to open our eyes and find it.
They say that the European eel travels to the Sargasso Sea to spawn and die.
Sometimes I struggle to get out of bed.
Born into trouble and a life spent running,
‘Fucking vermin’ spat angrily through gritted teeth,
Despised for her wit, her instinct and cunning,
Forever on the outside, behind and beneath.
A world away from her red country brothers,
Starvation and traffic are her huntsman and hound,
A mess of matted fur, of mange and dull colours,
The city her prison, a bleak battleground.
Her earth has no earth, just a void amongst concrete,
Survival of her cubs is her only intent,
A litter amid litter, a life on the back streets,
Roadkill and junk food give scant nourishment.
Mother, protector, teacher and provider.
The urban fox, the eternal outsider.
The ecologist sat at his desk in the early hours, stifling a yawn with his woollen sleeve. Steam rose lazily from a mug perched haphazardly on a faded coaster. It had once shown a photograph of a badger cub, but the surface had been undone by years of use. He sat in this position almost daily, countless mugs leaving their indelible mark on young brock’s face. He was tired today.
He’d bought the house twelve years ago, and for twelve years the green leather-topped desk had sat facing the window. On a clear day he could see beyond the wooded valley all the way to the estuary, but a shroud of morning mist enveloped the outside world today. The mist didn’t trouble the shorebirds that gathered in their thousands on the shingle banks at this time of year, their keening calls echoing eerily through the murk. The shrill alarm cry of the redshank, sentinel of the marsh, carried furthest, warning of danger and easily identified from his seat at the window. The flight call of the curlew was his favourite, a joyous burble quite unlike anything else. On rare occasions the dawn had rewarded him with the sad lament of the greenshank, but not this dawn.
The garish clock, inherited from his mother, chimed five as he finished the last of the tea, an elixir for his weary bones. He hated the clock, but sentiment stopped him from selling it. Sitting at his desk in the early morning was a regular occurrence, and he was often at his most productive when the day was new. These days he found little joy in the scientific reports he wrote, bound as they were by such tedious constructs as accuracy and rigour. A linguist’s heart beat within him. He tried to stifle it, but each report that he wrote betrayed evidence of tiny rebellions, brief flashes of florid prose amid the sterile listing of facts. Crepuscular. Moribund. Gravid. He felt excited pangs of electricity in his fingertips as he typed the words.
Sitting at the desk at this time usually followed a night spent chasing bats and stumbling around woodland and fields in the half-light of dawn. It was a strange job. Today was different though. He’d been asked to write an article for the local field club magazine, a chance to reminisce on his most memorable encounters with nature. The opportunity to write, to really write, exhilarated him.
A career spent recording wildlife had given him no shortage of source material. He’d kept notebooks since childhood, jotter and stubby pencil ever present in the map pocket of his waterproof coat. Lists, sketches and musings, memories of treasure found and lost. Almost two decades of study committed to paper. He rarely studied the notebooks these days. They told of his greatest triumphs, but so many of them were tinged with sadness. Sadness at lost friends with whom he shared so many experiences, and sadness at his own unstoppable march from his youth. Aching knees were a constant reminder that he was no longer the proud specimen of his formative years, and he reflected on this often. A tough childhood had instilled in him a strong sense of pessimism, particularly regarding his own mortality, but he had made peace with this part of himself long ago. He was slowing down, but it no longer kept him awake at night.
He wrote, frantically. Melancholic thoughts were pushed aside, as half-remembered fragments from sun-bleached pages were made real in his memory. For the briefest of moments he lived them again, committing each to print in as much detail as he could recall. He described the rare seabird seen from the charted boat, the first encounter with an osprey, and the day that the toads moved into the pond that he helped to dig. He wrote about the bat roost, the largest known in the county until the youngsters had arrived on the scene with their modern kit and enthusiasm. He wrote at length about natterjack toads, clockwork sprites on the moonlit dunes.
The sun reached its zenith, and still he wrote. A thought had slowly materialised throughout the morning, and it startled him. He had realised that during a career spent actively seeking encounters with nature, it was the chance sightings that truly inspired him. Every encounter with flora and fauna gave him pleasure, but it was the occasions where luck and coincidence collided that truly delighted him. The more he wrote, the more these casual meetings came to the fore. His heart beat faster as he recalled the unexpected badger amid the fruit trees, the sudden goshawk over a barren hillside, the stoat in ermine amid the rushes and the day that a fox appeared where a seal should have been. His first otter had been an accident, spotted frolicking near the seashore off the west coast of Scotland. This wasn’t his favourite memory though. His favourite memory had occurred in the very house in which he was feverishly writing, two years past. An elephant hawk moth had alighted on his bedroom curtains, causing a yelp of excitement. In the rush to find his camera the moth had spooked and flown out of the open window, leaving only a smear of chalky beige powder on cornflower blue fabric. He’d never seen anything more beautiful than the moth, and he thought about it every day.
