If a traditional English oak woodland in Spring is nature inviting you to a party, hosted in a well lavished and bright house adorned with flowery buntings of bluebells and stitchworts, with a calming background of melodious birdsong as she casually asks you how you’ve fared over winter, Summer is very much the lingering trailing end when most are too drunk to function. It’s already peaked, and a mess of bracken has sprung up in place of the flowers, greedy to snatch up what little sunlight is left now the leaves are fully immersed out and darkening the canopy. Until the break of Autumn (which I suppose in this metaphor is the DJ playing ‘Closing Time’ by Semisonic as the lights come on and people clear out in search of kebabs), this will remain the status quo in my local woodland back ‘home-home’ in Hampshire.
I’ve not been here since the Easter break, when the party first got going, and since no one else seems to walk in these woods anymore – even the local kids in the street don’t bother playing here, a stark contrast to my upbringing here only ten years ago – the paths have been swamped by bracken. In the open gap between the newer, sweet chestnut coppice and alder/birch woodland dominated half of the wood, and the much more ancient hazel and oak side to the South, there is barely a patch of the ground spared by the plant. I don’t have anything against it per se, but since we wiped out Britain’s only animal capable of consuming it in enough quantity to make an impact (the wild boar), it invades our shrub layer with no survivors.
Picking up a sturdy old hazel branch from the ground, I turn it into an improvised machete and begin hacking away a fresh trail between the two portions of woodland. The smell that emanates from the cut bracken is one that instantly transports your mind back to halcyon Summer days of childhood in this very place. We could be doing the same practice as I was today, beating new paths to explore new depths of the wood, which seemed gargantuan in scale in those days (in reality it’s a rather petite 17 acres); or pulling out the leaves in great bunches, our hands green and sticky from ‘bracken juice’ and that brilliant scent, like cut grass but mingled with the Earthy, forest-floor aromas of the wood itself to remind you of its wildness, would stick around well until we’d gone back home for dinner to remind us where we really belonged.
Within 15 minutes or so, this year’s path through the middle has been sculpted. The bumblebees and speckled woods already flitter in to bask themselves on the newly created sun bed, while I dust myself down for ticks (as hindsight has told me, I wasn’t successful in clearing all of them off). These ‘rides’, even if this one is small in scale, are frequently utilised by the former, while larger animals such as deer and badgers will be likely to utilise this newly created open space to save the effort of pushing through vegetation, in turn playing victim to the aforementioned ticks. Yet I suspect I’ll be the only human they’ll snack on reguarly this Summer, or at all – I doubt whether anyone else will be utilising the new path. Nice in a way; but I think I’d be happier knowing the new generation growing up in this wonderful setting for my childhood were out getting bracken juice all over their hands as well.