Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Local patch 21

As it weaves through the storybox of the Levels, willow (Salix) is part of this ancient landscape. Preserved deep in the peat, willows have been discovered along the tracks and trails of prehistory. For as long as we have needed something to put stuff in - willow has been woven into baskets. It has its own language: spiling and stripple and withy. And you find it in unlooked for places: under the bearskins of the Guardsmen; transporting racing pigeons; batting at Lords; catching eel and lobster. Living willow sculptures grace our schoolyards and support our river banks. As velvety charcoal it is used by artists. Ground into tea or aspirin tablets it is effective against pain and fever. We can sit on it and shelter under it. And at the end of days, it can carry us to the grave and cradle us in the earth. We, too, are woven in willow.

The Somerset willow harvest starts in November, as soon as the first frosts have stripped the leaves from the stems. Fresh green willow can be used by artists and garden designers to make their living domes and tunnels and wigwams. Other willow is graded, dried and stored in bundles. The brown keeps its bark, the buff is boiled and stripped. Spring harvested willow is stripped and sold as white willow - the finest and most expensive. 

We gathered nervously at Musgrove Willows on a bright, raw November morning and listened to the safety briefing: the secateurs are very sharp; the withies are long and whippy. Be careful you don't poke someone in the eye or slip on the cuttings. Who knew willow weaving was so dangerous? We smiled encouragingly at each other. It feels brave to try a new skill: children do it all the time but somehow, during the hurry of adult life, we forget to try new things. Our tutor was confident and clear and generous with his help and advice. Gradually we found a rhythm. It is a lovely material to work with. Forgiving. Natural. We tied and twisted, went with the flow. The workshop was quiet, filled with sunlight and thoughts. We bent to collect bundles of 6' brown withies and our spirals grew from the floor. The weave got tighter and neater as our movements became more automatic. The butt goes here, the tip goes there, follow the line, this one under that one ... 
Our thoughts stretch and twine with the rhythm and the movement. We are woven in the willow.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Local patch 20

In this week of All Souls and All Saints, the Levels and Moors have worn their own shroud. Thick fog hugs the land and gathers along the waterways. It is shape shifting and sense changing. Sound perspectives alter. Is the hooting owl close by? How far away is that barking dog?

Bilbo and I ran along the deep lanes in the early morning. There is a lot of mud. The rooks circled above us, their rough voices loud in the thick air. The trees are newly nude, showing their bare bones again. Bill dodged around a patch of strong scent where the fox had recently paused. A broad flick of white above a glossy black tail revealed the bullfinch deep in the hawthorn. There was a kerfuffle in the spindly top of the hedge and a sparrowhawk appeared above us, twisted and plunged into the lane. Barred chocolate and cream, its strong, sharp wings shot it along the hedgerow, low - like a bullet. Blackbirds called alarm from their prickly lookouts and the squabbling sparrows stilled. It punched a hole through the air and the fog closed up around it, as if it had never existed. 

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Local patch 19

O open up your heartwood to us will you, willow, 
show your deep within, your rough without, 
your water-brushing bough, your shoot, your grain, your knot?
(Macfarlane & Morris, 2017)

Back home, with our feet firmly on the ground again, I drive across the misty Somerset Levels. Her pollard willows are a feature of this flat iron landscape. Traces of the ancient craft survive and willow beds are tended and harvested for fences and hampers and coffins. It is a renewable, sustainable raw material. The stubby trunks line the ditches and rhynes that march across the levels and moors. They sprout bright new growth: gelled up hair, standing in surprise. 

And between the willows, small gangs of 'ghostly swirling surging whirling melting' starlings (Macfarlane & Morris, 2017) are arrowing to their feeding or roosting grounds. They are gathering on the wires and in the trees, expectant. 
Let the murmurations begin!

(Macfarlane, R & Morris, J, 2017, The Lost Words, Penguin Random House UK)

Friday, 20 October 2017

Back there - again!

Autumn half term and we are back in God's own country. The Yorkshire Dales pull us and we make an annual pilgrimage. Briefly, we exchange the wonderful flatlands of the Somerset Levels for the harsh and high ground of the Howgill Fells and Western Dales. It is a time to visit old haunts and dear friends, to climb familiar fells and try some new ones. We remind ourselves that we still feel comfortable in the hills and explore the tension between here and there; where shall we settle?

