Margherita Pizzas and the Six Hundredth.
I am compelled to come here each autumn. I never know quite when, only that it is misty and the woodpigeons are chorusing and the jays are screeching. For the rest of the year, I tend to avoid this particular footpath and its permanent, orange, sucking clay. It is mud I associate with stuck prams and tipped out children, mud that earnt our village a modest trade in pottery and its inhabitants the nickname of ‘yellowlegs’: a name that appropriately, still sticks.
We come for the rich and often stunning array of fungi. Once part of a Great Common heathland, this place is known variously as ‘the sticks walk’, The Plantation or The Firs. Beneath thin young trees of a uniform height is heather, broom and the tattered remnants of gorze. I wonder if the modern Firs is a corruption of Furze, the Hampshire word for gorze that may have permeated our Berkshire dialect, from the near border. There are dormice here and adders, just about.
The recolonization of birch and pine proves a thick barrier, but I can push through to whole elfin villages of red, white-spotted fly agaric toadstools. Young ones are no more than fat champagne corks with bright red rounded tops as thick as their bases, whilst others are tomato-coloured margherita pizzas, liberally sprinkled with parmesan flakes. Older ones are inverted saucers. They are thick, sticky to touch and poisonous, wobbling on their great stalks. look for the pleated cheerleader pom-poms of wood cauliflower, but there are none. They appear here sporadically, mysteriously and often spectacularly when they do.
Delightedly, this is my 600th Nature Notes, the column I write for the Newbury Weekly News. Writing something fresh each week galvanises me, not only to go out, but to really look and think about what I’ve gone in search for, not found, or found in its place. The natural world is endlessly fascinating, sometimes healing, thrilling and often puzzling. Recording it, I must try to put into words how a treecreeper might stitch a wood together, how to write the calligraphic flourish of a lapwing’s crest, how the downs can be like the sea: meaning creeps in beneath the surface, half understood, like the hidden mycelium that supports fungi and its wind-blown spores. But what I am sure of, as the popularity, importance and meaning of ‘nature’ increases (in some ways, and even as its actuality is waning) is that it matters, to record all this. It matters to delight in and sometimes, despair of it all; it matters to give voice – along with others that correspond and do the same thing in all the various ways we can mediate about nature. It’s vital. Because what will survive of us is love. And in love, there is a kind of ecology.