Author Archives: Bug Woman

Bugwoman on Location – Big Wood

Oak trees with golden leaves, Big Wood, Hampstead Garden Suburb

Dear Readers, this week I decided to take myself off for a small adventure, in a place that is near at hand but completely new to me. Big Wood is just around the corner from East Finchley, in Hampstead Garden Suburb. It is not actually a very Big Wood, but at 7.3 hectares it is bigger than nearby Little Wood, at 1.2 hectares. It was originally part of the Bishop of London’s estate but was leased to many different owners, who coppiced the wood for fence posts and firewood. From 1810, however, it seems that the wood was turned over to oak timber – most of the magnificent oaks date from the 19th century. Furthermore, the understorey is largely hazel coppice, rather than the hornbeams from my local Coldfall wood. The remnants of ancient woodland in North London have been heavily managed since medieval times, and probably for far longer.

It’s not all oak and hazel, however. This tiny wood holds over 80 wild service trees, who spread only from the root of the parent plant in the UK because it’s too cold for the seeds to germinate. They are therefore an indicator of the age of the wood, and also a sign that, however the wood has been managed, some parts have been left alone for centuries. There were still a few of the golden-yellow leaves left.

Leaves of wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis)

There are also true wild crab apple trees. The thick spiny growth on the trunk indicates that these are not ‘wildlings’, trees which have grown up from discarded apple cores, but original trees – some are over a hundred years old. I shall have to visit again when the trees are in blossom – there are lots of wild cherries here too, some of them as tall (though not as robust) as the oaks.

Trunk of a wild crab apple (Malus sylvestris)

As I walk slowly through the wood, I hear the drumming of woodpeckers. Are the males setting up territories already? I hear one bird and then another, a little further away. There is lots of standing dead wood, perfect for nest holes, digging for grubs and percussion.

Nuthatches are scurrying along the branches, excavating under the loose bark for small insects.

An imperfect photo of a¬† nuthatch (as my photos usually are ūüôā )

But the rowdiest of the forest inhabitants are undoubtedly the ring-necked parakeets, with their squawking and their arguing. I have mentioned before that they are amongst the earliest of the hole-nesting birds, getting themselves settled well before the woodpeckers and the stock doves. A pair in the tree above me were definitely house-hunting, and weren’t above making their own alterations, digging out the hole that they’d found and showering me with bark.

I often find that when I go for a walk I start out at a brisk trot and get slower and slower, eventually coming to a complete halt. And it was while I was sitting on a bench that I noticed how the sun was lighting up the spider silk in the bush opposite me. The more I looked, the more strands I saw.

Onwards! In one part of the wood, the hazel coppice has been cut right down to the ground. The health of a wood depends on having trees of various ages, and the young oak trees here do badly because the older trees completely screen out the light. So, the people managing the wood are transplanting failing young trees into this much brighter area to the north-east of the wood, in the hope that they will thrive there. They have also planted a variety of local woodland flowers in the hope of increasing the biodiversity. I shall have to pop back in the spring to see how it’s all doing.

A coppiced area in Big Wood

As usual, though, it’s often the small things that catch my eye. There are miniature forests of moss on some of the hazel branches.

The holly and the ivy grow together, appropriately as Christmas approaches.

The way that the root of a fallen tree tangles together reminds me of something from the Kama Sutra

And through it all, the dappled sunlight.

Big Wood is a well-used spot, full of children and dog-walkers and runners, and yet it retains a certain wildness, even so. It has seen so many generations come and go but here it still is, getting on with the business of photosynthesising and decay. The cycle of life goes on regardless, and on some days that is a comfort. There’s nothing like standing next to an oak tree to give one a sense of perspective.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Flowering Quince

Flowering quince (Chaenomeles x superba)

Dear Readers, whenever you read a book about winter-flowering shrubs, flowering quince is sure to be one of the top five. It is, however, a confusing plant. For one thing, it isn’t the ‘true’ quince (Cydonia oblonga), although it is related to it. All quinces flower, so there is nothing unusual in the fact that this one is in bloom. It is also known as the Japanese quince, which is a little closer to the mark as all Chaenomeles come from the Far East, but the true Japanese Quince (Chaenomeles japonica) is rarely grown in gardens. In short, the common names for the plant do nothing but pile confusion on top of confusion. However, I forgive all this because, in a chill, sunny day earlier this week, this plant was by far the prettiest thing in Hampstead Garden Suburb.

