Archive for the ‘Phenology’ Category


Horace Trenerry, Winter landscape late afternoon

Horace Trenerry, Winter landscape, late afternoon light.  c1945

Art Gallery of South Australia


All years are exceptional years, but this one has been more exceptional than most. Even the weather has joined in, so that we have had, not the usual dull progression of grey, spent anticyclones, but instead a run of almost continuous snow and cold from Advent onwards. A white Christmas, and a seemingly endless succession of sledging and skating days, has made this winter the stuff of childhood myth.

Naturally, everyone is complaining. Trains are delayed, roads unploughed, heating bills up; and the snow itself too cold, too white, too wet, too deep: too much – altogether too much. I annoy as many as I can by smiling Cheshire-like through the spindrift, cheerfully piling up the latest deposits with my trusty snow shovel, and laughing out loud when the sheer weight of encrusted glop finally defeats my attempts to cycle on hub-deep virgin pathways.

Others may moan, but snow brings out my inner puppy. It makes for a world that is clean, bright, legible, and malleable. Inconsequential creativity and destruction accompany every step, and the snowpack’s current surface and structure contain a detailed log of the previous weeks’ human, animal and meteorological activity. Photographically, it is usually regarded as a problem to be solved: the root cause of untamed contrast and heart warming stylistic clichés, but to me, seeing snow as a problem is formally equivalent to the idiot killjoys who claim to yearn for our more usual climate of steady rain and omnipresent mud. Photographing in the cold does have its technical issues – most urgently, how to stop fingers from freezing – but I love snow for the way it divides figure from ground; decorates and enhances detail; abstracts and purifies terrain; and perpetually adjusts its own shape, density, colour and texture.


Teazles and Cow Parsley

Teazles and cow parsley


So it is odd then, that I’ve not been out much with my camera of late. It’s partly the bicycle thing: a round trip of my favourite patches has expanded from an hour to two and a half, or more, depending on the state of the tracks and the viciousness of the wind. Swedish has a wonderful word, ‘modd’, for the odd pastry-dough snow that results when a path has been ploughed and salted, but not quite enough. On modd, a thin-wheeled bike like mine explores all the allowed degrees of freedom of its relative parts before jettisoning its ice-clogged chain and folding itself into the nearest ditch. Getting off and pushing is the only cure, which extends the tour beyond even my generous definition of a lunch break.


Liu Guosung, Untitled 1976

Liu Guosong, Untitled 1976

Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas


All the same, cabin fever boiled over last week, and I abandoned my desk for a prolonged slog around a nominally familiar loop. I found my haunts in a curious twilight zone, with the temperature-sensitive plants and trees all still dormant, but the wildlife, who count hours of daylight, doing their best to initiate spring.

Of all the classes of the animal kingdom, it was the birds who were making the most effort to drive out winter by brute force. In one mad five minute rush I was buzzed by three species of woodpecker, an impossibly cute family of long-tailed tits, several singleton nuthatches, five red kites, two common buzzards, and a pair of ravens aggressively driving off everything larger than a pigeon from what they had obviously decided was to be their wood alone. A sudden silence, usually my clodhopping fault, turned out to be caused by a juvenile golden eagle grumpily settling on an outskirting branch. There was even, off in the distance, an odd strangled gurgle that gave me hope that at least one capercallie has decided to ignore the conventional wisdom as to its preferred range and habitat, and settle down among my local broadleaves.

It is hard not to take such a profusion of riches personally: as a prodigal’s return, and as confirmation of the inspired rightness of occasional absenteeism. Even for an anti-romantic like me there is a peace to be had from catching up with old friends like the unphotographable overstood lime coppice, or the interestingly disintegrating hazel log where the path forks round a sump. The unusual presence of a long-lived snow layer only adds to the charm, and greatly helps the forensic task of teasing out all the missed out on news and gossip.


Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Winter Landscape

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Winter Landscape

from Masters of Photography


With no knowledgeable partner to challenge me, tracks in the snow become like far off mountain tops – nameable without fear of contradiction. The wing-spread imprint and hopping twofer track could be a magpie or a crow, but either will fit the day and the imagination well enough. Deer could be roe, fallow or (unlikely) red, and although hunters will snigger at my inability to tell them apart, exact categorisation is not the point of my journey. It is the humans who are unmistakable: kids’ wellies taking the path of maximum deviation, businesslike woodmen’s boots between stands of recently thinned trees, the tracks of daft fools wheeling bicycles through the middle of forests, and, at the entrance to my ultimate Thule, no less than four polished sets of bogged-down tyre holes where unwary drivers had ignored common sense and the scraping of ice on their underbodies and had to be dragged out backwards by tractor.

