Me and Heston walk all night

“tensely constructed and authentically rendered”
Carly Holmes, Editor TLR Issue 12

One harsh winter I worked at night and weekends as a volunteer in cold weather shelters, set up by St James’ Piccadilly and St Martin-in-the-Fields to try to support the hundreds of people sleeping rough in Central London, in places like the notorious cardboard city on the South Bank. Most of the people I met were from the UK – mostly male ranging upwards in age from late teens. It was difficult to tell how old the older people were – living on the street and the things that go with it accelerate ageing processes and a recent study by Crisis showed that people who live on the streets die an average of 30 years before the general population.

TLR Issue 12

The Lampeter Review Issue 12 September 2015, editor Carly Holmes

The Lampeter Review has just published my short story, ‘Me and Heston walk all night,’ in Issue 12. It’s based on what I learnt back then. You can read Issue 12 here: Me and Heston walk all night

I’m looking forward to hosting Melissa Harrison and Rob Cowen at Kew’s first literary festival on 26 September (see Write on Kew). Both their books, At Hawthorn Time and Common Ground, feature men who have chosen to live on the road, though England makes it almost impossible. There is much to discuss.

Today the Solidarity with Refugees rally in central London was well attended. Hopefully the shift in public and media attitudes will help not only people who are seeking asylum but also people already here – the latest figures show that 57% of London’s rough sleepers are non-UK nationals.


Read Emma Warren’s review of At Hawthorn Time on Caught by the River here.

Read Ben Myers’ review of Common Ground on Caught by the River here.

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Bee heaven, first days of autumn

Kerridge Hill

Kerridge Hill, looking west from Rainow

Today Jane, Wyn and I walked the length of Kerridge Hill, a ridge of millstone grit that rises quite suddenly to 800 feet above sea level east of Macclesfield. It was sunny and calm, with swallows hunting over the stunted hawthorn and hardhead, thistle and woundwort alive with insects. Nectar is still abundant, even more so a little higher, where the flowering heather spreads like great bruises on the hillsides.

But the plant that had summoned the bees from miles around was a fantastic Chilean leatherwood growing in a front garden in Rainow. I’ve never seen one of this size and certainly never seen one so covered in flowers. They’re very slow growing, and the ones I looked after at Kew were pretty miserable in the dry sandy soil, in spite of our conscientious mulching and summer irrigation, reaching no more than 2 metres in 10 years.

The Rainow leatherwood

The Rainow leatherwood, Eucryphia glutinosa or hybrid

The Rainow leatherwood was at least 8 metres tall – possibly 10 – and growing at the lowest point in the village, where Tower Hill dips steeply down to Mill Brook, in a sheltered, south-facing fold that obviously mitigates against the harsh winters hereabouts.

Mass of leatherwood flowers

Mass of leatherwood flowers, teeming with bees

Eucryphia glutinosa comes from the forests of Chile and can’t stand lime. The fragrant flowers have four white petals and a central pom pom of yellowish stamens with tiny red anthers. Its pinnate leaves are semi-evergreen or deciduous and put on fine colour in the autumn. The Rainow specimen could have been the species, or perhaps, E. x intermedia, a hybrid between E. glutinosa and E. lucida, which is said to be the hardiest of the evergreens, and flowers like mad. Maybe the exuberant flowering confirms that it’s the hybrid.

Kerridge Hill is an abrupt end to the west-east sweep of the Cheshire Plain, forcing the cloud upwards and wringing the rain from it.  I know a plant that clearly revels in it.

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There’s nothing like seeing plants in the wild…

There’s nothing like seeing plants in the wild to give you an idea of how to grow them. It’s worth taking seriously the dictum ‘right plant, right place’ though of course there are always surprises. Everyone knows Heuchera villosa ‘Palace Purple’, that unappealing burgundy-leaved stalwart of the perennial border (okay, I grudgingly admit that it’s a good foil to the zingy Tradescantia in the pic below), but the species is lovely, with sprays of delicate green-white flowers above neat hummocks of hairy fresh green foliage. In the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina I only saw it in extremely wet seeps but in south east England it is surprisingly happy in dry part-shade under birch and oak trees. It rapidly makes quite large (easily controlled) colonies and provides long-lasting mid- to late-summer interest.

