Awake to the English rain forest

As I turn off the noisy main road onto a tiny quiet lane, I am immediately surrounded by scrubby hawthorn trees which have sprung up on this abandoned corner. As soon as enough scrub separates me from the road to provide a visual barrier, the air changes and my mood changes with it. I hear the piping of a score of small birds flitting in the branches, I smell the damp earth. So conditioned to the industrial sounds and smells of our urban world as we are, it is a shock to suddenly have my senses awakened to the emanations of nature. They alert in me a different feeling, an awakeness to a slower rhythm and more ancient cycles.

The hawthorn trees have grown up on disturbed ground, perhaps an old quarry, or workings from the time when the lane was first sealed. These scrubby trees have now reached their maturity, between them birch, ash and some oak fill in the gaps. My attention is drawn to one particular oak – older than the others. The old woodman’s wisdom says that ‘thorn is the mother of oak’, which seems to be true here, the other trees having grown up under the protection of the hawthorn which colonises open ground. But there is murder here! In a reversal of the Oedipus myth, so beloved of Freud, the oak grows up to overshadow and kill its mother. So it is here, this oak has long reaching branches stretching out radially from its twin stems. These now overshadow a broad circle of dying thorn. Closer in there is a smaller circle of ground free of any undergrowth, a circle of seasonal deep shade provided by the tree’s summer foliage. In this circle the ground is completely covered with a thick carpet of moss and ferns. I recognise star moss and fairy moss, but there are others here too. Even on a dull and drizzly January day this green carpet is vibrant, almost dazzling.

The tree’s stems are also completely covered with moss of a different kind and grey-green lichens, the lichens colonising particularly the drier underside of now decaying lower branches. The bark is not even visible on the trunks. The moss is damp. The scent of dampness permeates the air – an ancient smell, an earthy forest smell. I hold my hand to the damp trunk and feel the water slowly percolating down through the myriad pores in a blanket of moss. Where the moss hangs free of the trunk, water droplets form, constantly drip to the ground, and are immediately renewed. One kind of moss shows thousands of tiny orange fruiting bodies extending a few millimetres beyond the green sheath, each body holds a drop of crystal water refracting the light, creating an identical image a hundred times over of this sea of green tranquility.

I hesitate over that word. Can this smorgasbord of sensual stimulation be tranquillity? Yet in these primeval nudges, this subtle nuture of smell and sound and taste, I experience a deep stillness.

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