This is the wonderful output from hour-long nature-writing workshops in which we talked about writing nature diary entries with a little something extra. Enjoy!
[This lovely picture of grasses, rushes and cottongrass was taken by Amanda Scott]
Three words at the edge of a wood – Amanda Scott
Today is high summer; hot, humid, dust-scented. I am heading for the place I like to sit – by a stream chuntering along the edge of ancient Anses Wood in the New Forest – but I can’t find it. The wood is tricksy – brambled, ingrown and shifting, with shallow roots that trip and misguide among beeches, oaks and darkest-green holly thickets. I come to a beech I know – surely at least two hundred years old – and gasp aloud; it has fallen, upper branches spilled in a tousled heap, withering, but still bearing leaves. I rest my hand on its sun-warmed bark and think of a word. Transience.
The second word is persist because, eventually, I do find my place. Two standing dead trees – ash and oak – beckon from where stream meets wood’s edge. I nestle against the oak. A grey squirrel clatters above before hunkering down as if the effort is not worthwhile, while birds gossip in the hot, sticky air. The stream is utterly dry, musty forest bric-a-brac exposed on its bed. Across the stream, though, there must be wetness because I see bog plants: lesser spearwort and cottongrass wisps, lethargic in the heat. Where I sit, my fingers find patches of green-smelling moisture, sustaining tiny flowers: yellow lesser trefoil, scarlet pimpernel and self-heal. And so, the third word is renew.
I rouse myself to leave. I worry that, as I walk away, this perfect place will merge into the wood’s shadows and make itself, once more, difficult to find. So, I check my position on the What3Words app: it’s spilled.grow.roost. Later, at home, I discover the app is out by a couple of hundred metres. The wood, after all, is tricksy.
Mining for Rubies – Nicola Hunt
The birds are quiet, stonechats watch from their birch sentinel posts. A few butterflies brave the heat – a grayling rushes across our eyeline, then blends in to the path angled in line with the sun like the gnomon on a sundial. A myriad of dragons and damsels lift away from the blue-sky-reflecting pools, colours catching in the sun and water.
Hot, stealthy heathland, sandy tracks hold a hidden world. Bees and wasps excavate both a tomb and home. A bee-wolf shadow looms over a sandy ridge on the path; the wasp’s honeybee prey carefully yet firmly clutched against its undercarriage; its precious cargo soon to be food for its developing young. Spindle-waisted, hourglass-shaped sand wasps rummage through their tunnels, spitting out sand and seeds from their burrows. Ahead a jewel-like iridescence flashes to and fro over the drought shrivelled grass – a ruby-tailed wasp hunting for an unguarded tunnel to gatecrash.
Heather crackles in the shimmering heat, the only green is surprisingly lush birch saplings in which we see intermittent movements of feeding birds. One sits up by the side of a thin trunk and the red tail base becomes visible, a redstart, keeping out of the relentless sun. As we approach the pool we see a kingfisher, a blur of copper orange and peacock blue streaking across the water, a final unexpected jewel given up by this heath.
Whiskers – Gloria Maloney
The Kite has a better bird’s eye view through his window finder of expansive fields of green. I admire his underbelly, a splash of red against the multifarious greens. I watch him slice effortlessly through a cloud, followed by his distinctive, forked tail. The carrion sweeper of the countryside.
My eyes are drawn to a field full of vibrant, magnificent handsome whiskers rocking to and fro, jostling and bumping together, whispering tales in the early morning breeze.
In the green field challenge competition, the Wheat field is looking rather glum. A lack lustre green. You can’t compete with a rollicking frolicking Barley field!
Suddenly a bullet train on wings shoots down from the sky and disappears into the Barley. Violence in the field, the whiskers have witnessed it all, the killing of a mouse or a vole. Mixed emotions run through my mind. The thrill of watching the Kestrel’s speed and precision as she locked on to her target, sad for the victim.
In a few months’ time, the men will bring their combine harvesters to the field. To give the Barley a number one close shave and crop. If only the whiskers could speak, the tales they could tell of mice and men.
