It is the first time I have walked in these woods – my ‘local patch’ – since February, having arrived home from New Zealand the day before. Having expected a carpet of bluebells and simmering sunlight reflecting off lime-green leaves, fresh from the bud, to an ecstasy of birdsong, the revelation of it appearing much the same as I left is curious and somewhat disheartening. When I look ahead, there is no mosaic of different greens, yellows and purples, but the same grey-brown wall of bare trees of a wood still in it’s winter slumber. A winter that has continued throughout my absence, no doubt due to the profound effects our fossil fuel-vomiting way of life has had on our climatic processes. Normally, the gulf stream pushes up West across the Atlantic, bringing with it the warmth that sparks the bursting of this season of renewal by mid-March – but melting ice and its desalinating effects are slowing it’s progress. Such things only serve to remind us of how we are still dependent on nature for our wellbeing and what we term as ‘everyday’ in our lives, and just how fragile it is to our ignorance.
This state of being in the woodland’s year is beautiful in it’s own way. Edward Thomas described a February woodland-walk brilliantly in his long-rambling book The South Country; “The Earth lies blinking, turning over languidly and talking like a half-weakened child that now and then lies still and sleeps though with eyes wide open… It is not spring yet. Spring is being dreamed, and the dream is more wonderful and blessed than ever was spring. What the hour of waking will bring forth is not known.”
Unfortunately, that dream is still on-going when the woods should be wide awake. As I drift under the bare canopy, I can sense nature’s protests around me. The woodland floor among the more ancient strands of oak and hazel is pea-green with the shoots of the bluebells I had been looking forward to seeing upon my return, but instead they remain in a half-grown state, frozen like agonised racers crouched at the start and awaiting the gunshot-signal of just a few more degrees warmth.
The chorus of birdsong is far greater than when I left it two months ago, when the woods remained silent bar the mumbled twitterings of mixed-species feeding parties, as tits, wrens and goldcrests weeved as one cautious wave through the treetops, picking out the few morsels of food whilst relying on each other for predator protection in the exposed environment. But by now they expect the food to be bounteous, and their song is like a plea of discontent at such shortcomings. Whilst this wintered spring may be little more than inconvenience to our eyes, it is life and death to them. The thought of how many chicks will be successfully raised when the cold and subsequent lack of food is lingering into the nesting season is not something I am keen on dwelling upon.
A spot of white bouncing above the woodland floor some distance to my left betrays the presence of a roe doe. She stops and turns her head towards me, fixing me in her gaze to ascertain whether I pose a threat. Then, just a few metres to my right, a woodcock that had been resting in the leaf litter has already decided not to hang around, and shoots from the ground in a blurred clap of wings. Its exquisite camouflage and long, straight beak for probing mud for worms making it look as if a couple of dead leaves attached to a twig has magically flown off the ground and gone shooting through the trees. The sight of such an enigmatic & shy bird in the day fills me with child-like excitement, but still brings me back to the out-of-sync seasonality; bar a declining few that stay to breed, most woodcock in the UK fly here from Scandanavia to over-winter. It’s not surprising then that this individual would want to remain here a little longer.