From October – November time last year…
It is good to be still again.
In two senses I am enjoying the calm. The trip across the States, 6 cities and 4 National Parks in a little over 3 weeks, was awesome but non-stop, almost too much to absorb in one go.
Back on the Patch and the weather has been unsettled to say the least. High winds have been battering the Dee, everywhere there is turbulence.
But not today, at last it is calm.
I am in the woods, Stapledon Woods to be exact, to enjoy a mellow autumn day. As the Patch slouches through autumn towards the stasis of winter I can feel the pace slowing, and nowhere more so than here under the trees.
Things are just different in the woods. For one thing, you are IN the woods, you have to enter the woods. Unlike on the wide open spaces of the Dee mudflats where the feeling is much different. You arrive ON the shore where sometimes you will be the tallest thing there, standing out, obvious. Not so in the woods, around me ancient oaks loom over me (not on the scale of Yosemite’s redwoods but still impressive all the same). You can disappear in the woods if you want to, it surrounds you.
I don’t find this feeling claustrophobic though, it’s sort of comfortable.
Around me are the signs of the season. As chlorophyll decays to xanthocyanins in drying leaves they turn from lush greens to gaudy yellows, each leaf a chemistry set, the woods a laboratory, the autumn a huge experiment.
I like the woods because of the slow pace, accentuated by the current season, of life here. It takes years and years to grow a tree to maturity, seeds can lie dormant for generations, just waiting for a gap in the canopy to provide enough light to start germination. I like the harmony too, the sharing of resources. As I watch Blue Tits searching the crinkled bark of an Oak for food I hear the calls of Redwings overhead. The resident and the migrant will live side by side here for the winter.
This tolerance and the longevity of the woods is a welcome antidote to the short-termism, greed and xenophobia that I have seen so much of in life and politics recently.
Yes, in the woods I briefly feel insulated from all the bad stuff in the world. I switch my phone to silent, then off altogether, unplugging myself from the digital world.
After my trip to the USA with the ride around the parks with some cool people I decided to dip a toe into the pool of online social networking and get busy with Facebook and Twitter (if you like you can follow me here). It is kind of cool but for now I like the solitude of the woods.
I kick some autumn leaves around. I examine a yellowing leaf up close, count the berries on a Holly branch and sniff the strange sweetish not-exactly-pleasant-but-not-entirely-unpleasant smell of damp decay that permeates woodland at this time of year.
The odd mushroom pushes up through the moss of a rotting log.
These woods are named after the author Olaf Stapledon who lived here for a while when he worked at Liverpool University. Although he is well regarded by other more famous sci-fi authors, Olaf is not as well known as he should be. I have read one of his books, Last and First Men, I even read a chapter or two sat on the bench that overlooks the fields adjacent to these woods. The story, first published in 1930, stretches over vast tracts of time and the predictions of the near future are startlingly prophetic. Ages, nations and civilisations come and go. The timescale and themes in his book again underline the trivial nature of the fear-mongers of modern politics and squabbles over religion, lines in the sand and money.
But none of that matters here in the woods. All I am worried about here is getting the exposure correct to photograph the aforementioned Blue Tits in flight. The right combination of ISO, aperture and shutter speed are eventually found and I get my pictures.
My next challenge is the Nuthatches that are flitting along the branches deeper in the woods. It is darker here so a slower shutter speed is needed to capture all the details. I love figuring these settings out. Reading the instruction book for the camera was the best thing I ever did, and although I am trying to be a little more carefree with some of my pictures I still can’t totally trust the camera to get it right on its own. Again, after a little experimentation, some test exposures and a bunch of blurry shots fit only for the recycle bin, I get my pictures.
Before I leave I sit for a while under Olaf’s Oaks and soak up the tranquillity of his woods. Still singing despite the end of the breeding season is a tiny Wren. Its huge staccato song belying its diminutive stature.
After half an hour listening to the Wren I have to wander off, the real world beckons and I boot up the phone to plug myself back into the matrix. It flashes and chirps with texts, emails, likes, tweets and the occasional retweet.
As if in reply to this electronic chatter the Wren launches into his song again and I smile to myself as I leave the sanctuary of the trees.
It’s all good in the woods.