Of Mills and Magpies – Angi Holden
At the perimeter fence, a notice requests passers-through to close the gate to deter rabbits. Peter’s friends aren’t welcome among the blousy peonies and purple iris. Beyond the formal terraces the path drops. The air cools. There is a hint of moisture in the dappled shade.
The rural soundscape is patterned with the occasional roar of commercial jets from an airport runway, a kilometre away. It’s tempting to picture Quarry Bank before air travel as some kind of rustic idyll, the quiet of a woodland stroll interrupted only by the chattering of magpies and the burble of the Bollin over bedrock. But this is cotton mill country. A century ago this valley thrummed with the lift and drop of heddles, the rattle of bobbins, the clatter of horses’ hooves on cobbles.
Away from the mill, now preserved for its industrial history, footfall reduces. Few visitors venture along the Bollin Valley Trail. Here the wooded banks crumble into small beaches, the deposits of a meandering river. Deciduous trees lean over the water; I recognise oak, beech, hornbeam, sweet chestnut. A few have lost their purchase on the thin topsoil. Tumbled down the banks, they disintegrate, forming new habitats for fungi and beetles.
At the water’s edge dippers hunt for insect larvae, their distinctive bobbing reflected on the surface. Tiny fry lined up in the shallows skitter in all directions
Above them, magpies clatter through the branches, stashing surplus food in crevices. One for sorrow, two for joy. The frenetic breeding season is over, their single brood hatched and fledged. Juveniles will stay near their parents until September, learning to scavenge from picnic tables.
Summer is a time of plenty, excess even. These woodland store cupboards may prove valuable in the winter months.
Feed me! Oh, ok, I’ll do it myself – Rachel Goddard
I’m sat in the garden drinking a second cup of tea. The early morning bustle of human activity is over and all is calm.
But soon there are flutters in the bushes and the silence is broken. The serious business of feeding resumes.
In spring the bird feeders had queues of tired parents flitting back and forth; now it’s gangs of unruly teenage fledglings, arguing jackdaws, and gossiping starlings. First, they’re bickering by the main feeder, swinging from the fat ball holder that isn’t really big enough for them. Then the starlings sensibly then switch to the ground feeder.
I notice another bird watching from the sidelines, “Is it a thrush? Why is it shouting at the starlings?” As the starlings fly off to argue elsewhere, Mr Blackbird arrives and I realise my thrush wannabe is the blackbird fledgling, attempting to get anyone to feed it. The teenager hops down to the ground, finally picking the right species to shout at. Mr Blackbird – Dad – passes over some grubs and darts back into the undergrowth to fulfill his offspring’s requests.
The teenager continues to demand, but now to an empty stage but his parents don’t immediately reappear. “Oh ok then, I’ll do it myself” With a quick final check, it hops into the feeder, just as the starlings had.
But then, unseen around the tree, Dad reappears with food in his mouth. The teenager is caught in the act, perfectly capable of feeding itself. Dad flies off contemplating how much longer they will give in to their offspring’s demands for food.
What the birds told me – Lisa Stockley
I’ve brought breakfast into the garden. Bare feet on prickly dry grass, stepping over the baby thorns on the ends of the brambles, swifts screaming overhead. The day starts blessedly quiet, muted by low grey cloud. Just before I stepped out, one of the local foxes flowed over the low wall on one side of the garden, crossing the grass to the gap in the fence on the other side. Marker points on the path to her den a few gardens west.
As I expand into the space around me, tiny movements reveal a garden full of birds. Small and mostly brown, flickering in and out of leaves and overgrown grass. The juvenile robin is in the apricot tree, the dunnock among the almost ripe apples. Another bird alights on the washing line, hopping along between the pegs. I’ve been seeing this bird since early spring and I’m still not satisfied I know what species it is. A garden warbler, or maybe a chiffchaff. It stays resolutely silent and not remotely still, unconcerned with my scrabbling for knowledge.
As the warbler flits across to the dilapidated fence, I let it take my attempts at identification with it. Like the fox on her journey home, this bird is at home in a wider habitat than me. With at least one large tree in all of the nearby gardens, to the non-human creatures who live here this is an open kind of woodland. Only us humans are fool enough to box the world in with fences and names of species.