One feature of the flowering quince is that the flowers emerge directly from the stalk, before the leaves. It was the first time that I’d seen a pink variety – the ones in the County Roads here in East Finchley are normally the orange-red variety.

Photo One from https://www.flickr.com/photos/conifer/38844133980

Orange-red flowering quince (Photo One)

Flowering quince also has the virtue of being quite a spiny plant (it is a member of the Rose family after all) and I have seen it combined in hedges with such well-armed shrubs as Pyracantha. It is quite often ‘persuaded’ into miniaturisation as a bonsai.

Let us not completely overlook the fruits either. They are hard, sour and small, though this is ameliorated somewhat after the first frost. However, they can be used as a substitute for lemon juice, or turned into jelly, much as crab apples are. The Grown to Cook website has a recipe for Japanese quince jelly with star anise, and the photos are lovely too.¬† In Japan the fruit is known as karin or flower pear, and commands a high price, so if you have one of these shrubs in your garden I’d have thought it would be worth harvesting the fruit to see what you can do with it. Some websites recommend combining it with apples to offset its astringency. Note that it is also extremely high in pectin, so helps with the set of jams and jellies.

Photo Two from http://www.growntocook.com/?p=36

Quince jelly on bread. Yum! (Photo Two)

In Japan, the fruit of flowering quince is also used to make cough and sore throat remedies. The botanist James Wong mentions that for Japanese people, Chaenomeles cough sweets take the place of our honey and lemon. He also mentions that Russian scientists introduced the plant to the Baltic states as a source of vitamin C – the fruits have a slightly higher level than lemons – and so the plant is sometimes known as ‘Baltic lemon’.

What I love about flowering quince, though, is that element of surprise. In late spring, when everything is bursting into bloom, you might not notice this plant. But in winter, when the only competition is the acid yellow flowers of Mahonia, it is breathtaking. It was eulogised by one Miss Twamley who, in a poem called ‘The Romance of Nature’, refers to the flowers as ‘fairy fires’

‘That gleam and glow amid the wintery scene
Lighting their ruddy beacons at the sun
To melt away the snow…..’

Flowering quince features extensively in the art of Japan. Here, for example, is the artist Watanabe Seitei’s painting ‘Japanese Thrush with Flowering Quince and Wild Cherry’ – I love that the flowering quince in the image looks so similar to the one that I saw.

Japanese Thrush with Flowering Quince and Wild Cherry by Watanabe Seitei (Shotei) 1906 (Public Domain)

Now, as you know I usually include a poem at this point, but this week I am going to break convention by directing your attention to the (very) short story ‘The Japanese Quince’ by John Galsworthy. What on earth is going on here? I have some thoughts, but I’d be delighted to hear yours, if you have the time and the energy during this pre-Christmas rush…

https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Japanese_Quince

Photo Credits

Photo One from https://www.flickr.com/photos/conifer/38844133980

Photo Two from http://www.growntocook.com/?p=36

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bugwoman on Location – Walthamstow Wetlands

Dear Readers, Walthamstow Wetlands is the largest urban wetland in Europe, and opened to the general public earlier this year. I have been eager to visit it, but wanted to pick a time when it wasn’t too crowded. What better day, then, than a grey blustery November day? There are no less than eleven reservoirs here, and so we decided to concentrate on the southern part of the reserve, walking to the Coppermill Tower past the East Warwick reservoir, and then looping back past Reservoir 1.

The Engine Room cafe and shop

The reserve is still an operational Thames Water site, providing 3.5 million people with water every day. However, it is surprisingly peaceful. It is also home to two listed Victorian industrial buildings, and there are many pieces of paraphernalia relating to the site’s main purpose – moving water from A to B. The Engine Room (above) housed the pumping machinery relating to the reservoirs, and is now a cafe ( I can recommend the orange polenta cake), interpretation centre and shop.

Further into the reserve is the Coppermill. It has the most extraordinary Italianate tower attached to it, which served no earthly purpose that I¬† could see other than being decorative. The mill was powered by the Coppermill stream, and between 1808 and 1857 it produced the power to turn copper ingots into pennies and halfpennies. In the fourteenth century it was used to grind corn, in the 1670’s it produced gunpowder,in the 1690’s it rolled paper, and during the 1700’s it was used to work leather, and generate linseed oil. In the 1850’s the mill was purchased by the East London Water Authority, and used to pump water during the building of the reservoirs. These days, its milling and pumping days are over, but it is still used as an operational hub for Thames Water.