Heucheras in the border

Heucheras in the border at Chanticleer, one of Delaware’s famous gardens

Heuchera villosa in the wild

Heuchera villosa – the wild parent of the border stalwart, on a seep cliff in the Appalachians

I’m a trustee of the Merlin Trust, which gives grants to young professional horticulturists so that they can travel, either to visit gardens or to see plants in the wild. I wrote about the organisation for the Alpine Gardener (the journal of the Alpine Garden Society) and you can read the piece here.

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My personal cult – the Alpine Garden Society

A display of autumn flowering crocus at Kew

A display of autumn flowering crocus in Kew’s alpine house

First published in Litro Online

You can spot us a mile off: carefully dressed, driving old but immaculate mid-range automobiles, stocked with travel rugs and thermoses and walking boots. Kagoules and cloth shopping bags. Our neat, post war houses bristle with burglar alarms and our fences are flawless, inviolable. Child free.

‘geographical delineations are available from the Director’

We pay thousands of pounds for group holidays with ferociously knowledgeable guides. Our years are framed by monthly meetings, conferences, regional and national shows. We anticipate the arrival of the quarterly journal, its glossy, sweet smelling pages crammed with the circumspect writing and accomplished photography of other members. We suspect extravagance, sneer at show-offs, are relentlessly amateur.

Yet the objects of our hunger are most flamboyant and particular. Alpine plants. And the cable car to which we cling in our zeal for mountain flowers? The Alpine Garden Society. I had a camper van with the registration AGS for a while. It had carpet up the walls.

‘suitable for cultivation in a rock garden of moderate size or in an unheated frame or alpine house’

I gave many tours, over the years, of the alpine displays I created. I’d say, to start off, “So, who can tell me what an alpine plant is?” They’d smile quietly – quiet people, in the main – and, more often than not, wait for me to answer my own question. So I’d say, “Well, technically speaking, an alpine plant is one that lives above the tree line. Meaning, in an environment so harsh that a tree cannot survive.” Then I’d say, “But, really, alpine plant lovers are greedy blighters – they’ll call anything an alpine if they fancy growing it.” And they’d laugh. Inside jokes. I guess you had to be there.

There are two things going on in my cult: one, a dogged devotion to seeing mountain plants growing in the wild; two, a painstaking obsession with growing them at home.

‘Other things being equal, preference should be given to species or natural hybrids’

But why? In a country with piddly mountains and rare snow. On a fair temperate island of herbaceous borders and topiary, of hanging baskets and allotments, where a gardener can grow almost anything.

‘No pot or pan may exceed 36 cm outside diameter’

Alpine plants are perfectly evolved to deal with the extremes of life high up. Their strategies are many and varied. Form a dense cushion of rosettes, hunker down against the cliff, to avoid desiccation by storm force winds. Develop a dense coat of silvery hairs, to shield your leaves from the intense sunlight, undiminished in the thin air. Spend the winters dormant, flower in the snowmelt, fruit fast in the fleeting weeks before the snows come again. To beckon to the pollinating bees, which are few and far between up high, produce brightly coloured flowers, wildly out of scale with your miniaturized foliage.

‘note that cactus spines are not considered to be foliage’

High trail on scree, mid-June, Dolomites

High trail on scree, mid-June, Dolomites

It’s these flowers that bewitch us. We struggle, panting, across unstable screes, clamber over boulder fields which skirt the glaciers, suffer altitude sickness for the sight of a Himalayan poppy, spend long summer days in dark, chilling cloud which obscures the towering peaks above us and fogs our expensive lenses.

‘six pan classes must include at least three plants in flower or fruit’

Back in our orderly homes, we sow from crinkly, translucent packets, seed collected (illegally, sometimes) by other members on their trips or (legally) from their gardens, distributed annually by the Society (maximum 23 batches per member, unless you are a donor or a packer, when you get more). We swop cuttings of our best, most true, most reliable plants. We pot up our surplus seedlings for the raffle at the monthly meeting of our local group. We build ingenious complexes in our gardens to regulate heat, water, light. We construct rock gardens – not any old rock, not any old grit – in which to cultivate and display our treasures from the wild. We fret, throughout our holidays, that the custodians at home will prove incompetent or negligent.

Don’t, whatever you do, water them over the top.’

And we grow, in terra cotta pots, freestanding or sunk in sand-beds, in bulb frames, in crumbling, pockmarked lumps of tufa, in white ceramic sinks, the plants we will exhibit at the Shows.