Autumn has outpaced us up here; her colours are already bright and fiery. Ophelia crashed through at the beginning of the week, and started the stripping and piling of loose leaves. The next day was bright and ragged and we climbed Arant Haw (605m), behind Sedbergh, heading for The Calf (676m). But Ophelia still ruled the high places, howling up the dale and threatening to toss us from the ridge. We retreated over Winder (473m) and back to safety. Raven cronked and shouted in spirals, mocked and mobbed by crow and jackdaw. A stoat, in bright chestnut, shot across the path and Bilbo hunted and pounced on voles in the hissing grasses.

Under a red hurricane sun, we topped Great Knoutberry (672m), high above Dentdale. We ate a brief picnic in swirling, sepia cloud and squelched down through thigh-deep, sucky mud. Golly, there has been a lot of rain up there!

On a gin-clear day we were above Barbondale on Calf Top (609m) - England's newest mountain. On top of the world, we could see the Lakeland fells and Morecombe Bay. Pipits accompanied us across the rocky top; buzzard and kestrel tipped and swung on the breeze.

In a suntrap in the garden of our stone cottage, a red squirrel watched us with large, bright eyes. We could see his flame-coloured fur, cream belly and sharp, tufted ears. People love their red squirrels. They are proud of them here; tin signs on tree trunks throughout the valleys alert us to their presence. Drive carefully - look out - let's protect them.

At the end of the week there was an endless walk (23km) out of Dent and up onto the mighty Whernside (736m) which left us feeling accomplished and wanting more, but we could see nothing from the top.I have never seen the view from the top of Whernside; I will just have to keep going back.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Local patch 18

The large walnut tree in the garden is gnarled and looks ancient. It is too close to the house and its spreading shade causes problems in the veg patch and salad beds. But we love it. It makes its presence known all year. Its kinked twigs are brittle and lichen covered. The rooks crash around in the spring, breaking off chunks and dragging them back to their tangled nests in the churchyard. At leaf burst and when the pollen flies, the tree is alive with finches and tits, clambering and picking their way around the canopy, feasting. In the summer the woodpecker families hammer into its branches and trunk, or use it as a staging post before they approach the peanut feeders. In early summer the first crop of small, green walnuts fall. These are the walnuts that you pickle. They are collected whole, complete with their leathery green jackets, before the shell has formed inside. They are pricked and brined for a fortnight and then spread in the sun to dry. Once they turn black, they can be packed into jars and topped up with vinegar. They are great in a venison casserole!

And right now it is doing what it does best - dropping mature walnuts onto the lawn. We stamp on them to remove the outer jackets and shake the nuts onto a tray by the fire to dry and keep until Christmas. We bag some up and share with neighbours - a fair swap for their bramleys and figs. Our walnuts are small and I don't know why. Perhaps the tree is old or needs pruning. But there are plenty of them and they taste great in a blue cheese salad or smashed together with handfuls of basil and grated Parmesan to make pesto.

The rooks come back at this time of year, curving in to the top of the tree. They fly away with a whole nut in their great beaks; they always take the same route out - diagonally down the garden and straight out across the moor behind the house. I wonder whether they are burying a stash ready for the winter. Perhaps one day a grove of young walnut trees will rise up through the mist out on the moor - tended and watched over by their rooky gardeners.

Squirrels feast in its branches too. They dart along the willow fence and make a dash for the trunk before the dog notices them. And they dig their treasure into the lawn, carefully memorising the pattern and position of their precious hoard.

How good then, that in this generous harvest there is enough for everybody!

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Local patch 17

Westhay Moor NNR, on the northern edge of the Avalon Marshes, is one of those gentle places. We go to stretch our eyes and rest our minds.Pencil straight tracks cut through wet woodland and raised bogs. The precious and rare lowland acid mire is home to our carnivorous sundews as well as bog myrtle, marsh pennywort, sphagnum moss, reeds and sedges. Sometimes there are groups of students there, surveying the scarce habitat. Armed with quadrants, they count the species: reeds are round and sedges have edges.