The Coppermill

But what, you might ask, of the animals? Walthamstow Wetlands is a prime spot for moulting  tufted duck, for example; over two thousand of them choose the reservoirs as a haven during this vulnerable time of the year. I always loved the way that tufted ducks dive with a wake of bubbles, and bob back up to the surface like corks.

Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)

The site is also home to a sizable proportion of North-Western Europe’s northern shoveler ducks. These are such handsome birds, especially the drakes with their mix of russet and bottle-green, and their golden eyes. They are such easy ducks for the beginner to identify too, with their over-sized bills, which they swish through the water as they sieve out the tiny invertebrates that they feed on.

Northern shoveler (male ) (Anas clypeata)

Male and female shoveler duck

There are also, of course, some of the usual suspects. Coots are already fighting over territory, though you’d think with all these reservoirs to choose from there would be plenty of room. Canada geese graze beside the more formal, raised reservoirs. They look particularly splendid silhouetted against the sky.

The increasingly common Egyptian geese also like this area – a little family wandered over to us to see if we had anything in our pockets, the male uttering his characteristic wheezy call.

A mute swan drifted up the Coppermill stream, and reminded me of the time that I was walking to catch my train to work at stupid o’clock. I heard the sound of rustling wings, looked up, and seven mute swans flew overhead, just above the rooftops. I was transfixed. Sometimes, nature can turn an ordinary day into something with an almost mythical quality.

Walthamstow Wetlands is an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) for herons too – it has one of the five best heronries in the country. I saw many herons flying past, but the nests, which are enormous, are abandoned at this time of year. I must make sure to pay a visit in the spring though. Young herons look more like dinosaurs than almost any bird I can imagine.

The heronry on the island in Reservoir Two, surrounded by cormorants

 

At this time of year, the heronries are largely home to cormorants. Up to 100 pairs breed every year, down from 300 pairs in the early 2000’s. This is not a bird much beloved by anglers, and neither is the heron. On the other hand, the chaps (and they seemed to all be chaps) who were sitting in their olive-green tents and dipping their fishing rods into¬† Reservoir One seemed to be a peaceable lot, not much given to getting annoyed about any avian competition. Long may this happy state continue!So all in all I was extremely impressed by Walthamstow Wetlands. I saw a lot of things that I didn’t manage to photograph, including an extremely friendly goldcrest who was working the needles of the gorse bushes beside Reservoir One, and a flock of long-tailed tits in the same area. But there is so much more to see! There are reputed to be kingfishers everywhere, plus as the winter goes on all kinds of waterfowl will drop in. There are water rail ( a ‘bogey bird’ for me, inasmuch as I have heard it many times but have never actually seen more than a few red toes before they disappeared into the reeds). And there are sometimes bearded tits. Who could resist? I shall make a return visit to Walthamstow Wetlands very soon.

Photo One by Airwolfhound from Hertfordshire, UK [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Bearded Tit (Panurus biarmicus) (Photo One)

Completely Unapologetic Plug

I would like to recommend ‘Birdwatching London‘ by David Darrell Lambert as an excellent guide to the many places in the Capital for birdspotting. A great resource whether you live here or are just visiting. I would also like to put in a plug for the Natural History Bookshop, a tremendous online shop for all things nature-related, from books to moth traps to microscopes.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Airwolfhound from Hertfordshire, UK [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday Weed – Christmas Rose

Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger)

Dear Readers, it might seem a bit early to start talking about all things Christmas-related, but the flowers of the Christmas rose are so striking that I couldn’t resist. Spotted in a window box on the County Roads in East Finchley, they are not roses at all but hellebores, members of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae). That the Latin species name for this plant (niger) means ‘black’ when the flower is pure white is a little confusing, but it probably refers to the roots. The word ‘Helleborus’ comes from the Greek words ellos, meaning ‘fawn’ and bora, meaning ‘food’¬† – I love the idea of young deer munching upon it, although some commentators remark that it is deer resistant. The grazers would have to be careful though, because, like all hellebores, Christmas rose is poisonous, though probably less so than some other species. Handling the seeds can cause skin irritation as well. It is also toxic to dogs and cats, so be careful if you have pets and want to bring the plant indoors.