One animal track I have learned to distinguish is that of the hare. Our back garden is part of the domestic world, and if not visited too often by the neighbours’ cats, is quickly colonised by settler rabbits. The front is a wilder, more primeval place, and appropriately enough is grazed by their fey relatives, supermodel elfin animals with long limbs, exaggerated bone structure, and a gaze which frankly warns against any notions of sentimental closeness.


Bruno Liljefors, Winter Hare

Bruno Liljefors, Winter hare


The three-one-three-one-three-one rabbit hops are clearly different from the two-two ‘T’-shapes left by the hares, and although both coexist in places the rabbits give way to the hares as you leave the safe civilisation of the town and head out into the open fields of what with only a slight trace of bathos is known as the Lund Steppe. When the days are longer, and the crops still short, it is easy to find large groups of hares boxing their way across the germinating rapeseed and wheat. For now though, they are most obvious by their tracks. Individual footpads can be made out here and there, but wherever any distance is to be covered they merge into well-defined hareways which run like Roman roads clear to the horizon and beyond. In the woods, where the snow is deeper and softer, the sunken tracks form an intersecting net, spanning all of space without obviously going anywhere.

Our hares rarely wait as long as March before turning mad, and sure enough there were a few lines of sex-obsessed males hopping along in the wake of exasperated-looking females, the dance slowed to a more than usually comic act by the difficulty a thirty centimetre animal necessarily faces when attempting to run in fifty centimetres of loose snow. It is now over twenty years since careful observation demolished the view held since antiquity that boxing hares are males indulging in a rut, or that they only behave this way in March, but whatever the particulars, it is a rare humbling to be surrounded by twenty to thirty animals who normally would bolt from your presence at extremely high speed, but who now studiously ignore you as they complete a ritual whose purpose is at once totally obvious and wholly opaque.

It is no surprise that hares figure in so many genuinely ancient folk tales and foundation myths: the experience of the acutely uncanny without any trace of the sublime predates modern novelistic storytelling by millennia. That the experience is available to anyone who can be bothered to hop on a bike at lunchtime strikes me as a minor miracle, and provides a deep reassurance in a public world dominated by prepackaged, commercialised notions of what is worth feeling. I am not about to become a wildlife photographer, but the ease with which the ordinary can shock me if only I take the trouble to attend to it is a theme worth pursuing.


Ice angles


Warm weather around Easter put an abrupt stop to the woodcutting season here, and I have been noting this year’s effects on the town and the surrounding countryside.  Two much-loved smaller trees are gone, but there are also comforting signs that the neglect of some of my favourite places is of a benign sort, and not the mark of abandonment or – worse – imminent redevelopment.  It has been fascinating to see decisions being made which will have aesthetic consequences well past my children’s lifetimes.  

Lund is finally getting round to taking down some of the standing dead trees within the town boundaries, prompted by a large poplar which nearly crushed a baby and toddler as it fell over.  After much wailing and anguish in the local paper money has been found for some long-needed preventative medicine, albeit at the cost of adding rotten willows and poplars to the already extensive inventory of diseased elms needing attention. 

The gardeners in the large nineteenth century graveyard which abuts our house on two sides came and took out their last few remaining elms, but gratuitously saw fit to also chop down a harmless but lovely thirty-four year old hornbeam.  We are hoping they will lack the resources or the determination to come and grind out the stump, giving the tree a chance to send up shoots and live on.  There is hope: a similar-sized maple cut down outside my office last year managed to put on five feet of new growth in as many months before the groundsmen got round to grubbing it out for good.

Nobody really knows why trees in the temperate zones evolved the ability to recover from trauma by starting new growth from dormant buds hidden under the bark, but the same mechanism that is thought to have saved early trees from the depredations of megafauna, disease, and windthrow now serves to frustrate the tidy gardener, just as it frustrated clearance-minded settlers from the Stone Age to colonial times.  Before American landscape painters discovered the barren West, their tame foregrounds were almost always populated by a field of stumps.  The difficulty of eradicating ironbark eucalypts in Australia meant their remains were employed as markers in the landscape long after agrarian use had been established.  The phrase ‘back of the Black Stump’ is still used to indicate land beyond the outer rim of civilisation.

Sometimes a tree’s resilience is used to advantage: without it, garden favourites like knotted limes, formal topiary, and espaliered fruit trees would not exist.  Mostly though, woodcutting is seen as a necessary evil, a winter chore to keep gardens and parks looking as planned, or a way of dealing with trees which have become inconveniently large, unstable, or old.

This attitude is a consequence of a deeper-held misconception: that deciduous hardwoods cannot be a continuously productive asset.  In the contemporary urban imagination to ‘use’, say, an oak, means to let it grow to the desired size, and then to cut it down entirely, planting a new tree – or a housing estate – where it stood, and leaving no trace of the original tree.  Woodcutting indicates an emotional, end-of-times event, associated with the destruction of something known since childhood; an irreversible step along a path that leads away from the diversity and complexity of free nature to the monotony of ordered domestication.

