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Nature Near London
THE tiny white petals of the barren strawberry open under the April sunshine which, as yet unchecked by crowded foliage above, can reach the moist banks under the trees. It is then that the first stroll of the year should be taken in Claygate Lane. The slender
runners of the strawberries trail over the mounds among the moss, some of the flowers but just above the black and brown leaves of last year which fill the shallow ditch. These will presently be hidden under the grass which is pushing up long blades, and bending over like a plume.
Crimson stalks and leaves of herb Robert stretch across the little cavities of the mound; lower, and rising almost from the water of the ditch, the wild parsnip spreads its broad fan. Slanting among the underwood, against which it leans, the dry white "gix" (cow-parsnip) of last year has rotted from its root, and is only upheld by branches.
Yellowish green cup-like leaves are forming upon the brown and drooping heads of the spurge, which, sheltered by the bushes, has endured the winter's frosts. The lads pull them off, and break the stems, to watch the white. "milk" well up, the whole plant being full of acrid juice. Whorls of woodruff and grass-like leaves of stitchwort are rising; the latter holds but feebly to the earth, and even in snatching the flower the roots sometimes give way and the plant is lifted with it.
Upon either hand the mounds are so broad that they in places resemble covers rather than hedges, thickly grown with bramble and briar, hazel and hawthorn, above which the straight trunks of young oaks and Spanish chestnuts stand in crowded but careless ranks. The leaves which dropped in the preceding autumn from these trees still lie on the ground under the bushes, dry and brittle, and the blackbirds searching about among them cause as much rustling as if some animal were routing about.
As the month progresses these wide mounds become completely green, hawthorn and bramble, briar and hazel put forth their leaves, and the eye can no longer see into the recesses. But above, the oaks and edible chestnuts are still dark and leafless, almost black by contrast with the vivid green beneath them. Upon their bare boughs the birds are easily seen, but the moment they descend among the bushes are difficult to find. Chaffinches call and challenge continually — these trees are their favourite resort — and yellowhammers flit along the underwood.
Behind the broad hedge are the ploughed fields they love, alternating with meadows down whose hedges again a stream of birds is always flowing to the lane. Bright as are the colours of the yellowhammer, when he alights among the brown clods of the ploughed field he is barely visible, for brown conceals like vapour. A white butterfly comes fluttering along the lane, and as it passes under a tree a chaffinch swoops down and snaps at it, but rises again without doing apparent injury, for the butterfly continues its flight.
From an oak overhead comes the sweet slender voice of a linnet, the sunshine falling on his rosy breast. The gateways show the thickness of the hedge, as an embrasure shows the thickness of a wall. One gives entrance to an arable field which has been recently rolled, and along the gentle rise of a "land" a cock-pheasant walks, so near that the ring about his neck is visible. Presently, becoming conscious that he is observed, he goes down into a furrow, and is then hidden.
The next gateway, equally deep-set between the bushes, opens on a pasture, where the docks of last year still cumber the ground, and bunches of rough grass and rushes are scattered here and there. A partridge separated from his mate is calling across the field, and comes running over the short sward as his companion answers. With his neck held high and upright, stretched to see around, he looks larger than would be supposed, as he runs swiftly, threading his way through the tufts, the docks, and the rushes. But suddenly noticing that the gateway is not clear, he crouches, and is concealed by the grass.
Some distance farther there is a stile, sitting upon which the view ranges over two adjacent meadows. They are bounded by a copse of ash stoles and young oak trees, and the lesser of the meads is full of rush bunches and dotted with green ant-hills. Among these, just beyond gunshot, two rabbits are feeding; pausing and nibbling till they have eaten the tenderest blades, and then leisurely hopping a yard or so to another spot. Later on in the summer this little meadow which divides the lane from the copse is alive with rabbits.
Along the hedge the brake fern has then grown, in the corner by the copse there is a beautiful mass of it, and several detached bunches away from the hedge among the ant-hills. From out of the fern, which is a favourite retreat with them, rabbits are continually coming, feeding awhile, darting after each other, and back again to cover. To-day there are but three, and they do not venture far from their buries.
Watching these, a green woodpecker cries in the copse, and immediately afterwards flies across the mead, and away to another plantation. Occasionally the spotted woodpecker may be seen here, a little bird which, in the height of summer, is lost among the foliage, but in spring and winter can be observed tapping at the branches of the trees.
I think I have seen more spotted woodpeckers near London than in far distant and nominally wilder districts. This lane, for some two miles, is lined on each side with trees, and, besides this particular copse, there are several others close by; indeed, stretching across the country to another road, there is a succession of copses, with meadows between. Birds which love trees are naturally seen flitting to and fro in the lane; the trees are at present young, but as they grow older and decay they will be still more resorted to.
Jays screech in the trees of the lane almost all the year round, though more frequently in spring and autumn, but I rarely walked here without seeing or hearing one. Beyond the stile, the lane descends into a hollow, and is bordered by a small furze common, where, under shelter of the hollow brambles and beneath the golden bloom of the furze, the pale anemones flower.