It was approaching dusk when his typing slowed, the article nearly finished. It had been a day of self-reflection and creativity, and the ecologist was proud of his work. He was especially pleased to have used some of his favourite words. Viviparous. Vespertine. Petrichor. More pangs of excited electricity. His awakening about the joy of chance encounters had inspired him. He had known for some time that working with the thing he loved had made him take it for granted, and had dulled the sheer joy he got from the natural world. Today was the day that he resolved to spend more time immersed in nature, recapturing the exhilaration he felt as a young man experiencing wilderness for the first time. Starlight glinted off the ebbing tide of the estuary, an elegiac chorus rising from thousands of tiny souls clustered above the shoreline. He’d buy a new notebook in the morning.
It wasn’t sadness. She found it hard to explain, words seemed too crass to describe how she felt, but she wasn’t sad. A famous man had once likened it to a black dog, but she didn’t feel that way. She saw it as an ocean, infinitely dark and endlessly deep. Immersed in the cold water, entangled in strands of black gossamer that kept her from surfacing.
The rising sun cast tendrils of light into the room, ushering out the night. She was always awake at this hour, her mind falling into a troubled synchronicity with the natural rhythm of time. She knew the routine by heart, the liquorice sky fading to hues of amethyst and magenta as shafts of light gave life to motes of dust in the air above her.
She watched the dust, particles of pollen and human sand rising and falling as if on invisible strings. The display only existed for the briefest of periods, when the sunrise gave body to that which was otherwise unseen. She felt like that too, and found comfort in the unlikely kinship. Not sadness, she thought, but slightness. A feeling that she was fading, slowly becoming translucent. She’d never vanished before, but the fear was never far away.
The effort of existing often eluded her. Some days the bedroom was her only view, her body aching and burning but refusing to cooperate. She had a sole focus, that of fuelling her rampant thoughts. Her body remained still, but her mind relentlessly whirred, snarled and kicked. Her untamed thoughts travelled eons into the future and past, a thousand miles deep within herself. Her ability to comprehend the minuscule and the vast thrilled and sickened her.
Every day followed the same pattern. After the dust came the birdsong. The blackbird was always first, his rich aria playing counterpoint to the harsh chant of the magpie. She thought that this was a fitting allegory for her own torn psyche, and it gave her comfort. Nature was her anchor, an unbreakable link to the real world when hopelessness tried to consume her.
She could see the tops of the trees from her bed, and knew the sounds of the wood by heart. She’d learned a new sound recently, the familiar ‘chack-chack’ of the jackdaw followed by the harsh rasp of beak on terracotta. The uneven roof tiles of her cottage were brimming with insect life and the clever bastards knew it. She had to stop listening, empathy with the soft-bodied creatures tore at her. The extreme empathy that came with the darkness was impossible to ignore, and was the thing that kept her awake the most.
She knew it was temporary, knew that the darkness was artifice of her own creation. She’d been here twice before and each time the veil had slowly lifted, her body regaining motion as her mind dulled and her more extravagant synapses lay dormant. She didn’t know why it happened, but had made peace with the fact that it was part of her. ‘Chiaroscuro’, she liked that word. The dark ocean would always lap at her shores, but she wasn’t sad.
The thrum of rubber on pitted tarmac gives way to the static crackle of leaf litter, and her mind burns white hot. The engine idles and dies. She’s almost there. A muffled click and a flash of orange give a final brief contact with the new world. She begins to walk.
The woods feel different today, shades of emerald and fern slipping into amber, leaves and beech mast a rustic carpet beneath her. She’s known a thousand Autumns here. A scramble through fading briar traces vermilion lines on her skin, but she doesn’t feel it.
She easily finds the sunken lane, where the moonlight is her lantern. The dappled glow of the waxing orb picks out familiar landmarks; the tree root, the dull gloss of the holly leaves, faint mist over the bracken. Each step carries her closer to the glade, carries her further into the past.
She dips her head beneath an arc of maple boughs, and steps lightly into the clearing. A fox screams a clarion call as she slips off her shoes, standing barefoot in the damp earth. She finds the tree, and settles into her familiar groove, contours of skin and bark entwined.
She’s always known this place. Eyes closed, visions of times past fill her as her mind drifts. Modern life will drag her back soon, but tonight she inhabits the forest, her thoughts dancing nimbly through the landscape of Albion past as sister tawny sits sentinel.
She’s always felt different, always been an outsider. Few know that she belongs to the earth, steward spirit of the land. There are so few of us left these days, she ponders sadly. The wind stirs, unsettling the rookery above her. Time ceases to exist.