To mark the publication of Robin Walter’s Living with Trees, we’re running a series of pieces on The Clearing to celebrate and examine our relationship with our arboreal neighbours. This piece is by Ruth Bradshaw.
On a bright spring day I go to Spa Wood to look for signs of new life among the old trees. I am here with Sam and Edwin from the London Wildlife Trust to investigate the latest developments in a story that has been going on for centuries. This part of it begins many, many years ago when an acorn falls from an oak tree in the Great North Wood. There is nothing particularly special about this acorn. It is one of thousands that land in this part of the wood one blustery autumn day. Many are eaten by the pigs that forage among the trees, pigs that the local people will eat in the hungry winter months ahead. Others are spirited away by jays and if they eventually become oak trees it is not in this wood. Only a few acorns manage to escape the snuffling snouts and the acquisitive birds. Fewer still land in places among the leaf litter where there is enough moisture for them to put down roots.
Spring arrives. The sun’s rays penetrate the bare branches of the trees for a few minutes more each day. The ground slowly shrugs off the icy grip of winter. The remaining acorns begin to send green shoots towards the airy expanse above. Unseen below ground, they send out more shoots, seeking connections with the fungi they will need in order to survive. Those that do not succeed shrivel and die. More days of light and warmth follow. The rest of the shoots become seedlings, each one a tasty snack for the mice and other small mammals that live in the woods. New shoots grow on most of the nibbled seedlings. These too are eaten. This happens again and again and each time fewer seedlings grow back.
The days become longer. The remaining seedlings begin to flourish more vigorously. So too does the oak tree from which they have fallen. Its branches are soon covered in bright green leaves. These grow thicker and darker. Dappled shade turns into dense shadow. The few seedlings which the sun can reach grow taller and stronger but many are still slender saplings as the days start to shorten once more. In late summer a herd of hungry roe deer wander through the woods. They use their sharp teeth to strip the saplings of all their tender sweet buds. Most of the young trees are now so weakened that they give up the fight for life.
Just one sapling has grown tall enough that the browsing deer cannot reach its topmost shoot. Years pass and it continues to grow. Decades pass and the acorn that fell that blustery day is now a full-grown tree producing acorns of its own. There is nothing particularly special about this tree, just as there was nothing particularly special about the acorn from which it grew. It is just one of many oak trees in this wood, its acorns feed many more generations of pigs and its seedlings continue to provide sustenance for mice and deer. It is pollarded to produce firewood but it is not tall and straight enough for shipbuilding nor prominent enough to act as a landmark. It is not the oak tree that Queen Elizabeth I choose to rest under one May Day – that tree is elsewhere in this wood. But this oak tree survives the bitter cold of snowbound winters and the occasional droughts of long, hot summers.
Over the years the oak tree provides a home for hundreds of other species. The nest holes that green woodpeckers make in its side in spring are taken over by nuthatches in later years. Purple hairstreak butterflies flit among its topmost leaves each summer. Wasps, beetles and other insects shelter beneath its bark. Honeysuckle, ivy and dog-roses curl around its lower trunk. And beneath the ground there is now a whole network of fungi whose existence is intimately bound up with that of the tree. The years continue to roll by. The tree sheds boughs from time to time. Its trunk becomes hollow. Mosses and lichens form patterns on the wrinkles of its bark but the tree outlives that resting monarch and many of her successors.
Centuries pass. The oak tree lives on but life outside the wood is now very different. Few of the local people keep pigs and they have little need of firewood, as coal is readily available. It is fortunate that they no longer rely on the woods for they are no longer welcome here. Ownership of the land has changed, the commons are enclosed and the woods are shrinking. When another famous Queen is on the throne, a mineral spring is found nearby. The land is sold again and a Victorian entrepreneur clears part of the woodland to create a pleasure ground. Some of the trees are left standing to provide a pleasant sylvan setting for the visitors who travel out from the city to sample the spa waters. For a while the business venture is a huge success. But Beulah Spa is short-lived. There is too much competition from other nearby spas.
When a huge glass palace is built a couple of miles away and provided with a direct rail service from London, there are even fewer visitors. The pleasure ground closes. The land is sold once more, houses are built on some of it and the rest, including the woodland, becomes part of a private estate. Over the next few decades more of the surrounding land is sold to house-builders. By the time another new century arrives, the wood is a part of the city from which day trippers once travelled to visit the spa. Eventually the remainder of the estate is sold to the local authority. The area is designated as public open space: the remaining woods are safe at last.
Acorns continue to put down shoots and strive for life in what is now known as Spa Wood. The threats they face change but their chances of success are as uncertain as ever. The grey squirrels now scampering through these woods take fewer acorns than the pigs that once foraged here. But the oaklings still face the same struggle for light and moisture as their predecessors and there are new dangers in these woods too. A carelessly discarded can or crisp packet sometimes blocks a seedling’s light. Runners and dog-walkers pass through, oblivious to the wildlife, and often squash seedlings unwittingly. The changing climate brings other threats. Some young saplings are starved of water at a crucial time. Others are washed away in torrential downpours. The twentieth century brings “oak change” too and it seems that oaks will no longer grow readily from acorns within these woods.
I walk around Spa Wood in the spring sunshine with Sam and Edwin, looking for seedlings that have managed to survive all these dangers. Much to our delight we find several small groups of oaklings and Sam enters these as “oak regeneration” areas on a GIS app he’s using to record details of the wood. I ask him about oak change.
