“Stupid June”

A little unfair but the flurry of growth that marks the spring has died down into quieter times in June. Many of the birds are fledged and the young are  making their own way in the world. My bird-table has became a focus point for downy feathered blue tits, great tits, robins, great spotted woodpeckers, jackdaws, wood pigeons, goldfinch and starlings; a jay has taken to visiting, no doubt availing himself of tasty small bird’s eggs. The moorhens on Larkfield Pond are now nearly as big as their mother and ducklings at Plough Farm are just about able to fend for themselves. The hedgerows are full of the sound of hungry chicks calling and there is constant traffic between nest and forage by the parents. Predators have also been busy, buzzards, no doubt meeting the demands of their own broods, circle ominously high in the skies; foxes and owls add sinister calls to the soundscape of the night.

Sweet May is gone, and now must poets croon
The praises of a rather stupid June.

Patrick Kavanagh

There has been rapid growth of the greenery as well and several footpaths are becoming over-grown, making them much more difficult to navigate. It makes me realise that the work LEAP, (Ewhurst’s local environment group), do in maintaining the local paths is very worthwhile and their efforts can only really be appreciated in these lockdown conditions. Hopefully we will soon be able to get out there with our secateurs and shears to clear away brambles, nettles and over-hanging branches.

The weather has become more changeable, although the ground remains very dry. Despite this the water courses have continued to supply the local streams and ditches. I have been particularly interested to see prolific growth of hemlock water dropwort; this Umbelliferae succeeds the cow parsley, which has mostly died down by now and favours damp conditions. Alongside the footpath going north from Bramblehurst Farm is a drainage ditch bordering a field, which tends to catch the rainwater making it marshy. In the winter this particularly path becomes virtually impasseable and I have nearly lost my wellingtons on more than one occasion.

This spot in Ewhurst is interesting because it forms a micro-habitat with its own special wildlife. The presence of Osier trees is a sure indicator of wet or damp conditions and these bushes grow on the edge of the bank. These willows are the source of “withies” traditionally used in willow-weaving, as the stems grow long and are flexible. As a result, many osiers are coppiced and some can have signs of being cut over many years. Shakespeare seems to associated the willow with sadness and death, using it as a melancholy symbol in Hamlet and Othello. Desdemona sings a lament just before she is killed by her husband Othello:

Sing willow, willow, willow
The fresh streams ran by her, and
murmured her moans.
Sing willow, willow, willow.

William Shakespeare

A liltingly beautiful song, this is probably one of the most joyless moments in all of Shakespeare’s plays.

A mystique clings to poisonous plants, it may be that it brings us close to our mortality or we see   death written in Mother Nature. There are a few to avoid in our country: Deadly Nightshade, Yew, Death Cap, Aconitum and Hemlock. In fact I’ve been surprised how common the latter is in Ewhurst and the fact that it is easily confused with other members of the Umbelliferae is perhaps a little worrying. Folk names for the plant spell out the danger; Dead Man’s Fingers or even more menacing, Dead Tongue. The Hemlock Water Dropwort is described in most floras as deadly poisonous. The plant gives off a pungent, unpleasant mousey smell and, of course should be avoided. Hemlock contains conhydrine, N-methylconine and, its most dangerous alkaloid, coniine. Disruption of the central nervous system and respiratory collapse result from taking it.

Its properties as a poison have been known since antiquity. The thinker Socrates was given a stark choice by Athenian authorities; recant your liberal and democratic ideas or die. The philosopher chose to die and drank an infusion of hemlock. It is said he remained conscious to the end, remembering at the last that he had an outstanding debt to pay. Plato, who was his student, wrote of Socrates’ death and recalled his final thoughts on mortality, prompting Plato’s own meditations on the immortality of the soul. Hemlock was a frequent means of execution in Greek and Roman times, reserved for the higher classes. We have records of its use in the Elizabethan and Jacobean era, although it is not always certain that hemlock is responsible. The witches in Macbeth add ‘Root of hemlock digged i’th’ dark’ to their ghastly brew and when Macbeth eats of the ‘insane root’ he is likely referring to hemlock. Greene’s Never too Late of 1616 points to hallucinatory qualities in the drug; ‘You gaz’d against the sun, and so blemished your sight; or else you have eaten of the roots of hemlock, that makes men’s eyes conceit unseen objects.’

Today when victims suffer respiratory break-down the only way to cure them is the use of artificial ventilation. It is uncanny that reading accounts of the poison’s action has a horrible resonance today. To end on a more cheerful note, there is a story of JRR Tolkien’s courtship when his wife-to-be Edith danced for him in a glade, surrounded by hemlock. It was a highly charged moment for the young man and years later he included a song in The Fellowship of the Ring based on this moment:

The leaves were long, the grass was grey,
The hemlock-umbels tall and fair
And in the glade a light was seen
Of stars in shadow shimmering.

JRR Tolkein

On Tuesday the weather was fair and we took a walk to Yard Farm, crossing the large field that links Plough Lane to Lower Breache Lane. Sometimes sheep graze in this field but for most of the time it is left to itself and at this time of the year becomes a wildlife haven. The path climbs up steeply from the road and as you look back there are excellent views of Pitch and Holmbury Hills. There are copses at the edge of the farmland, several fine oak trees standing at different points in the field, a commanding presence and bordering the land a long mixed hedge. The grasses look at their best, the seed heads showing a plenitude of species and the field was alive with butterflies, most of them were Meadow Browns but I saw Large Skippers as well. The Meadow Browns will stay in the same field for their lives, not seeking to go any further.

Climbing up to the second stile there is another view, this time to the south and it was possible to make out landmarks like Chanctonbury Ring on the South Downs. A great stillness filled the air, no sound of aircraft or motor car disturbed the tranquility. In the wayside Woody Nightshade was in flower and when you looked closely lots of Heath Spotted  Orchids were visible; a delicate pale pink flower. As we walked downhill to the road Jackie noticed another very pretty pink-red flower. We were not sure what it was, so the Collins Guide came out when we got home and it turned out to be the rather local Marsh Gladiolus. My book stated it was only found in the New Forest, so this was a very exciting find.

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