The old peat workings have been replanted and remade into acres of reedbed and quiet, mirrored pools. There is the sound of waterfowl fussing from deep among the stems, dipping and dabbling and dousing. The wind is a long in-drawn hiss of breath in the reeds - always. Their plumy heads are bruise purple now, fading to cream as the year draws to a close.

The air is gentle with the promise of rain on the breeze and pillows of cloud soften the sky. Autumn is lurking in the woodland, beginning to gild the leaves and fattening the fruit. I can smell it approaching. Large metallic dragonflies with sugar spun wings glitter and and hunt over the water and there are still some late swallows in the sky. We watch a couple of sparrowhawks spiral upwards above the tree line. A kingfisher sits up on a stump and we are captured, breathless and immobile until it buzzes away.

This week we are hunting for the bearded tit or reedling. We have looked for them often but they are elusive. They are always present at Westhay, but in the spring and summer they stay hidden, hunting for insects and spiders to feed their young in nests built low in the reeds.They are easiest to see in the autumn when they band together in big groups and swing from the reed heads picking at the seeds. They need to eat grit at this time of year to help grind up their seedy diet and so we scan the paths and tracks in hope. Reserves put grit trays near the paths to encourage them.

A flurry in the reeds ahead makes us crunch to a halt, swiveling our binoculars. We can hear the radar-ping of the beardies as they flutter through. A flash of bright chestnut is all I get; there is no time to focus on the pale grey head, striking black moustache and yellow beak. But what a splendid bird!

Monday, 18 September 2017

Local patch 16

I quietened bouncing Bilbo and pulled him to me as the horse approached. From her lofty position, the rider hailed me, "I'm scrumping!", she hooted. "I have been riding these lanes for 20 years and I have tried the apples from all the gardens. The apples here are the best - by a country mile." From her vantage point she was ideally placed to check out the harvest in each garden. She picked one from the top of the tree and took a bite. "Actually", she continued, "I insist that you try this". She threw it down to me and I obediently munched and we agreed that it was good. In the county of apples and cider, it was very, very good.

Apples and orchards are a vital part of the landscape and culture of the Somerset Levels. Cider making is big business and corporate, but also traditional and small scale. You can take your plastic bottle to the cider farm and have it refilled with scrumpy for a few pounds. The cider is rough and cloudy, it tastes of pith and pip; it tastes of the land.

The wild winter hedgerows shine with red and gold apples. I used to think that they were old, wild varieties but an orchard-man told me that they were there because apple cores had been thrown from cars. Nevertheless, they hang in the autumn fog like Christmas baubles between the tinsel of Old man's beard (Clematis vitalba) and our native honeysuckle or woodbine (Lonicera periclymenum). The hedgerows are stuffed full this month. Closely related to apples, hips and haws have been part of our landscape and medicine boxes for hundreds of years. Now, they provide a winter feast for blackbirds and flocks of visiting thrushes. 

Once, I made rosehip syrup for my new baby. It is packed full of vitamin C and I was enchanted by the idea of natural food, no preservatives and zero food miles. But I read about the irritant fibres in the rosehips and, despite my careful muslin straining, I was too timid to give it too him! On safer ground, I reach for sloes and brambles and wild plums. We stack our kitchens with chutneys, syrups, jams and jellies which glow from the larder shelves in jewel colours.

Ancient hedges are rich and diverse. They provide food and shelter for wildlife: green corridors, rotting logs, pollen, berries. The Barbie-pink spindle (Euonymus europaeus) berries are bright this month. Deadly, beautiful and fascinating the small trees grow very hard wood - once used for making wool spindles. The more familiar sloes (Prunus spinosa) are fattening nicely. The foliage is a valuable food source for many moths and the savage thorns make the wood useful for spiny, inpenetrable fences. Now, we wait for the first frosts to bloom the skins and sweeten the flesh, before we pierce them and marinate them in gin.

A recent ramble also brought me to this beauty: chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphurous) or sulphur shelf fungus. This gorgeous bracket fungus was nearly a metre in height and shone amber and gold in the late summer sunshine. This one looked young and fresh; the fanlike layers were plump and flexible. Some say that it tastes like chicken but I left it intact. Maybe next time?