“The naturalist, Oliver Rackham, thought this was caused by oak mildew, a fungal disease from America,” Sam explains. “He suggested the main impact was that oak trees are now more light-demanding.”
“So do you think our conservation work will help?”
“Well, hopefully it means more sunlight can now reach these seedlings but we’ll have to wait and see what happens to them over the next couple of years.”
Elsewhere in Spa Wood, we have recorded the location of plants which are used to identify ancient woodland – pockets of wood anemones and a few vast swathes of ramsons, recognisable by the garlic-scented air that surrounds them as well as their appearance.
Until recently, I could barely name anything but the most common of woodland plants. As I have slowly learnt to identify flowers other than bluebells and buttercups and to distinguish a hornbeam from a beech, I have realised just how much variety there is in the woods, like deciphering a code or learning enough of another language to be able to read the shop signs when you are in a foreign country. Earlier we carried out a survey of the wildflowers and trees in Spa Wood and found over seventy species. I’m amazed that there are so many but Sam and Edwin are quick to point out that it’s not so impressive.
“Our little area is actually pretty impoverished in terms of species,” Sam says. “In the woodland sites on the edge of London there are just so many plants that we don’t see here, like woodland orchids and helleborines.”
I find it really hard to retain the vast amount of information that is needed to distinguish one species from another and I want to know how Sam and Edwin developed their ID skills. I assume it must have been at university as they both studied ecology but it turns out that’s not the case.
“I wasn’t really taught species identification at university,” Edwin says. “I learnt from hanging around with a lab technician who had an encyclopaedic knowledge of plants. If you spend time with someone who is really, really knowledgeable, you can learn a lot in quite a short space of time.”
“Hopefully some of your knowledge will rub off on me,” I joke. “But do you think it matters if people can’t recognise the different species?”
“Well, a basic knowledge is important to understand the kind of management we’re advocating,” Edwin replies. “If people don’t realise that something like cherry laurel is a non-native invasive species then they’ll be confused if they see us cutting it down. But if they are able to recognise it as a plant that is damaging the health of the woodlands they’ll be more supportive.”
“It’s also important in terms of appreciating the woodland,” Sam adds. “Without any knowledge of plants you could just go and see a mass of homogenous green. But once you start to look at the different forms, and the intricacy of the different leaf shapes, you can see the diversity that’s there and understand better why we’re trying to increase it.”
“It’s like a different way of having a walk in slightly wild spaces,” Edwin agrees. “Are you just there to look at a view and enjoy being in greenspace? Or are you there to try and get a better understanding of what’s living around you?”
In Wildwood, Roger Deakin describes seeing unfamiliar plants and trees on a trip to Australia and feeling closer to them once he learns their names. “It was like meeting people,” he writes. I know what he means now. The amorphous, anonymous mass of tangled greenery that I have too often ignored on previous visits to the woods begins to take on a new significance now that I can see the rich variety it contains. My gradually increasing knowledge changes my relationship with some of the plants in my garden too, the ones I have previously known only as weeds. It becomes harder to remove plants now that I recognise them as herb Robert, wood avens and cleavers. I leave some to grow as reminders of my days in the woods.
My discussion with Sam and Edwin makes me think about those articles that appear in the media from time to time, bemoaning the lack of knowledge of wildlife among the general public and our growing disconnection from nature. Children spend less time playing in the woods than they did in previous generations and many never play outside at all. No doubt that’s why most young adults cannot name the tree that produces conkers and nearly a quarter of UK adults cannot identify a sycamore tree. It seems that even as we have become more concerned about environmental issues, and the problems nature faces have become more pressing, most of us know less and less about the wildlife we need to save.
A few years ago, there was an enormous commotion when it was discovered that the publishers of the Oxford Junior dictionary had dropped a number of words about nature and the countryside from the latest edition. Words such as chestnut and clover had been replaced by ones like analogue and broadband. The publishers argued that they were merely reflecting curriculum requirements and the language in common usage, but I agree with the person opposing the changes who described them as “robbing children of the possibility of knowledge”. We cannot truly love what we do not know and we cannot really know what we do not know the names for.
There are glimmers of hope amid the gloomy headlines. Forest schools are becoming increasingly popular and are credited with improving children’s confidence and well-being as well as teaching about nature. Sam and Edwin organise visits to the woods for school groups because they “want to get them while they’re young and inspire groups who are not necessarily going to put themselves forward to get involved.” They are helping to nurture the next generation of woodlanders as well as the trees they will care for.
And what became of the oak tree that grew from the acorn that fell all those years ago? Perhaps it is now the huge tree at the top of Spa Wood that is said to be the oldest in the Great North Wood. Or perhaps an aging oak tree did not meet the vision of a nineteenth century entrepreneur who had it cut down when he created the pleasure ground. Or perhaps it just died – oaks live for a very long time but they are not immortal. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it lived here and that there is a chance for new oak trees to grow in Spa Wood today.
Ruth Bradshaw writes short stories and creative non-fiction and works part-time in environmental policy. Her writing has been published in a number of journals and anthologies including Canary Literary Magazine, Autumn Colours, Flash #MyLandmarks and The Same Havoc. When not writing or working Ruth can often be found in the woods near her home in South London and occasionally on twitter @ruthc_b
The photograph at the head of this piece of the jay with acorn is by Andrew Lewis. The photograph of the oak in Spa Wood is by Daniel Greenwood.