The Shows! School halls, up and down the country, commandeered by local groups for Saturdays in every season: the almanac begins in February and ends in October. Neat ranks of tables fill the halls, their musty air redolent of teenage boys and bleach. Mattress tape stretched across the wood effect wipe clean surfaces delineates the classes and categories. From early morning we shuffle in bearing our entries, packed into crates and cardboard boxes, stabilised by newspaper, crunched into balls. I took my plants in the AGS camper van. Inevitably there is disappointment. A flower-laden scape snapped off by the stiff cuff of a blazer. A cushion spoiled, its perfect clustered rosettes bruised by a dropped notebook. An unseasonably warm night and a third of the flowers gone over.

‘They were dead certs for a place, if only that cold snap hadn’t …’

We go at our plants with tweezers and surgical scissors and paint brushes. We top up with grit, wipe down the terra cotta. Our best handwriting describes the Latin binomials and the cultivar names.

‘of two, equally effective plants, the judges will naturally prefer the less common’

We leave the hall. The judges, a solemn huddle with clipboards, move along the tables. We turn our backs and seek solace at the stalls, where nursery men and women shyly offer beautiful plants, rock garden stalwarts and choice rarities for the alpine house. Or at the canteen, eyeing our competitors over stewed tea and Bourbon biscuits, joshing, swapping anecdotes about the Pelopponese or New Zealand or lizard orchids on the golf course at Sandwich.

‘Tell you what, if the cuttings take, I’ll have a couple spare, so would you be interested in…?’

The double doors swing open. There’s a lull, only just perceptible. Who would betray how much they care by missing even half a beat?

‘no trophy should be given unless the exhibit is of a sufficiently high standard’

We surge in but, stalled by the echo of our footsteps, feign disinterest and admire the novice entries. We loiter, not daring to find out, bypassed by local group treasurers, borne along by an air of usefulness. As we shuffle along, we reconcile ourselves to the comment, in the judge’s neat hand, that we have somehow fallen short. We crane our necks to see the winning subjects, carried aloft towards the photographer’s corner for their portraits.

‘trophies for the highest aggregate first prize points’

We can dream. That’s what we’re good at. In plump buds, in the barren wastes of the winter rock garden, in the dry rattle of the seed head, in the dark crumble of leaf mould. We lob our hopes ahead of us and scramble after them up the slope. When I joined the AGS, I was below the average age. Someone pointed out my advantage. If I were to live to my allotted three score years and ten, then I had thirty seasons ahead of me. Thirty more annual memberships. One hundred and twenty journals. Fifteen displays at Chelsea (every other year). Thirty seed exchanges. Thirty goes to try to get it right.

‘Members are reminded that named cultivars and hybrids cannot be relied upon to come true’

Thirty goes to try to get it right.

Show benches at AGS Harrogate

Show benches at AGS Harrogate

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Take a walk, Mrs Merkel: dispatch from high above the G7 summit

Schachen rock wall

Schachen rock wall

At the tree line on Mount Schachen on the last day of May it was noisy. Beneath the complex songlines of the ring ouzels was the multilayered gush and rush, blip and trickle of snow melting in the sunshine. The standard spring soundscape of the Bavarian Alps. But the massive rock wall above us amplified the explosive racket of the helicopter making regular passes over the small plateau where we worked and rolled it down to meet the rising sound of the police cars swarming the forest roads and trails. The mountain was being prepared for total shutdown.

They were getting ready for the 2015 G7 summit, taking place at the famous ‘wellness spa’ at Schloss Elmau nearly 1000 metres below us. We were there recording phenological phenomena, collecting data to inform our understanding of climate change.

G7 and climate change and a view from above the summit. Blimey, I thought, and for a moment I followed the glimmering seam of symbol and metaphor. But spring on the mountain is so insistent, so physical that I let go in favour of the here and now.

Isn’t that the problem? So much here and now, so much business, distractions from the big issues, the politics, the meta-narrative. Maybe that’s why the G7 leaders have to be locked up together, sealed from the outside world, so that they don’t get distracted by the messy detail of other people. Or shopping.

We were on a small north-facing plateau at 1850 metres above sea level, making the first visit of the year to the Alpengarten auf dem Schachen. It’s a satellite garden of Munich Botanic Gardens established more than 100 years ago and surrounded by nature reserve. At this altitude, spring doesn’t arrive before start of June. Or at least, that’s the accepted story. We were examining individual shrubs of different species that had recently lost their snow cover and were embarking on their seasonal rituals. They had been chosen for the study because they respond to spring with a series of discrete, successional phenomena that can be noted by anyone with a trained eye. Bud burst, the opening of the female flower, the unfurling of the leaf and so on, exhibited at distinct intervals that can be correlated with the calendar and the compared with other years. The botanist said: ‘We all know what is happening and we know it is accelerating. But I need data.’ The collective – and almost unanimous – opinion of the global scientific community is not enough.

