Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Valley # 1

We are quite high here, up on the watershed. On the other side of the hill the streams and rivers flow down to the Atlantic, to the bonny bay of Biscay-o, on our side down to the Channel.
Capillaries of runnels and ditches, sometimes drained and piped, feed into nameless smaller streams which in turn feed the more substantial arteries, here the Evron and Gouessant, the latter flowing through Lamballe and out into the bay. The local farmers' trading co-operative is named after the Gouessant, which is slightly ironic as they are the ones who persistently pollute and generally disrespect it.

Soft grooves and undulations formed by these watercourses feather the landscape. I follow the road to where our land finishes and go left along the short voie communale into the fields, toward the columns of a double row of poplars planted along the banks of the emerging stream, whose coppery, balsamic-scented leaf-buds are only just forming, and then walk along the field edge overlooking the valley.

The farmed land, mainly pasture but sometimes ploughed for arable, is fenced by a single electric strand - one thing I do rejoice at here is an absence of barbed wire - then edged by a broken melee of brambles, beyond that is a narrow cleft of woodland with the stream at the bottom, a sliver of wildness and wet in an orderly green desert, too steep and unstable to allow the livestock into. The oaks are tall and straggling, and between are weed woods, hazel and elder, the occasional holly. The earth is soft and friable, there are no paths or tracks but random terraces formed by tree roots. It is continually shifting and re-forming, sometimes the ground subsides and trees fall, sometimes they are felled and logged and the smaller unwanted branches piled up haphazardly so that parts of it become inaccessible. For a time after these events the ground looks raw and ravaged, but quickly new growth takes place, and often plants which struggled before benefit from the access of light. The overturned trunks and dead stumps become small worlds colonised by other species.


We find a gap in the brambles and scramble down. This is a route I take mainly in the spring, from March to May but most especially in March. In the winter it is soggy and dour and uninviting, the fields leading to it frequently too trampled and smelly with cattle, in the summer and autumn the canopy becomes too thick and it is sombre and dull, the stream often low. I experience a not entirely disagreeable sense of discomfort, even of menace, here, for a number of reasons.


I have to walk with care, the footings are unreliable, what looks solid may be loose leaf mould, and the branch or stem I grasp at to save myself may well give way in my hand. I have a polished and ferruled forked walking stick I sometimes bring, which helps, and in the event of a twisted ankle would bring me home with greater ease, but my hands are full with dog lead and camera and I don't have it today. I like the activity of walking on steep and uneven ground with a stick; one's centre of gravity changes, the whole upper body is engaged, you become more like a four-footed thing. And this is the realm of the four-footed things.



The terraces and hollows and loose soil provide opportunities for homes for rabbits, foxes and badgers, all of which we've seen. Their front doors let onto the open fields, and these woods are their back gates and alleys. Once as we walked along the field edge a young cub, fuzzy pink-orange, emerged from an earth, his back to me, quite close; the back of the head and neck of all young things always looks so tender and vulnerable ( not only the young, Bergman drew attention to it in the elderly Victor Sjostrom in 'Wild Strawberries'...). In the moment I turned round to signal to Molly, who hadn't seen him, to stay, he was gone. Foxes here are not the insolent gangsters they have become in British towns and cities ( and good luck to them ); they are in evidence but discreet.

