The season has announced its arrival; autumn is here, with winter’s cold and damp nipping at its heels. Gone are the House Martins and Swallows, but returning to the birdfeeders are the Yellowhammers and Nuthatches. Colour and sound have been shifting, slowly and gradually, with the long grasses, ferns and reeds in the fields surrendering to buff, brown, and reddish tones, which now dominate the landscape. However, when you pause and examine closely, surprise stains of colour are found in small locations upon trees, walls, and stones in endless varieties of lichen.
There are over 30,000 species of lichen worldwide, and in a recent woodland survey in East Dartmoor, 115 were identified. They grow on rocks, trees or soil sometimes in a nearly imperceptible crust-like layer. Alternatively, they can be bushy and trailing like ZZ-Top beards, hanging from trees. I especially like the bright orange seen on rooftops across the British countryside, a reminder of the health of our environment since they are sensitive to air pollution. A general rule of thumb is the smaller the variety of lichens in an area, the more polluted it is.
In the past few weeks, autumn showed itself confidently providing cooler mornings with misty, low hanging clouds before the sun burns its way through. Small clusters of mushrooms dotted about, and the tell tale mushroom hunters on the hill, walking slowly, bags hanging off the shoulder and eyes looking downward, provide additional evidence of the seasonal change. I lack fungal expertise, so prudently take a pass at this bit of foraging. Instead, I enjoy observing those out and about, as there seems to be a lot of twirling, spinning, and dancing on the landscape. I suspect some of the found fungi might be hallucinogenic.
We’ve made seasonal shifts, too. I’ve pulled out all my fleeces and can see my breath in the dawn light when I walk Sam. My morning chores now include bringing wood in from the barn and building a fire in the wood burner. I watch the birds at the feeders knowing that they have short lives and must make it through the winter if they are to hatch their broods in the spring. This time of year brings about an awareness of the impermanence of life, as often on a walk, Sam and I will come across the skeletal remains of a dead sheep or fox. Again, lichens come to mind as they remind us of a greater permanence, growing so slowly that they have been used to confirm ancient woodlands after an historic clearance.
Because these grey, green, silver green, mustard yellow, ochre, or rust growth on every possible stone and wood surface live at a different time scale to the brief one of our resident birds, or indeed, us, I sometimes wonder if the lichen I’m looking at were here 100 years ago and bore witness to previous residents at Crockern.
Since we first set eyes upon Crockern, Roger and I have been very curious about the history of our house. When was it built? Who lived here? Were they cold? Almost daily we receive a “fact” from someone walking past: “I heard a witch once lived here.” “In the 1970’s it was a hippy commune.” “Oh, I used to go to parties there.” “My mother grew up at Crockern and bathed in the river.” “It was originally built by the man who managed the rabbit warrens.” Witches. Farmers. Children. Wood Workers. A Potter. On and on goes the list of past residents based on, from what we can surmise, mostly hearsay. If only the lichen could speak!
Not knowing where the truth lies, we decided to begin our slow search to uncover some history by looking at the local records one afternoon. We weren’t certain what we’d find, but hoping to perhaps learn when the house was originally constructed. No such luck on that front. But, we did uncover the arc of a life of one very distinct past resident: Mr. Mortimer.
On 2 November 1885, J. Stanley Mortimer bid at auction on Lot #2, Crockern Farm, which was comprised of the house, outbuildings and 228 acres. In the early 40’s, the war department requisitioned 115 acres of his farm. He died in the mid 1940’s. But not before he contributed to a fat folder of correspondence.
These file notes indicated that Mr. Mortimer owed money and frequently had to retrieve his livestock, which had wandered off to pastures beyond his land. In particular, he did not enjoy his track being used as a footpath toward Wistman’s Wood. During Mr. Mortimer’s time at Crockern, there was no footpath designation along the track up to the house, so he considered all those walking along it as trespassers. After his death, the distinction was made and now appears as such on Ordnance Survey Maps.
We enjoy the walkers who come past, and delight in their explorations around the area. Not so with Mr. Mortimer. Each walker was just another intrusion and a cause of his troubles: Gates left open, livestock disturbed by walkers, and his privacy routinely invaded. While we enjoy the walkers, we do feel frustration when someone drives up the track in hopes of getting closer to the Woods, comes calling to offer us religious salvation, or when we pick up the litter left behind by recent visitors to the park. (https://crockernfarm.wordpress.com/2012/12/11/dartmoor-walking/)
Mr. Mortimer lived in Crockern for over 50 years, during which time he came to be characterized as one of the most eccentric individuals in Dartmoor. His farming methods were considered “hopeless.” In 1905, he was reported to have obstructed visitors’ access to Wistman’s Wood and went so far as to charge tolls. Laughable and yet, inspired! If we had a pound coin for every foot walking past, we’d be millionaires, seeing a far better return than the sale of our chicken eggs. J. Stanley Mortimer truly ruffled feathers and in one official letter a complainant wrote, “He threatened Mrs. Dwyer with stoning, has used bad language and is extorting money under threats!”
Surely, trying to eek out a farm living on Dartmoor was hard enough; did he need to suffer the slings and arrows of his neighbours? Then again, they had to suffer him throwing stones at them.
As we move through this change of season, hunkering down earlier in the evening and following frost reports to protect our winter veg garden. We’ve raked the leaves and the last of the grass for the compost, and the wood store is impressive and ready to heat the house and the hot tub. We watch as the vegetation retreats, revealing different wildlife, and with that, we let the chickens out later in the morning and put them away earlier at night. The birds change. The days grow shorter. But the lichen slowly carries on, noting our contributions to Crockern.