In spite of its poisonous nature, Christmas rose has been used medicinally, as a purgative following poisoning, and as a antihelminthic (a new word to me) for parasites in children. Too much hellebore, however, and it’s quite possible to kill the child. It has also been used as a laxative. I would strongly advise leaving it to look pretty in the garden in the dark early months of the year rather than adding it to a sandwich.

In the wild, Christmas rose is an Alpine plant, found in Switzerland, southern Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and northern Italy. I suspect that the flowers will be rather smaller in the wild than in our gardens. This can be a difficult plant to grow, preferring humus-rich soil and dappled shade, and disliking acidity, but when it’s happy, it’s delightful.

Photo One by By Robert Hundsdorfer - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19318105

Christmas rose in the Austrian Alps (Photo One)

Traditionally, Christmas rose was said to have arisen from the tears of a young girl who had no gift to give to the infant Christ. It often isn’t in flower by Christmas, but may be bursting forth by 6th January, which was Christmas Day under the old Julian calendar. Obviously the ones that I photographed hadn’t got the memo about their flowering date.¬† It is also believed that standing on powder made from the roots of a Christmas rose will make you invisible, which is a splendid idea, what with Christmas coming and all those crowds to navigate. Should you have the urge to dig a Christmas rose up you should, according to Pliny, make sure that you are not spotted by an eagle, because the bird will swoop down and cause your death (an unlikely event in East Finchley but then I’m extremely risk averse). Pliny also suggests that, having scanned the sky for any birds of prey, you should draw a circle around the plant, face east and offer up a prayer before picking up your spade.

No other luminary than Charles Darwin, with his usual close attention, noticed something unusual about the change in the Christmas rose once it’s pollinated. The pure white flower goes green, and its shape changes, as can clearly be seen in the photo below, where the blooms show the various stages of the change, from top to bottom. I’m not sure whether this a plant strategy to deter insects from trying to pollinate a flower that is already impregnated, or just a sign, as Darwin thought, that the plant colour is related to the production of nectar which is not required once the bloom has fulfilled its purpose. Of course, it could also be both. Nature is nothing if not complex and interconnected.

Photo Two by No machine-readable author provided. Migas assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

The fruit of the Christmas rose (Photo Two)

Although Christmas rose has no scent, that hasn’t stopped an Italian perfume company from knocking up a perfume that purports to smell like the flower. However, the bottle is very pretty, and the aroma includes lilac, jasmine and fig, so it’s probably very pleasant. On the other hand, having loved ‘smellies’ all my life, I find that, as I get older, I find most of them¬† faintly nauseating. I feel very sorry for anyone who has a more sensitive nose than mine, and also for the many people who find being in close contact with strong smells, even pleasant ones, overwhelming. Not that this is a new problem. My Dad, who was a bus conductor in his young days, said that the smell of women’s perfume on the top deck was sometimes so strong that it made his stomach turn.

Photo Three from https://www.erbaflor.com/en/shop/the-scents-of-nature/the-christmas-rose-en/christmas-rose-perfume-1-detail

Christmas rose toiletries from Erbaflor (Photo Three)

And here is a rather lovely poem by Michael Newman, published online by Acumen magazine.It seems to me to sum up the unexpected quality of plants that bloom in the midwinter. They always feel so precious, for being so rare.

Winter Colour

Blush-shy,
The flower rises
From the soil,
Then opens into white apparition,
Helleborus niger,
The Christmas Rose.

On such a grey and rain-rotten day,
I welcome this affirmation

Of unbridled joy:

 

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Robert Hundsdorfer – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19318105

Photo Two by No machine-readable author provided. Migas assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three from https://www.erbaflor.com/en/shop/the-scents-of-nature/the-christmas-rose-en/christmas-rose-perfume-1-detail

Coming Down, Going Up…

Dear Readers, this might look like a perfectly normal staircase, but until a few days ago it had a stairlift on the left-hand side. We had hired this back in 2013 when Mum and Dad could no longer walk up the stairs, what with Dad’s breathlessness and Mum’s arthritis. We knew that it would probably only be used once a year, at Christmas, but it seemed well worth the investment. At least they could have a family Christmas with us.

The first time Mum used it, she took to it straight away, but Dad was more unsure. I heard Mum and Dad talking in the bedroom as they unpacked on that first afternoon.

‘I don’t like it, Syb’, said Dad. ‘It doesn’t feel safe’.