I know as I clump and crackle around their woods and as my dog snuffles at their holes, that the creatures who live below are in fear of us, our noise and our smells. Yet I too am nervous of them, quite irrationally, now I am in their domaine. Their resentment makes me uneasy, a feeling perhaps enhanced by the fact that the entrances to their holes and earths are at times on my eye level; my two-legged advantage is reduced. Perhaps too it is an atavistic anxiety I feel about venturing from the open plains into the forest margins, where once wild animals could pounce or slither from their lairs to do harm. But there is something about these earthdwellers, their invisible, chthonic lives down there which suggests dark possibilities to the imagination, predator and prey so close together, the terror of the rabbit who inadvertently strays within the labyrinth into the fox's or the badger's chamber... I doubt that these fantasies have any grounds in reality, but that world is very other to me. In the same way as birds do not suffer vertigo but fear enclosed spaces, so these animals are uneasy in the open spaces where I feel comfortable, but know nothing of claustrophobia. I am also a little afraid for my dog with her woolly ears poor sight and impractically shaggy coat, who, in comparison to the wild predators, seems effete and ill-equipped. She, however, is deliciously happy.
But the sense of the sinister not only comes from the innocent animals who live here. I feel that not only have I intruded into their meanstreets, but that I might possibly also encounter evidence of the darker side of human, particularly agricultural, activity. These waste and wooded corners are frequently used as refuse tips by farmers, though the ones who farm here, who are also my near neighbours, are responsible and clean. However, the water table is inevitably polluted by nitrates and other run-off, the stream looks pretty and clear but it is dead; the frogspawn and newts and salamanders older local people recall in every puddle and road ditch in their childhood are rarely seen now, and not here. And indeed, at the entrances to the foxholes are ribbons of initially unidentifiable whitish matter, which on closer inspection proves to be fish waste, skin, the odd head and tail, of dogfish and salmon. An egregious discovery which defies ready explanation; there is no fish processing plant near here, was it dumped from the road nearby, or has somebody been feeding seafish to pigs? Nasty, but it wouldn't surprise me, and could be nastier. Probably is. Molly exhibits essential animal nature and picks up a piece, but drops it when I bawl at her.
We descend to the floor of the valley.

The stream runs over sand and gravel, through a squelch of wet leaf mould, perpendicular green shoots and celandine,


and tufts of moorgrass as tall as myself.


Jungly ropes of ivy hang from the branches.


In a hollow I find them, this is what I came for, and why I always come in March.



I have observed a resistance, both in myself and others, to writing about and picturing daffodils. All Wordsworth's fault, I suppose, and, as someone partly named, I think, for his poor overlooked 'violet by a mossy stone' drippy heroine, I can see why people grew rather jaded with jonquils. In fact I love daffodils (and I'm still quite fond of Wordsworth ), including the big, loud, cadmium yellow ones which splatter springtime through every park and garden, the exquisitely fragranced paper-whites, and the delicate pheasant-eye narcissi that come later. But these small, pale woodland wild flowers, no more than eight inches high, are something finer and rarer. Next to the neon and halogen of the cultivars, these are sacred votive candles in the chapel of the wood. Their leek-green shoots are Persephone's nails spiking through winter's dead matter,

they are faery gold and precious beyond rubies. I pick a few, five perhaps, or sometimes seven, no more than one from any separate plant, to take home and put in a wineglass.



In May there will be bluebells all through the woods, joyous and more abundant than the daffodils. I'll try to get here for those, but somehow in the riot and profligacy of that month, they lack the acute and poignant urgency of these first messengers of spring.


12 comments:

catalyst said...

Beautifully written and photographed, Lucy.

Marja-Leena said...

Yes, beautiful. Thank you for taking us on this lovely ramble in your woods, and for the lovely surprise at the end!

Plutarch said...

I am particularly fond of celandine, which I noted about half way through your walk, and photographed the other day myself near here. I still like daffodils, in the same way as I still like sunflowers. It's a shame when the freshness of an image is spoilt by too much repetition. You have to return to the first shock of creation, I guess.

Tall Girl said...

Wow! This is a wonderfully crafted post, L. So good to go walking with you...

marlyat2 said...

Delicious walk through your mucky ground--like that part with the thready trees and celandine.

We have been living with holes and tunnels (the children quarry our massive snow) but it has been warmish for several days, and today we had rain. And that means the air is all very white fog.

Glad to see a cheerful flower.

zhoen said...

Photos that leave me yearing for forest in early spring.

Rather fond of daffodils.

Dave said...

Great post. I like daffodils, too, even though they are non-native and mildly invasive here.

Granny J said...

A wonderful walk and a splendid goal. I had never thought about daffodils as wild flowers. Thank you!

stitchwort said...

Sensational!
Thanks for the description and the pictures.

MB said...

Next to the neon and halogen of the cultivars, these are sacred votive candles in the chapel of the wood. Beautifully put. Thanks for taking us with you.

Lucy said...

Thank you all, for coming along!

Avus said...

I enjoyed our walk together, Lucy. Wonderful words and pictures.