The Water Ritual of Fantasia Birds – Suzanne Harrison
Searching for water the ground birds come down to the house from the field edge. My joy is the pair of Mediterranean red legged partridges, a species introduced as game birds in the eighteenth century. They are strikingly beautiful, with thick red eyeliner around a jet black eye, reminiscent of a Japanese geisha. Red beak, mottled black and white breast, the same pattern repeated but elongated on the wings with alternating black and white horizontal lines on the under wing. Their belly is fluffy grey supported by two red legs. A concoction from Fantasia with theatrical antics to match.
Their best trick is shimmying around the top of the shallow plastic water bowl with their crinkled four claw feet. When they have satisfied their thirst they jump feet first into the water container. For a grand finale they see-saw backwards and forward near the edge of the depleted water holder until it flips off the terrace and bounces across the patio. Satisfied they are the top birds with exclusive water rights they run for the barbed wire to escape into the field until the next water raid.
A Flash of Copper – Mary Greenley
Late spring has arrived in my urban Ottawa garden. I love this time of year; those first tender forays into the garden space that had until very recently been covered by piles of melting snow. There are signs of life in the flowerbeds, a few snowdrops and a hint of some daffodils to come. Without the full leaf canopy there are more city sounds than usual; a faint buzz of a freeway nearby wafts into the garden when the wind shifts.
The hearty resin muskoka chairs have reappeared from under the snow banks and if you position them just so and wait for the sun you can be rewarded with a brief glimpse of warm sunny afternoons to come.
I had been pondering when the appropriate time to remove the bird feeders for summer might be. The pull of the returning goldfinches who are slowly assuming their summer mantles of gold proves too alluring and I decide to wait a little while longer. I have almost convinced a black-capped chickadee to feed from my palm. Hope springs eternal so I wait.
I decide to have tea in the garden. The chickadees are active and buzz my head as they fly back and forth to the feeder. A slight flutter of wings is often all you hear.
A banshee-like scream shatters the silence. There is a flash of copper and blue and then silence again. It is silence but all the garden dwellers seem to know what has happened and that they were blessed to live another day.
I sit stunned in my garden chair wondering who would be brazen enough to enact this daring daytime assault. A short time later a single tiny feather floats to the ground. Then there is another and another. It is hard to see in the honey locust tree that shelters my garden but I get a glimpse of the male copper and blue-feathered kestrel that has settled in for a snack. His mate is perched not far away on the same tree looking very confident in her choice of mate.
The bird feeder goes away for the summer.
A small tree – Helen Weber
I love the frothy pink of Salix Integra Flamingo. Fine and delicate. If there were fairies – and I think there might be, somewhere – I’d wager that when they die, their wings fall off, blow away in the wind and end up on a Salix. Each delicately slender leaf representing a departed soul of a much-loved, if sometimes naughty pixie, no longer the evil beings they were once thought to be. I say leaves, because that’s what they are but when I first acquired mine (a pair as a housewarming gift from my sister) I thought they were flower petals! Before seeking counsel from higher authority (Google) I’d spend hours trying to work it out and this habit of scrutiny lingered.
Accordingly, while in my garden busy scrutinising recently, I outstretched my hand to grab a particularly offensive looking weed, overstretched and ended up face down underneath what must be my favourite small tree. Rolling over onto my back, I was transfixed with childlike awe, mesmerised by the pale pink and green frothy confection rustling away in the breeze overhead. It made me think of pudding. Eton Mess. I swear I could almost distinguish smashed up meringue amid a pink stained foam of cream, with mint accents.
Sitting up, I could see folk passing by in the road – only from the knee down mind – as they ambled along under a phthalo blue sky, heat bouncing off the pavement. What would they think of me sitting here in the shade beneath this small tree. Some skulker, or just plain weird? I couldn’t have cared less. For me, it was peaceful bliss. But the greatest fillip was the knowledge that nobody knew I was there. I had become invisible, like the child.