Almanac: Hidden Kingdoms – In search of the invisible

In summer, the little woodland becomes a dark and shaded place. Leaves grow with such veracity that the canopy above lets in less light than any other time of the year.

I share today’s walk with my 12 year old son. It is so quiet here. Sudden rustles of foliage or scraping on bark reminds us that we are sharing this space with many unseen creatures. At any such sound, we immediately pause. A shared inquisitive glance asks the silent question “what was that?”

Ripples of bright light dance across the forest paths as the clouds float by, unseen, overhead. My eyes never quite adjust to this constant change. My vision is a little blurred, settling somewhere ethereal. I feel the slight twinge of my pupils widening and then hurriedly dilating over and over. Hands shielding our eyes, we veer off the footpath in search of softer, diffused shade.

We follow the trails of badgers until we find ourselves barred by brambles and start retracing our steps. Here, away from the footpath, are signs of the woodland’s hidden life. A mouse hole. An abandoned bird’s nest caught between low branches. A tuft of coarse grey fur caught on a blackberry thorn. It is easy to step away from the path, but having taken a winding route, it is more difficult to find our way back. In a small woodland, this disorientation is wonderful. How glorious to feel momentarily lost when we live in a land of tarmac roads and mobile satnav. We are soon back in well-trodden sign-posted normality.

There is no breezy, springtime forest now; the air is stiflingly humid, like a Kew Glasshouse. When the path dips low, we often hurry on, feeling a little dizzy from the lack of air. At other times we stand under a rare gap in the canopy and gulp in lungfuls’s of air greedily. There is a particular greenwood smell that fills us with life like pure oxygen.

Overhead, branches twist and turn, seeking the daylight. My son and I like to spot the silhouettes of letters hidden in the leaves. Aptly, the canopy that casts shade over our favourite sketching bench forms a little “S” to mark the spot.

From above, to below. Crouching down, a whole other world opens before us. At the level my one year old daughter sees, rain drops perch like tiny globes. Is this why children see magic everywhere?

Throughout the woodland, there are imaginary worlds to discover, if you allow your eyes to roam and imagination to wander. Whenever my little daughter joins me on my daily walk, she sees mouse towers and castles everywhere. She calls down into gnarled holes in the bark to inhabitants within and joyfully points out steps and entranceways.

My daughter will also knock politely on tree trunks, because she is convinced squirrels live inside and will come out to play if cordially invited. On one walk I spot a tiny mushroom that looks so alike a miniature door handle that for a moment I think she might be right.

Finally, there are the microscopic habitats that our eyes are just not adapted to spotting. The craggy volcanoes and tropical jungles that form entire worlds … all on the top of an old tree stump.

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Almanac: Patterns of nature, ripening blackberries and a sketchbook

The last time I wrote about these fields was in late April. The seedlings had just started to show themselves in thin rows under a grey-blue sky. The house martins had just made their return to nest in the eaves of our house, and were circling above us in an otherwise quiet and sleepy landscape.

What a difference a few months can make.

July has finally broken into sunshine.

My 12 year old son is with me today. He loves to draw, so has brought his sketchbook along. At first we talk together about our day, until the undulating path before us proves irresistible and he charges off, skimming his fingers through the swaying wheat as he goes.

A pair of cabbage white butterflies flutter skywards in a helix-like courtship dance, before disappearing again. This year we have seen more varieties than ever before and today we spot not just cabbage whites but common blues, peacocks, tortoiseshells and orange tips.

On the sunny south side of the farm, the corn grows tallest. The waxy leaves clatter against each other; like the sound of a polite applause.

We crouch down, looking along the lanes between the crop drills, so neatly ordered that you can see right to the other side of the vast field. For a moment our perspective tilts and it seems as if we have shrunken to miniature size, surrounded by towering blades of grass.

In the hedgerow beside the path, the blossom is bathed in full sunlight and has unfurled early this year. The blackberries are already ripening and will be ready to pick in just a few week’s time.

In the meadows, there is a constant low clicking of grasshoppers. It reminds us, joyfully and somewhat unnervingly too, that everywhere is teeming with unseen insect life.

Then, a dash of metallic blue across our path … a dragonfly! Utterly distracted from our uphill climb, we try to spot more. Our eyes steadily grow accustomed to the flickers of glinting colour. Soon it is like we are standing knee deep in an aquarium of darting tetra fish. A giant one; we follow after. It zigzags at speed and then disappears in a flash of silver.

The blackberries in the upper field are a few week’s behind those we saw earlier. It is shadier here and the stems have to put all of their energy into seeking better light before they can even think of producing flower buds. The effect is a glorious unfurling of pink petals, cascading over the top of the hedgerows. A heavy floral scent hangs in the air.

The more challenging stage of our hike now complete, we settle down for a rest. My son sketches stems of wheat, the distant horizon and outlines of trees. I am nearby, photographing clusters of bees.

We are so immersed that when someone passes by and calls “hello” we both jump slightly. It is a local artist, out searching for butterflies to paint. We point him in the direction of the lower meadows where we found countless common blues and tortoiseshells.

On the way home, my son pauses every few steps to sketch. I fall a few steps behind so that he feels no need to hurry.

As we pick up pace together, the fast chatter, from when we first started out, has disappeared. Instead, we find ourselves remarking on the nature around us. A flock of rooks flies over and we stop to watch their progress until they are tiny specks on the horizon.

Walking onwards, we remain like this, living in the moment, until the rooftops of houses appear over the tree line and thoughts turn back to the day ahead.

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