Quite apart from the fact that no tree in Western Europe has been free of human influence for at least two thousand years – there is no ‘free’ nature here – this way of looking at trees ignores the existence of a once extensive industry based upon regular cycles of cutting and re-growth for the production of small-scale timber, firewood and leaf fodder.  Like working dogs, these working trees look different to their domesticated pet cousins such as pruned garden trees, or trees subjected to a crown reduction late in life, and their physical structure and ecology, and the knock-on effects on the surrounding landscape, are all characteristic.



Jacob Epstein Glade in Epping Forest c. 1945


There are two main shapes to regularly-cut trees.  The first is the coppice, where the tree is cut down to the ground, and the new shoots form a ring that grows outward with each cutting.  The second is the pollard, where the tree is cut back to a level above the teeth of grazing animals so as to protect the new shoots.  Cutting can be as often as every two or three years to produce sticks for weaving or other craft use, or up to fifteen or twenty years for small-scale timber and long-burning firewood.  There is also ‘shredding’, a catchall word describing any cutting back of side branches that stops short of outright pollarding.

All these forms of cutting keep the tree in a juvenile state.  For pollards, this can prolong its life to two or three times the span of uncut, ‘standard’ trees, and a coppiced tree can live essentially forever.  Allowing the limbs to grow too thick makes it harder or impossible for the tree to recover from the cutting, and the top-heavy tree becomes susceptible to rot and wind, so ancient pollards and coppices are indicators of long periods of continuous human care.  The decline of traditional underwood management since the Second World War has meant that many woodlands which have been in dynamic equilibrium since the Middle Ages or earlier are now full of ‘overstood’ coppice, or ‘candelabra’ pollards with top-heavy, thick-boughed crowns.  Re-starting the cutting cycle risks simply killing the tree, which leaves owners with an interesting dilemma: renovating the aspect of the woodland which is truly ancient risks losing it altogether.



Stephen Thompson After the Storm 

From the British Library


Individual ancient pollards are celebrated for their size, odd shapes and sheer age.  The life-prolonging effects of pollarding means that the oldest trees with the largest girths are often pollards, or ex pollards grown out.  A celebrity worship has built up around individual trees – the Thomas Pakenham “Remarkable Trees” franchise is one notable aspect – but that harvesting from entire stands of pollards was once relatively common is poorly appreciated, even in places like Epping Forest which penetrates deep into metropolitan London, and where large stands of pollard hornbeams and beeches are still to be found.

Coppices have if anything fared even worse.  ‘Copse’ has come to mean any small wood, and attempts to re-start the coppice cycle in ancient woods are seen as pure vandalism.  North of Lund, where the underlying moraine turns from lime to acid is a band running across the country once known as ‘risbygden’ – the withy lands.  Here, sandwiched between the rich southern farmland and the true evergreen woods further north, was a region that provided the wood-poor farmers further south with the underwood products – particularly fencing and dead hedging – they did not grow for themselves.  Vast areas of sixteenth and seventeenth century maps are covered with ‘surskog’, word for a type of wood whose meaning and etymology is unknown, which is almost certainly coppice, although nobody knows for sure.  Even more remarkably, it is not even known which species of tree were grown in these woods.



Felled Hornbeam


The odd man out is willow.  Historically, pollard willows and coppiced osier for basketry were exceptional in laws and customs compared to other trees, and that exception continues today.  In my county, Skåne, pollard willows are everywhere: with rows of old, flayed handlike ones marking the fields, roads and watercourses as they were one to two hundred years ago, and livid-stemmed new ones around houses, paddocks and estates of new builds.  Osier is still grown on a small scale for basket making, but it is also farmed like an arable crop in dense stands of ‘short rotation coppice’ to produce biofuel.  However, new pollards of other species are very hard or impossible to find, and non-willow coppices are almost entirely accidentals.

There is a class aspect to the neglect of pollards and coppices.  The spreading oak tree is a rich man’s tree.  It symbolises stability, reliability and longevity, but also wealth.  You have to be rich to allow the tree room to grow, and to forego the income from regular cutting.  Cut trees represent the poor commoner, so except for Versailles-derived models, they do not figure in the aspirational gardens of the growing urban classes.  They are mostly ignored in literature and art too, a prejudice which has been inherited wholesale by photography.