Spring gentian

Spring gentian, flowering in the snow melt

The G7 leaders and their mega bureaucracies make sense of the world through data, percolated through multiple membranes of analysis and interpretation. The 2015 summit has an extensive agenda but has no formal framework. It is a self selecting group of self styled industrial nations. It doesn’t include global players like China, or emerging economies like Brazil or India. It has sent Russia to Coventry for its actions in Crimea.

But it’s not all about data and analysis and evidence. If it were, they could just as well contact their business by email, or teleconferencing. No, the G7 is all soft diplomacy. From the official G7 website: ‘Web conferences are used to exchange facts. They are not conducive to creating the informal, relaxed atmosphere in which ideas are formed and trust is established.’

If that’s the case then there’s a chance they might be influenced by more visceral experience. On the agenda is the UN conference in Paris on climate and the environment later in the year. So far, the carbon pledges of the international community are notable for their lack of ambition and lack of urgency. Perhaps our best hope for raising their sights is if our leaders take a walk guided by their host. They say that German chancellor Angela Merkel is a keen hiker. Nothing brings people together like a shared response to natural beauty and Schloss Elmau and its mountains have it in spades. So please, Mrs Merkel, take a walk.

Itinerary One. Conservation option. Rating: inspiring. Let’s say they have an hour between the briefings and discussions, meals and photo ops. Just long enough to amble out into the flower meadows surrounding the Schloss (avoiding the 50 protestors who have been allowed inside the security cordon). Right now the grass is an almost fizzing green and it spills over glacial hummocks like velvet. Hear the insects hum among the orchids, catchflies and buttercups and the listing hay barns. See the mountains reflected in the cold still water of the ephemeral ponds, whose shallow margins writhe with tadpoles. This beauty and abundance comes through traditional land management. The danger with is that they might be reassured that all’s well in the countryside. Once you’ve got them outside, Mrs Merkel, please lure them higher.

Woodstore at the alpine garden

Woodstore at the alpine garden

Itinerary Two. Biodiversity option. Rating: challenging. If they had three hours, they could take the crunchy track up the hill through the spruce forest, averting their eyes from the large area that has been cleared, leveled and tarmacked to provide parking for all the security vehicles and a helicopter landing pad (there is a commitment to return it to forest). Pass the kingcups blazing in the boggy tumbling streams. Pass nut-brown thatched domes of anthills, seething with worker wood ants who come up to the surface in rotation, warm their bodies in the sun and return to the subterranean chambers, living heat transfer systems. Hear grating rhythm of the chaffinches and the hollow hammer of hunting woodpeckers. As our party lingers in the warmth between the trees, Mrs Merkel could tell them about the devastation of lower Bavaria’s spruce forest by bark beetle. She could point out the sycamore, beech and mountain ash, just unfurling their brilliant green mantles and explain the threat they face from the Asian longhorn beetle, now conquering Europe. This might be a bit of a downer, so to raise their spirits, Mrs Merkel, do go on.

Mountain hare tracks in the snow

Mountain hare tracks in the snow

Itinerary Three. Climate change option. Rating: alarming. Given eight hours, they could climb to the treeline and see the grey, gnarled trunks of the the keystone species, Pinus cembra, their silver roots clasping limestone outcrops. Individuals live to 500 years. Hear the complex song of the ring ouzels, see the tracks of mountain hares in the shady combes where the snow still lies. Catch a fleeting shadow of the chamois on the rock wall high above and the golden eagle hanging in a thermal. Look out to the magnificent snow capped summit of the Alpespitze (echt-summit to their pseudo-summit). See below it the curve of the Schneeferner glacier, diminishing fast. Since 1860 it has shrunk almost tenfold, from 300 to 39 hectares. It is predicted to disappear in the next fifteen years. These days it gets covered in tarpaulin in the summer, to protect it from sun and rain. Not for environmental reasons, you understand, but through the commercial interests of the winter sports industry.

From far away the moutains seem enduring, immutable. Close up, Mrs Merkel and her guests would see that they are changing. They need careful stewardship and they need it now. The motto of the 2015 summit is ‘think ahead. Act together.’ I guess they won’t be taking that walk, but perhaps at least our leaders might appreciate the irony of the closure, two weeks ago, of the protestors camp – ‘due to flood risk.’