When the June roses open their petals on the briars, and the scent of new-mown hay is wafted over the hedge from the meadows, the lane seems to wind through a continuous wood. The oaks and chestnuts, though too young to form a complete arch, cross their green branches, and cast a delicious shadow. For it is in the shadow that we enjoy the summer, looking forth from the gateway upon the mowing grass where the glowing sun pours down his fiercest beams.
Tall bennets and red sorrel rise above the grass, white ox-eye daisies chequer it below; the distant hedge quivers as the air, set in motion by the intense heat, runs along. The sweet murmuring coo of the turtle dove comes from the copse, and the rich notes of the blackbird from the oak into which he has mounted to deliver them.
Slight movements in the hawthorn, or in the depths of the tall hedge grasses, movements too quick for the glance to catch their cause, are where some tiny bird is passing from spray to spray. It may be a white-throat creeping among the nettles after his wont, or a wren. The spot where he was but a second since 'may be traced by the trembling of the leaves, but the keenest attention may fail to detect where he is now. That slight motion in the hedge, however, conveys an impression of something living everywhere within.
There are birds in the oaks overhead whose voice is audible though they are themselves unseen. From out of the mowing grass, finches rise and fly to the hedge; from the hedge again others fly out, and, descending into the grass, are concealed as in a forest.
A thrush travelling along the hedgerow just outside goes by the gateway within a yard.. Bees come upon the light wind, gliding with it, but with their bodies aslant across the line of current. Butterflies flutter over the mowing grass, hardly clearing the bennets. Many-coloured insects creep up the sorrel stems and take wing from the summit.
Everything gives forth a sound of life. The twittering of swallows from above, the song of greenfinches in the trees, the rustle of hawthorn sprays moving under the weight of tiny creatures, the buzz upon the breeze; the very flutter of the butterflies' wings, noiseless as it is, and the wavy movement of the heated air across the field cause a sense of motion and of music.
The leaves are enlarging, and the sap rising, and the hard trunks of the trees swelling with its flow; the grass blades pushing upwards; the seeds completing their shape; the tinted petals uncurling. Dreamily listening, leaning on the gate, all these are audible to the inner senses, while the ear follows the midsummer hum, now sinking, now sonorously increasing over the oaks. An effulgence fills the southern boughs, which the eye cannot sustain, but which it knows is there.
The sun at its meridian pours forth his light, forgetting, in all the inspiration of his strength and glory, that without an altar-screen of green his love must scorch. Joy in life; joy in life. The ears listen, and want more: the eyes are gratified with gazing, and desire yet further; the nostrils are filled with the sweet odours of flower and sap. The touch, too, has its pleasures, dallying with leaf and flower. Can you not almost grasp the odour-laden air and hold it in the hollow of the hand?
Leaving the spot at last, and turning again into the lane, the shadows dance upon the white dust under the feet, irregularly circular spots of light surrounded with umbra shift with the shifting branches. By the wayside lie rings of dandelion stalks carelessly cast down by the child who made them, and tufts of delicate grasses gathered for their beauty but now sprinkled with dust. Wisps of hay hang from the lower boughs of the oaks where they brushed against the passing load.
After a time, when the corn is ripening, the herb betony flowers on the mounds under the oaks. Following the lane down the hill and across the small furze common at the bottom, the marks of traffic fade away, the dust ceases, and is succeeded by sward. The hedgerows on either side are here higher than ever, and are thickly fringed with bramble bushes, which sometimes encroach on the waggon ruts in the middle, and are covered with flowers, and red, and green, and ripe blackberries together.
Green rushes line the way, and green dragon flies dart above them. Thistledown is pouting forth from the swollen tops of thistles crowded with seed. In a gateway the turf has been worn away by waggon wheels and the hoofs of cart horses, and the dry heat has pulverised the crumbling ruts. Three hen pheasants and a covey of partridges that have been dusting themselves here move away without much haste at the approach of footsteps — the pheasants into the thickets, and the partridges through the gateway. The shallow holes in which they were sitting can be traced on the dust, and there are a few small feathers lying about.
A barley field is within the gate; the mowers have just begun to cut it on the opposite side. Next to it is a wheat field; the wheat has been cut and stands in shocks. From the stubble by the nearest shock two turtle doves rise, alarmed, and swiftly fly towards a wood which bounds the field. This wood, indeed, upon looking again, clearly bounds not this field only, but the second and the third, and so far as the eye can see over the low hedges of the corn, the trees continue. The green lane as it enters the wood, becomes wilder and rougher at every step, widening, too, considerably.
In the centre the wheels of timber carriages, heavily laden with trunks of trees which were dragged through by straining teams in the rainy days of spring, have left vast ruts, showing that they must have sunk to the axle in the soft clay. These then filled with water, and on the water duck-weed grew, and aquatic grasses at the sides. Summer heats have evaporated the water, leaving the weeds and grasses prone upon the still moist earth.