There is also a utilitarian logic to this forgetfulness: although traditional practices do live on in the form of craft-fayre handicrafts like wickerwork baskets or cleftwood fencing, plastics and cheap steel have taken over the roles of most traditional woodland products, and burning wood as fuel is now for the most part either a secondary way to heat a home or purely decorative.  Cutting leaf fodder for grazing animals is regarded as a hopelessly backward practice, suitable only for feeding third world goats in lands with no grass.  In Northern Europe, we simply no longer have any practical need that can be serviced by economically viable cyclical harvesting.

However, nobody seems to have told the trees: not only do the older ones retain the mark of our vanished attitudes in the patterns of their branches and the spacings of their annual rings, but trees of all ages carry on reviving and sprouting wherever they are given the chance.  Low-maintenance verges on roads and railways are the new coppices in the landscape, as they favour quick-growing trees which can survive hacking down by mechanical flail every few years or so.  Deliberately created modern pollards are rare, and tend to be in gardens or parks, but the need to maintain free passage for delivery lorries and fire engines past the spandrels of the suburban road system can also lead to regular pruning back to the stem.

My personal interest in these trees is twofold.  First, the older trees are telltales of a change in land use.  Grown-out windbreak pollards around a farmhouse tell a story of changing fashions as well as the shift from on-site to off-site energy production.  Groups of similar trees amid housing developments show graphically how the town has swallowed up the surrounding farmland, and the thickness of their candelabra boughs dates the estate as surely as architectural styles or papers in the local records office.  Coppices are largely eradicated, but the few old stools I have found are unmistakable signs of human activity in the nominal wild.



Woodcut by ‘BB‘ from Brendon Chase


Secondly, current attitudes betray a wealth of unspoken assumptions about the landscape, the purpose and value we put upon it, and how we see ourselves within it.  These include the aspirational habit of only growing – or photographing – prestigious standard trees; the selective nature of a so-called tradition which only remembers one species, willow; and the modern cult of self-centred nature worship, with it’s highly codified rules about beauty and how it should be portrayed.

Trees are the part of the landscape which most closely matches the timescales of human memory and myth making.  They show their history in their structure and distribution, and they preserve in visible form the consequences of decisions made by many previous generations.  Their survival, unchanged yet ever changing, can be regarded as a minor miracle, or an accidental by-product of the art of the possible compounded over centuries.  Either way, they are signs that deserve to be read and understood, at the intuitive level, and the intellectual.




I took this photo the first winter we lived in this house and know all the stories behind the minor details, none of which are worth telling to others, but all of which have a personal significance.  A case of the particular in the universal.  In a few more weeks there will be two more trees perched on the woodpile, and between now and then I expect to be fully engaged with three over-excited children, a glass or two of something good, and ridiculous amounts of traditional food from two separate cultures.  

May all your holidays be equally full of punctum.

Today is the day.  Now is the time.  

I thought at first they were fieldfares.  One of the gangs of noisy feathered yobbos that lord it over the local parks and who in good berry years move into the suburbs to strip the rowans and whitebeams.  Only when I got close enough to hear the noise was it clear that waxwings were back in town, and that winter had truly begun.

Extravagant in plumage, number and voice, a flock of waxwings is a living, flowing proof that a whole can be incomparably greater than the sum of its parts.  Traditional nature photography invariably pictures waxwings as individuals.  Admittedly they do have those cute tufts and wing flashes, and like literally to hang out on photogenic clusters of red berries, but in the life they are a noisy gregarious bunch and you usually meet them as a flock.  No photograph can truly convey the immersive experience of being in the middle of such a skittish mass of twittering, feasting birds.  A treefull will rain twigs, leaves and droppings on a cautious observer and then on no obvious trigger will rise up in a great flustered wheeling and flapping, before settling one-by-one in a nearby tree to restart the plunder.

Today’s was a small flock, only a hundred birds or so.  Some years ago our flats were surrounded at dawn by a couple of thousand, a fantastic sight and sound, and unignorable for even the most curmudgeonly naturephobe.  So many small birds in one place was equally irresistible to the local raptors, and even the acutely shy farmland harriers were tempted into town to join the urban small hawks in splitting and dispersing the huge flock.  By lunchtime a ragged end-of-party feel had descended, complete with waxwings drunk on bletted fruit stunning themselves and breaking their necks against our windows.  At sunset the birds and the berries were gone, with only leaf debris and a few sad casualties on the ground to remind us that they had been there at all.  All the following week I would see small raiding parties in individual trees around the town, but once the last fruit had been taken, the birds moved on elsewhere.

Photography has made me take proper notice of the seasons.  It has highlighted the significance and the uniqueness of rare confluences like that improvident waxwing morning, and it has reinforced my gut instinct that the supposedly timeless is made up of an infinite succession of unique moments.  I feel no great angst if I do not photograph everything interesting that happens in my life, but my eyes are open even when the lens cap is on, and I avoid the urge to scurry past with a white lie that I’ll pay attention next time.