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Face the change: making space for the beaver

First published by Caught by the River on 23 May 2015

On my windowsill is a piece of willow. Thirty centimetres long, ten centimetres in diameter, its grey fissured bark is splashed by lichen the colour of fresh egg yolks. At one end it is flat, where I cut it with a saw so that I could take it with me. At the other end it is beautifully worked. It dwindles to a point and the cone is multifaceted, like a pencil that has been sharpened with a penknife. Each angled plane is striped by lateral ridges as if it had been shaped with a gouge. Precise, purposeful.

Willow worked by beavers

Willow worked by beavers

When I show this wood to friends, they don’t know what to make of it. They would never have come across it in England. Or at least, not until now.

This willow was shaped by beavers. They’ve been back in Scotland for a few years and now a handful of them are back in England under licence. Drivers and pub landlords and gun owners and James Bond and people on parole operate under licence. It’s a quid pro quo kind of thing. A right to do specific things in return for sticking to rules. I wonder if the newly licensed rodent residents of South Devon know what they’ve been signed up to. For though we can just about accept that we haven’t a chance against asteroids and plate tectonics, we brook no disruption to our semi-sacred landscape from the lower orders, especially if they’re from ‘abroad’. So it was no surprise to read alarmist headlines in the Scottish press a couple of years ago: ‘Bavarian beavers wrecking fields and forests.’ The Tayside beavers were given temporary leave to remain while their effect on the landscape was studied, but next month Scottish ministers will have to decide whether the beavers stay or go when Scottish Natural Heritage submits a final report.

Beavers change landscapes – dramatically – but ‘wrecking’ is a subjective term. Ecologist Tom Wells writes brilliantly about these landscape architects in his 1997 book ‘Reading the forested landscape: a natural history of New England.’ Visiting beaver ponds near his home, he writes:

‘Standing on skis at midnight, alone under a January full moon, surrounded by large spruce and pine snags, my feeling of seclusion is as great as any I’ve ever experienced. Yet this is far from an untouched environment. It is a highly manipulated ecosystem, one that has been dramatically altered to suit the needs of a single species – the beaver. Beavers are the only animals, other than humans, that will create entirely new ecosystems for their own use. And often, like humans, once they have depleted an area’s resources, they will abandon their holdings and move on.’

By coincidence, I found my length of willow in Bavaria, where many people view the beaver with the same alarm voiced by the Scottish press. Four years ago, after a long absence, beavers returned to Bogen, a small town (pop 12,000) on the north bank of the Danube. We spotted their meadow from the two car train as it approached the end of the line at Bogen bahnhof: a couple of acres just outside the old town walls on the banks of the Kinsach, several hundred metres upstream from where it joined the Danube. Though it was August, it looked like winter in the beaver meadow. In the year since their return, the beavers had felled more than thirty trees, mostly willows less than a handspan in diameter. The gnawed stumps stood bleached, the bark-stripped leafless trunks lay haphazard. The animals had made muddy slipways and partially dammed the Kinsach. I borrowed a saw and slithered down the embankment to claim my prize.

Other people weren’t so excited. The beavers made the local people twitchy, the hunters’ trigger fingers itchy. It was too close for comfort and, unfortunately for the beavers, their landscaping echoed the disaster playing out on the other side of town.

Behind Bogen rises the Bavarian Forest, classic middle-European habitat, wave upon wave of low mountain cloaked by dark dense conifers. The dominant tree had for several years been suffering catastrophic collapse. Spruce, the tree central to Bogen’s fortunes for centuries, was dying by the million. In places the forest was a wasteland of silver grey skeletons as stark and shocking as the trees stripped bare by the beavers. Here though, the agent was the bark beetle. Its larvae finished off trees made vulnerable by a run of unusually hot summers.

Bavarian forest spruce decimated by bark beetle (pic Andreas Groeger)

Bavarian forest spruce decimated by bark beetle (pic Andreas Groeger)

It was not the first time this had happened. In the 1470s, the forest was devastated by the bark beetle in the same way. The people prayed and the forest recovered. Even now, more than 500 years on, they give thanks each year in a ritual with nicely pagan overtones. A thirteeen metre spruce trunk is carried by a procession of townspeople to the church on the Bogenberg, a granite outcrop above the Danube. The forest will recover again. Where the spruce fails, other species will grow. In the meantime, the people were fretting and called for action. Inject the trees with insecticide. Propagate and plant more spruce. Irrigate in summer. In the twenty-first century, there should be no place for such natural disaster.