‘Well, you’ll have to get to like it, Tom, because otherwise we can’t come to visit’, said Mum.

In the end, Dad quite got to like it, riding up and down the stairs to collect his tablets and his walking stick (which was always in the wrong part of the house). But last year, we went to Milborne St Andrew to stay with them because they had had a chest infection, and were too ill to travel. And this year, we will be visiting them in the nursing home.

it seemed like time to remove the stairlift. After all, I told myself, if there was a miracle and they felt a bit better, we could always get it installed again.

What surprised me was the speed with which it went. I sent off an email, and the engineer phoned me the next day, to say that he was in the area and could he pop in and dismantle it?

A few hours later, I had my staircase back.

My heart has been very heavy this past few weeks. After all the effort of organising the nursing home for Mum and Dad, it seems strange not to be constantly occupied with carer rotas and medical appointments and trips up and down to Dorset. Mum is still very unhappy in the care home and that weighs heavily on my mind. But today I actually looked out of the kitchen window. This is kind of difficult because my two ‘pet’ orb-web spiders have been busy while I’ve been so preoccupied and have built a kind of spider metropolis between the ceiling and the windowpanes. But outside, whirring and clicking and fighting and bickering, were the starlings.

Their feathers really are star-spangled at this time of year. I wondered how many of them were this year’s dull-brown babies, all spivvied up for the winter? As the breeding season approaches in the spring, the bills of the adults will turn bright-lemon yellow, with the area of the beak closest to the face turning blue-grey in males, pinkish-white in females.

The colder weather this week has drawn them all together, and the flocks that descend onto the bird feeders ebb and flow all day. Starlings used to migrate south in the winter but, thanks to the suet pellets and fat balls provided by humans, many now stick around all year. The ones in East Finchley are certainly a constant presence.

And as is often the way, a few minutes spent with starlings seems to give me an injection of energy. Depression stalks me as it has for many years, but there is help in the sight and sound of these birds, fizzing and chuckling and arguing, reminds me that there is a big, complicated world out there. For a few moments, I’m not living in my head, and that is such a relief. And, just to give you an idea of the starling’s vocal range and ability to imitate, here are two rescued starlings mixing it up…

http://www.lloydbuck.co.uk/2018/06/11/beatboxing-starlings/

 

Wednesday Weed – Cosmos

Cosmos bipinnatus

Dear Readers, now that it’s the middle of November it’s becoming harder and¬† harder to find plants that are not only still in flower, but are new to the Wednesday Weed. So this week I was delighted to find a pot of cosmos still in flower. These are great late-autumn plants, beloved by pollinators (if there are any about), and they come in a delightful array of pink, white and cerise. The delicate pale green foliage is also very fresh and toothsome-looking.

Cosmos is a genus of plants in the daisy family and includes such delights as chocolate cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus), which is said to smell vaguely of cocoa, and which has dark reddish-brown flowers.

Photo One by By Björn Appel - self made by Björn Appel, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=250892

Chocolate cosmos (Photo One)

‘Our’ cosmos, Cosmos bipinnatus, is a half-hardy annual. It self-seeds, and the flowers may come up for several years, though in my experience they get smaller and smaller with each iteration. . It comes originally from Mexico, hence its alternative name of Mexican aster, and arrived in Europe at the end of the eighteenth century. In some parts of the world (such as Australia and Asia) it has become an invasive weed, but in Europe the temperatures are too cold in winter for the plant to get a proper foothold.

Cosmos is a floppy kind of plant, prone to keeling over in high winds and not getting up again. Growing a lot of the plant in one place helps a bit, as the leaves interlock and form something of a framework for support. It can look very impressive en masse, and is a popular cut flower. In Japan, the rice paddies are sometimes planted with cosmos to provide autumn colour for after the crop is harvested.

Photo Two by By KENPEI - KENPEI's photo, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1360530

A cosmos field…(Photo Two)

The plant is a great source of late-season nectar. In North America, migrating monarch butterflies use it as a refuelling stop on their way south.

Photo Three by Bernard Spragg from https://www.flickr.com/photos/volvob12b/9252673241

Monarch butterfly on cosmos (Photo Three)

In Europe it provides nectar and pollen for many insects, including this comma butterfly.

