Since it last had a rather premature haircut early in the summer, our back-garden lawn has not grown much. The grass has been in a straw-coloured sulk, looking defeated by mower-blade, a month or so of near drought and then a week of unseasonably cool rain. Where the grass has remained tame, other plants have come in and capitalised. Small hogweed and ragwort plants provide a welcome wild nectar source and food plants for a variety of insects. A lovely wild mallow with rich pink flowers has spread across from one of the unkempt flower borders.
But there’s another invader, a mysterious leggy plant which has sprung up all over the lawn seemingly overnight. Strong, flexible, woody stems bearing five-lobed leaves of dark green with a silvery white woolly coating on the underside. My limited botanical knowledge was defeated: what were they?
I plucked a leaf and took it indoors, where after a bit of head-scratching and optimistic web searching I hit upon white poplar. It’s a non-native tree notorious for sprinkling saplings far and wide, and the ones in our lawn have clearly spawned from the large poplar that looms over the far end of the garden, the one where kites enjoy resting and bring scraps of food to eat at their leisure. They grow at a furious pace, and I now recall that the near 3 metre high examples just the other side of our garden fence were mere saplings themselves last summer.
If I had sole control of a garden I’d give less of it over to grass monoculture, but even so the burgeoning poplar population would probably give me cause for alarm. This is a stubborn invader, one that is particularly difficult to dislodge by reputation. Never mind. We’re just tenants here, and for now I watch the trees progress with a detached fascination, and wonder if any equally interesting insects might be riding into our garden on the back of the white poplar wave.
I’ve been looking at beech woods with a changed eye since reading Richard Mabey on the subject. He grew up in the Chilterns beech woods and I’m learning with him to recognise the grandeur of each tree as an individual organism. Beech casts a particularly dense, cool shade, which this heat shy and sunburn prone ecologist appreciates. And in the dark realm of the beech wood there is more life than I used to suspect*, albeit especially where fallen trees let in light and allow understory shrubs and ash saplings to flourish. Knowl and Ashley hills, northeast of where I live in Twyford, Berkshire, are southern outliers to the main Chiltern ridges. They’re stuck out on their own, south of the Thames, but the flora and feel is similar. That’s especially true of the beech dominated woods on the northeast side of Knowl Hill, an area denoted on the map as Clayton Park.
Early one day this week I left the commuter belt behind with a few short steps, and ventured into the shade of beech. A few paces into the wood I saw ahead what looked like a very big animal indeed. A dark, muscular creature with erect pointy ears and a blunt snout. As I cautiously moved closer it shifted shape. First a big deer, then something more cat-like. Now an enormous wolf, now a black bear, and now a fallen log. As much a ‘living’ thing as any mammal, a piece of dead wood may be stationary but its one true form conceals myriad others, brought to life by shifts in light, perspective and mood. That such a sizeable one has been left in-situ to decay, feeding new life back into the wood, suggests that Clayton Park is appropriately and admirably neglected.
I’d intended to go out around sunset, but time ran away from me and I ended up on an enforced night-walk: no bad thing. The usual advice for walking in the dark is to carry no torch – or at least not to use it unless absolutely necessary – and let your eyes adjust to the low light levels. Usually I agree that this is the best way to experience the night, and I should have had no need of a torch, given that plenty of light remained gathered on the western horizon. Not to mention the unnatural orange wash from streetlamps on the main road, a short distance away.
On this occasion I was hunting for invertebrates, and went equipped accordingly. Path, fence, wall and tree trunk in turn fell under the narrow but powerful beam of an LED head-torch. A dark spider scurried away into a crack, walking as only a spider can. A slate grey woodlouse – chunky, segmented, steeply domed – froze in the sudden glare, halfway up the wall of a garage. I turned, and something fluttered close to my face. Then another, bouncing off my head-torch with an audible thud and away over the small patch of pointlessly ornamental grass next to our flat. Sweeping back and forth I picked out two or three more, or the same ones again: ghostly, yellowish blurs of wings, invisible until lit by the beam.
Suddenly a brimstone moth was perching on the sleeve of my jacket. I didn’t see it land, it just materialised. A beautiful highlighter-yellow delta-wing, with a row of chestnut brown blotches on the leading edge each side, the middle one adjoined to a half-closed silver eye. Just as soon as I had taken in those details it was off again, once more a formless blur of flight. These fragments of colour are common in the seemingly colourless dim of spring and early summer nights, ushering in mild nights as surely as the brimstone butterfly promises warm days.