This year I was back in Bogen but the beavers were gone. Their meadow is once again a dense tangle of willow. It could be that they had exhausted their holdings and moved on, but it doesn’t look like it. It could be that they were hunted out.

This is a cautionary tale for our friends in South Devon and in the Tay. If the beaver is to stay we need to loosen up. We need to move beyond the ‘heritage landscape,’ the fetishised olde worlde, and carve out space for natural flux. Floods spill rich sediments onto the plain. Trees die where they stand and their deadwood supports insects, birds and fungi. Rock falls open up the forest for butterflies. The collapsing coastline forms new cliffs for nesting sandmartins. Aquatic plants colonise the pond behind the beaver dam. Fish follow.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that change is not all invasive plants, loss of habitats, extinctions, sudden oak death. Change is intrinsic to nature’s resilience, opportunism, relentlessness. For the beaver to stand a chance, a good story needs to be told; relandscaping rather than ‘wrecking’, diversifying rather than destroying. These animals can help us reconnect with the processes and the cycles of the natural world, the ones that take more than a season or a year and whose outcomes we cannot predict, still less control. And, if we allow them to, maybe in a few years when I press this heavy bit of wood into the arms of a visiting child, they’ll recognise it immediately and weigh it with awe.

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Between the A30 and the M3, Hampshire

Bluebells in a beechwood by the A30 north of Winchester

Bluebells in a beechwood by the A30 north of Winchester

10 May. Some days spring is so insistent.

Bugle on the kerb

White and blue bugle on the kerbside

Primrose and violet embankment

Primrose and violet embankment

Cowslips in the central reservation

Cowslips in the central reservation


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Time travel without a tardis (or how to hold back spring)

This piece was published on the wonderful Caught by the River on 1 April 2015.

So it’s March and the crocuses are over and the season has already begun to decay. I’m getting on. There are fewer springs ahead of me than behind. And each stage of the season is weightier than the year before.

I relish the tiny iterations. Three more minutes of light each day. The long tailed tits leaving the gang and pairing up. The rooks returning later and later from their feeding grounds on the Ham Lands, flying west over the house towards their roost. The male black-headed gulls developing their chocolate coloured masks. The daffodils filling the triangle of grass by the roundabout under the A3 at Oxshott. The flooding of the Thames path.

Here in southern England there have been signs of spring since well before Christmas. In the Woodland Garden the beds are mulched by early-December. Any later and the ground is already heaving with the new season, and our boots and barrows trash the first perfect shoots of the early bulbs. In the shortest, darkest days, they nose up through the crumb, bracing themselves for explosive growth, coiled against the twin triggers of sun and rain, the starting pistol for the race to flower and fruit before the tree canopy closes above them and they are robbed of light and water.

I don’t want to let it go. I want to string it out. And I know how. I know a way to string it out for six months without leaving the northern hemisphere. All you need is latitude or altitude or both.

Naturalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning American writer Edwin Way Teale deals with both in his revelatory book, North with the Spring (1950). It’s his account of a 17,000-mile road trip he made following spring as it travelled up the eastern side of North America. He began in Florida’s Everglades, latitude 26 degrees north, in mid-February and completed his journey at Cape Cod, latitude 42 degrees north, on the summer solstice. In his journey from the south, he held summer at bay.

EdwinWayTeale Cover, North with the Spring

As for altitude, he writes about it as he travels through the southern Appalachians.

‘The season was advancing swiftest along the valleys; its high-water mark was lifting little by little up the mountainsides. Like floods of water, the floods of spring follow a lowland course. They race ahead down the long valleys, climb slowly, as though struggling with gravity, up the slopes. In the mountains the streams, the highways and the railroads go through the gaps together. And with them goes spring.’

I should have known this. In the 90s I lived in Buxton, the highest market town in England. Friends would leave Manchester in t-shirts for a summer excursion to the Peak District and an hour later and 260m higher they’d be shivering under the ash tree that had yet to come into leaf.

It was another decade before I really understood it though, when I went to Switzerland to work as a gardener. In mid-June I took the cog railway to the famous Swiss botanical garden on the Shining Plateau or Schynige Platte. The railway began at Wilderswil (580m asl) where roses and potatoes were in flower and the dandelions had blown their clocks.  The meadows thrummed with insects and the tarmac was hot. The train zigzagged 7 kilometres up the mountain, through the spruce layer, then the pines and out above the treeline. And time travelled backwards. When we reached the garden 50 minutes later and 1500 metres higher, the dandelions were not even in bud and crocus and alpine snowbell were just emerging through the melting snow and winter’s silence still echoed in the brilliant white peaks of the Jungfrau and the Eiger that towered to the south.