Photo Four - no attribution required. http://www.wallcoo.net/flower/wild_flowers_cosmos/wild_flower_cosmos_photo_90446286.html

Cosmos and comma (Photo Four)

In Central and South America, cosmos has been used to make an anti-inflammatory ointment, and the young leaves are eaten as a salad and as a pot herb. The petals can also be used to brighten up a dessert. A closely related species, Cosmos sulphureus, has been used to produce yellow and orange dye. In the language of flowers cosmos is said to symbolise innocence, and I imagine that the white-flowered variety is especially appealing in this regard.

It is said that cosmos was cultivated in the gardens of Spanish mission priests in Mexico, as a manifestation of divine order. Certainly, a close look at the flowerhead is an object lesson in geometry. There is a kind of harmony about it that reminds me of the cosmos, in the sense of the galaxy.

Photo Five by By Frank Vincentz - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3414943

Centre of a cosmos flower (Photo Five)

And now, here’s a poem. Although cosmos is not native to Japan, it seems to have many adherents in the country. Here is a poem by Yosano Akiko (1878-1942):

Your heart remains
just as unsettled, like
the wavering
of a cosmos flower
after the bee is gone. 

I think that it captures that moment just after something has happened, when equilibrium is yet to be re-established. There is such a sense of stillness about it. And it captures the delicacy of cosmos, which can seem such a brash, cheerful plant, and which yet has a subtle elegance. I am thinking that next year I will definitely plant a pot!

Photo Six by By Joydeep, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23763201

Photo Six

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Björn Appel Рself made by Björn Appel, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=250892

Photo Two by By KENPEI – KENPEI’s photo, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1360530

Photo Three by Bernard Spragg from https://www.flickr.com/photos/volvob12b/9252673241

Photo Four – no attribution required. http://www.wallcoo.net/flower/wild_flowers_cosmos/wild_flower_cosmos_photo_90446286.html

Photo Five by By Frank Vincentz – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3414943

Photo Six by By Joydeep, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23763201

Autumn in Cherry Tree Wood

Dear Readers, those of you who have been following this blog for a while will know that it hasn’t been the easiest of years, what with the gradual decline in my parents’ health, and the recent decision to admit them to a nursing home. In the aftermath of all this, I find myself vulnerable, as if I’ve lost a layer of skin. The downside is that I never know what will make me cry: an advert on the television, a snippet of an old song, a memory conjured out of nowhere. But the upside is that I am seeing things as if anew. I can be caught by a glimpse of sudden beauty that stuns me into stillness. This can make me cry too, but there is less of despair and loss, and more of hope about it. And so I took myself off for a walk in Cherry Tree Wood in East Finchley at this breeziest, sunniest time of the year, just to see what I could see.

A trio of bright pink leaves caught my eye to start with. Nothing natural here, unless you include the tendency of the human to want to mark their territory. Once seen, I noticed it everywhere.

But for the first time I noticed how the hornbeam and oak trees are dancing, their trunks twisting as they reach towards the sun, but on a timescale much slower than our own. What tangos would be captured by a stop motion sequence! They lean back, they swivel, they revolve around their own axis, trying to find a space in the canopy, a dance of years and decades rather than moments, but a dance none the less.

And in the main part of the wood a huge oak rises from a lake of golden¬† leaves. How many autumns has this giant seen¬† come and go? And of the eight autumns that I have had in East Finchley, how come this is the first time that I’ve noticed it?

And among the leaves, the squirrels are everywhere. They come in all shapes and sizes, from skinny little runts to great fat imperial squirrels. Most of them are carrying an acorn in their mouths, and they will bury their prize in the ivy or under a layer of oak leaves.¬† Some tiny proportion of the nuts that they don’t eat during the winter will germinate, some¬† of them far from their parent tree, and the dance towards the canopy will start all over again.

Turning dizzy laps in the woods is a small¬† white dog.He skids past me, leaves flying in all directions, and heads back, ears flapping, tongue lolling. He hurtles along the path and increases the diameter of the circle. I don’t know where his owner is, but I sense they are somewhere at the epicentre, like the sun.

I catch glimpses of him as I walk on through the woods. Once, there would have been deer here, but today he seems like the spirit of the place, a dishevelled London pooch, full of life and spirit. And when I stopped to film the falling leaves, there he was.

There is so much to be said for a slow, careful walk in autumn. The colours, the movement, the smell of burning leaves and damp vegetation, the call of crows and the whistle of starlings all serve to remind me that outside my poor, overworked brain there are other lives going on. However lonely we might feel when tough times come to visit, we are part of something so much bigger.