Just How Green Was my Valley?

What a summer we’ve had so far. Sunny, warm days filled with unobstructed light stretching late into the evening. Soft breezes rustling the trees, leaving enough insects in the air for birds and bats to swiftly buzz past as they take their in-flight meals. It has been fantastic. It has also been green.

In 1961, Johnny Cash wrote the song, Forty Shades of Green about his memories of Ireland. I wonder had he visited Crockern at that time whether he would have written a different song, because I know I am seeing across the meadows and moors, at least fifty shades of green.

The walk is just beginning, and already so many shades of green.

The walk is just beginning, and already so many shades of green.

On a recent afternoon walk with Sam, I pause to look up the vast hillside along the river heading north. I can’t help but notice how the luminous and green earth tones seem to recede into the background helping make the smaller patches of brown and black cows or white sheep appear so clearly. They pop out of the green, as do the yellow gorse flowers and pinkish-purple fox glove flowers. Even so, the dominant colour is green, a variegated patchwork of it!

With so much of one colour, the landscape could almost appear flat and yet it is deeply textured with the acid-neon greens of the grasses closely grazed by sheep laying snuggly next to the jade green of the gorse bushes. At their very base, the clumps of reeds and tall grasses resemble British Racing Green before they transition to the harlequin of the seed heads. Upon closer inspection, the lawn green colour of the grasses under my feet is laced with reds and browns.

A short distance ahead is Witstman’s Woods. Despite its legendary haunted tales, it sits like a fuzzy mirage in the distance. The sun is shining brightly revealing the Hunter, Shamrock, Apple, Spring and Leaf greens of the individual trees as might be captured in a botanical painting by William Hooker. But as the sun slips briefly behind a cloud, this montage of colours morphs into one cool aquamarine and the canopy of trees melts away into the hillside.

We're into the woods.

We’re into the woods.

Sam and I make our way over the stile and toward this jungle-like wood of ancient dwarf oak trees. There is something otherworldly about this grove of trees as if stepping into a stage set for Lord of The Rings. The trees grow from between huge granite boulders that are covered with such a variety of mosses and lichens and the whole place is vibrant with bird and insect life. Each of the trees has an arthritic look with gnarled, stunted branches reaching in all directions; they too are dripping with mosses and lichen. Deeper within the wood, all manner of bramble, wild honeysuckle, bilberry, grasses, ivies, and ferns grow untouched by walkers or grazing animals, making the huge boulders invisible.

We leave the woods and continue north towards the weir. As we scramble over sturdy stones and walk along ancient dry stone walls, my eyes are drawn to the grey-green, green, silver green, and yellow-green on every possible granite and wood surface. These slow growing lichens and mosses, punctuated with the emerald fronds of ferns and the viridian of stinging nettles, remind me of the camouflage uniforms of some military fatigues.

Mosses and Lichens display the continuum of green.

Mosses and Lichens display the continuum of green.

Sam and I looking down the river valley.

Sam and I looking down the river valley.

The return leg of our journey takes us along the leat with glorious views of the river valley. Ahead is a forest of pine trees. The air grows considerably cooler and you can almost smell the green – an equal mix of calming and uplifting — as we enter this stand of tall, straight fir trees planted by the Forestry Commission. Their boughs give shelter to fuzzy mosses and bright green and bottle-green ferns. It is from these woods at night we hear a Tawny Owl and, during the day, a raucous party of squawks from a colony of Herons. The other day, one flew from its nest, circling around our house looking rather prehistoric as it attempted to land in the ash tree, with its Kelly green leaves and bouncy branches. Too heavy to gain purchase in this tree the Heron returned to the forest.

Down by the river, I came across three people dressed in olive-drab waders. They were with the Environmental Agency and conducting a survey. Happily, the fish life in the river is doing well. After just a few hours of counting, these scientists had identified, along with a few eels, over two dozen salmon and over two dozen trout, including one which was 10-inches long!   While standing and chatting, I spot some wild mint growing and marvel at the elegant jerky flight of a dozen dragonflies, their iridescent green and blue wings sparkling in the sun.

Moss, bramble, lichen, and green grass.

Moss, bramble, lichen, and green grass.

Back at the house, I can see the celadon seedpods hanging in the Sycamore and Laburnum trees. The farmer on the other side of the valley has been cutting his hay meadow. Today there are rows of dark green grass waiting to be bailed, exposing the lighter rows of cut grass: a striped tee-shirt look to the field.

Before calling it a day, I make my tour of the garden and to see how green is my thumb. We have seven types of lettuces growing some tinged with reds, others looking like a granny-smith apple. Cabbages, onions, potatoes, spinach and chard all provide their various shades and tones, and the outer leaves of the artichokes have a lovely patina. The stems of the rainbow chard vary from a cool iceberg lettuce towards a purplish-green. The beet leaves are tinted with magenta. Our greenhouse is filled with herbs, strawberries, green tomatoes waiting to ripen, and cucumbers, which make me feel cooler on a hot day by just looking at them.

My green (and blurry) thumb by some of the herbs.

My green (and blurry) thumb by some of the herbs.

Part of our vegetable garden.

Part of our vegetable garden.

The greenhouse.

The greenhouse.

Even our blueberries are green!

Even our blueberries are green!

As the day winds to a close, I’m giving the green light to cocktails. Roger squeezes limes into our G&Ts; I set out a bowl of Gordal Olives and put an Al Greene disc into the player. My mind is filled with the colour green and its equal associations with renewal and growth or the lack of experience and need for growth. The Green Party, Going Green, Green thumb or Green fingers, waiting in the Green room, the Greenback, Green-Eyed Monsters, Greener pastures, Green with envy, Greenhorn, Green around the gills, and more mundanely, should I paint a room green?

Then, as quickly as it started, I stop this internal list making. Roger and I sit back and relax to watch all manner of birds at the feeders, including of course the Greenfinches.

I’m Likin’ the Lichen

Autumnal day on Dartmoor with view toward Wistman's Wood.

Autumnal day on Dartmoor with view toward Wistman’s Wood.

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.

Lichen growing on a rock in a stone fence.

Lichen growing on a rock in a stone wall.

Some lichen has found a home on this old wood post.

Some lichen has found a home on this old wood post.

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.

More varieties of lichen on a rock in the stone wall.

More varieties of lichen on a rock in the stone wall.

All sorts going on here on this footpath sign.

All sorts going on here on this footpath sign.

Found this on a walk just this week.

Found this on a walk just this week.

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.

This rust and tumeric coloured lichen is growing on the side of our house.

This rust and tumeric coloured lichen is growing on the side of our house.