Rushes have sprung up and mark the line of the ruts, and willow stoles, bramble bushes, and thorns growing at the side, make, as it were, a third hedge in the middle of the lane. The best path is by the wood itself, but even there occasional leaps are necessary over pools of dark water full of vegetation. These alternate with places where the ground, being higher, yawns with wide cracks crumbling at the edge, the heat causing the clay to split and open. In winter it must be an impassable quagmire; now it is dry and arid.
Rising out of this low-lying spot the lane again becomes green and pleasant, and is crossed by another. At the meeting of these four ways some boughs hang over a green bank where I have often rested. In front the lane is barred by a gate, but beyond the gate it still continues its straight course into the wood. To the left the track, crossing at right angles, also proceeds into the wood, but it is so overhung with trees and blocked by bushes that its course after the first hundred yards or so cannot be traced.
To the right the track — a little wider and clearer of bushes — extends through wood, and as it is straights and rises up a gentle slope, the eye can travel along it half a mile. There is nothing but wood around. This track to the right appears the most used, and has some ruts in the centre. The sward each side is concealed by endless thistles, on the point of sending forth clouds of thistledown, and to which presently the goldfinches will be attracted.
Occasionally a movement among the thistles betrays the presence of a rabbit; only occasionally, for though the banks are drilled with buries, the lane is too hot for them at midday. Particles of rabbits' fur lie on the ground, and their runs are visible in every direction. But there are no birds. A solitary robin, indeed, perches on an ash branch opposite, and regards me thoughtfully. It is impossible to go anywhere in the open air without a robin; they are the very spies of the wood. But there are no thrushes, no blackbirds, finches, nor even sparrows.
In August it is true most birds cease to sing, but sitting thus partially hidden and quiet, if there were any about something would be heard of them. There would be a rustling, a thrush would fly across the lane, a blackbird would appear by the gateway yonder in the shadow which he loves, a finch would settle in the oaks. None of these incidents occur; none of the lesser signs of life in the foliage, the tremulous spray, the tap of a bill cleaned by striking first one side and then the other against a bough, the rustle of a wing — nothing.
There are woods, woods, woods; but no birds. Yonder a drive goes straight into the ash-poles, it is green above and green below, but a long watch will reveal nothing living. The dry mounds must be full of rabbits, there must be pheasants somewhere; but nothing visible. Once only a whistling sound in the air directs the glance upwards, it is a wood-pigeon flying at full speed. There are no bees, for there are no flowers. There are no butterflies. The black flies are not numerous, and rarely require a fanning from the ash spray carried to drive them off.
Two large dragon-flies rush up and down, and cross the lane, and rising suddenly almost to the tops of the oaks swoop down again in bold sweeping curves. The broad, deep ditch between the lane and the mound of the wood is dry, but there are no short rustling sounds of mice.
The only sound is the continuous singing of the grasshoppers, and the peculiar snapping noise they make as they spring, leaping along the sward. The fierce sun of the ripe wheat pours down a fiery glow scarcely to be borne except under the boughs; the hazel leaves already have lost their green, the tips of the rushes are shrivelling, the grass becoming brown; it is a scorched and parched desert of wood.
The finches have gone forth in troops to the stubble where the wheat has been cut, and where they can revel on the seeds of the weeds now ripe. Thrushes and blackbirds have gone to the streams, to splash and bathe, and to the mown meadows, where in the short aftermath they can find their food. There they will look out on the shady side of the hedge as the sun declines, six or eight perhaps of them along the same hedge, but all in the shadow, where the dew forms first as the evening falls, where the grass feels cool and moist, while still on the sunny side it is warm and dry.
The bees are busy on the heaths and along the hilltops, where there are still flowers and honey, and the butterflies are with them. So the woods are silent, still, and deserted, save by a stray rabbit among the thistles, and the grasshoppers ceaselessly leaping in the grass.
Returning presently to the gateway just outside the wood, where upon first coming the pheasants and partridges were dusting themselves, a waggon is now passing among the corn and is being laden with the sheaves. But afar off, across the broad field and under the wood, it seems somehow only a part of the silence and the solitude. The men with it move about the stubble, calmly toiling; the horses, having drawn it a little way, become motionless, reposing as they stand, every line of their large limbs expressing delight in physical ease and idleness.
Perhaps the heat has made the men silent, for scarcely a word is spoken; if it were, in the stillness it must be heard, though they are at some distance. The wheels, well greased for the heavy harvest work, do not creak. Save an occasional monosyllable, as the horses are ordered on, or to stop, and a faint rustling of straw, there is no sound. It may be the flood of brilliant light, or the mirage of the heat, but in some way the waggon and its rising load, the men and the horses, have an unreality of appearance.
The yellow wheat and stubble, the dull yellow of the waggon, toned down by years of weather, the green woods near at hand, darkening in the distance and slowly changing to blue, the cloudless sky, the heat-suffused atmosphere, in which things seem to float rather than to grow or stand, the shadowless field, all are there, and yet are not there, but far away and vision-like. The waggon, at last laden, travels away, and seems rather to disappear of itself than to be hidden by the trees. It is an effort to awake and move from the spot.