Pulsatilla vernalis - Dolomites mid-June

(Pasque flower, Pulsatilla vernalis, emerging as the snow melts. Dolomites mid-June.)

Plants have their niches. Crocus vernus subsp albiflorus doesn’t naturally occur on the valley floor. But if you’re lucky enough to have both altitude and a botanic garden, you can see the same species in its spring and summer forms on the very same day. It was lovely two-hour journey back down from Schynige Platte (first the cog railway and then the wide-gauge) along the lake to Bern Botanic Garden, where the rock garden was in riotous high season. There, some species – like the yellow bellflower, Campanula thyrsoides – were just going over, a full six-weeks ahead of their siblings on the mountain, whose rosettes were only just beginning to extend.

This sort of time-travel is more challenging in North Carolina. From North Carolina Botanic Garden in Chapel Hill to botanical heaven in the Blue Ridge Mountains is a good five-hour drive (public transport? Don’t make me laugh.) But even driving up the Blue Ridge Parkway in early May, winding back the season as you go, you pass from summer to spring, leaving behind the full-skirted broadwoods in the valleys, climbing through the layer of oak and hickory still in bud to reach the high plateau with shimmering clouds of serviceberry blossom.

serviceberry Great Smoky Mountains May

(Serviceberry, Amelanchier aborea, in the Great Smoky Mountains, early May)

But maybe, ironically, instead of stretching out the season, this kind of time-travel robs you of time itself. All the planning, all the cars, buses, trains, planes. Maybe the only way I can do justice to the dwindling number of springs ahead is to make the most of each one, not by dashing around the world but by staying put.

Get to know the shifts in the light. Recognise the birdsong. Absorb the sequence of flowers, from bird cherry to blackthorn to may. Sow seeds for later harvest. Go fishing. Walk. Watch. Listen.

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Parallax regained: a glimpse of no man’s land

(first published by The Clearing 15 January 2015. With thanks to the Editors for their advice and patience).

Chainsaws woke me on the Saturday before Christmas. My neighbour was taking down the Lawson’s cypress. It wasn’t a good looking tree – the false cypress of seventies suburbia, unaccountably prized for its virus-style variegation or blue foliage or miniaturised to sit on the rock garden. But this big creature from the far side of North America had become part of my view.

I was shocked when it went. Why, when clearance must be hard-wired into our psyche? The Green, three streets away, is a product of it. When the cypress went, I could for the first time just see, over the jumble of roofs and aerials, the bare lopsided crowns of the lime trees which march along its western edge. It’s not actually a village green, but a scrap of the great heath which curved down from the north between two rivers, the Crane and the Thames. The woody plants on this alluvial soil would have been birch and gorse. Archaeologists say that back in a warm period between the Ice Ages, this mound between the rivers was treeless tundra or steppe. Then, after the ice, came the trees. And then came humans and millennia of tree clearance and grazing, and the mound between the rivers evolved into lowland heath, that enigmatic ecosystem of southern England.

Heather on Hounslow Heath.

Heather on Hounslow Heath. September 2014

The heath was vast. Four thousand acres stretching from the hunting forest of Windsor to the west, north of Staines moor, bound by the Thames to the east. Follow the Crane north west from here through soggy woods of oak and ash and you reach the remaining fragment, a patchwork of acid grassland, reed bed, poor pasture and – yes, even now – heather, the dull low scrub that spills violet pools of flower in the bleached brittle straw of the long grass of late summer.

It’s no wonder that Shakespeare took King Lear to a heath to lose his marbles. Even this small remnant meddles with your wits. In spite of the sun and the tower blocks and the planes lumbering down to “Heath”row (only the name now – the place lost under tarmac), you quickly lose your bearings among the scrappy birches and hawthorns, between the dense mounding brambles. The tattooed sunburnt couple, their flimsy polythene bags still straining with unopened cans of beer, can’t tell you how to get out, even though they try, blearily. It’s disorientating. I push my bike three times past the same young oak before I realise I’m going round in circles. Parallax lost. Unmappable. No wonder that in the fifteenth century the value of Hounslow Heath was not weighed by the acre but by the number of swine it could support. Even the ordnance survey leaves it out. Despite being the basis for the Ordnance Survey’s primary triangulation, from which the whole of the British Isles would be mapped, the heath is just an irregular white space on the map. The Romans ignored it too. Set a straight road across it, the fastest point from A to B, taking them to richer lands out west. The Roundheads garrisoned their Model Army here in the civil war. The highwaymen came later.

In the last three hundred years the heath has been tamed, reclaimed, ‘improved.’ London’s nineteenth century market garden spread, brought order and straight lines to the land, new technology detaching farming from the soil it worked, from the subtle waves of geology that express themselves in floristic gradations and disjunctions. The folk memory of flooding and drought in this place or that seeped away. My bit of the Heath, the southern curve between the rivers, has been drained, levelled, enclosed and divided. First came estates for grand houses – weekend retreats for wealthy Londoners. Then, divided again for worker’s cottages, divided again by the five ‘Cross Road’s, running north-south between the old thoroughfares to Staines and Hampton Hill. The workhouse, stables, Regency villas, Victorian terraces, small factories here and there, Edwardian maisonettes, ‘thirties apartment blocks, ‘fifties council houses backing onto the allotments: every building has its bit of land.

In spite of this, things still grow. Substantial trees, shrubs, herbs and bulbs. The garden I look onto is boxed in by others of the same size and shape, long and thin. The area of back gardens between our road and the next must add up to three acres, disputed territory for the cats and foxes that scale the wooden fences without effort. The great British passion for gardening has brought in cedars from the Levant, maples from Japan, magnolias from Sichuan, gum trees from Australia, cabbage palms from New Zealand, conifers from North America, figs from the Caucasus. Look from my window over this suburban cornucopia, such textures and colours, such diversity of flower and form, so far from the simple palette, the limited variety of the heath. You might think that these back gardens together make a thriving natural oasis of abundant biodiversity. And that this must be replicated in suburbs all over London. But they are no more than the sum of their parts. The false and Monterey cypresses may approximate to our native conifers – yew, Scots pine and juniper. It is a poor approximation, though. They are good enough for birds to land on, nest and shelter in but further down the food chain, not much cop.

I planted a ninebark, a suckering shrub from North America. I love it for its graceful arching habit, its corymbs of creamy flowers, the glossy deep red composite heads of fruit that come afterwards and the way the mature stems shed their skin in coppery ribbons. This is just decoration. The ninebark co-evolved with two moths and a handful of insects of other orders, indigenous to its native land. Now, somehow, it seems to me to be a lesser thing, growing here in southern England, without its dependants. Our two native oaks support more than two hundred species of invertebrate. If they grow for even a fraction of their nine hundred allotted years, imagine the bird life their teeming ecosystem can support.

Lowland heath is the dwindling refuge of the Dartford warbler, woodlark and nightjar, of the rare sand lizard and the smooth snake, of the ladybird spider and the southern damselfly and the black bog ant. Where will they go when all the heath becomes a golf course?

The people who chopped down the false cypress in my neighbours garden did it carelessly, violently. Afterwards the silhouette of the tree persisted like a ghost image on my retina. Parallax suspended. Over the days that followed, the birds made sense of the new view, cross hatching the space, rebuilding the three dimensions with movement and sound. The lilting flight of the goldfinches led my eye past the Indian tree of heaven to fruit trees in a neighbouring garden that I had never known were there. I caught the stop start of the rowdy gang of long tailed tits in the shifting Australian eucalyptus several houses away before they burst through the lilac under my window. I could see for the first time, five doors down, behind the old tyre business, the dark stand of Monterey cypress – another American west-coaster – alive with fieldfares, feeding on the red fruits of the cotoneaster below. I hung out of the window to listen to their dense communal chatter. But it’s the flaring crowns of the lime trees over the Green that have drawn my focus beyond the Disneyland concoction laid out under my window, drawn me up and over and back and through to an older manmade landscape, a monument to a time when we were precariously close to the land, now supplanted by the relentless expansion of the mega city.

I can admire all these exotics, enjoy their exuberance, their beauty, their vitality in spite of their displacement. But as the earth tilts on its axis and we hurtle towards Spring I have made resolutions. Here’s what I will do. I will make sure that Council has a tree preservation order on the big old ash several gardens north. And alongside the fig and the coral bark maple, the mock Orange and the ninebark, I will grow holly, hawthorn and birch, closing the gap between the handsome sterile treescape and the ancient heathland whose rhythms still pulse in the river gravels beneath us.

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