Before the wood is the water


I like to say that I can see the estuary from the chair at the dining table where I eat breakfast. However that’s not always true. In high summer the leaves of the weedy sycamores in the wood block the view. Now, in the autumn, as breakfast time grows ever darker and the leaves fall, my view of the water is expanding daily from one spindly trunk to another. By the winter solstice, some 300 metres beyond the dining room windows, the water will shine between the trees like a sheet of polished tinplate.

And tinplate is a good simile here, because tin is what it’s all about, this river. My river. My adopted river. My curving, curlewed, sand locked, abandoned river.

But I get ahead of myself. There will be time for that later. Before the water is the wood.

It has a name – Anne’s Wood. She died young, poor Anne and her parents gave a piece of rough land to the Woodland Trust in her memory. However to call it a ‘wood’ implies a sylvan arcadia which it is definitely not. In reality it’s a lumpy bit of scrubland infested with sycamore and scoured by the local children who have tied rope swings to the bigger branches. It’s also a favourite haunt of dog walkers when the weather makes the nearby beach less attractive. The activity of so many dogs also makes it a place where you mind your feet.

It’s not a big wood, an acre or two maybe and it’s crescent shaped, curving east towards the river. The back of the crescent is a formed of a stony bank of about eight metres in height and at the top of the bank is my garden. This has the strange effect that, standing on my lawn, I look into the wood at almost tree top height. I dig and hoe on the same level as the woodpeckers. In a secret corner of the shrubbery, behind an acer and a sickly pittosporum there are rough steps down the bank. If you scramble down through a thicket of butcher’s broom and brambles you reach the shortcut to the estuary. This is the badger track. Most nights, from their sett further along the bank, the badger family plod up the steps to their latrine by the compost bin. In every saucer shaped scrape you see a dark turd, for the badgers make no attempt to hide their faeces. I feel privileged that they feel safe enough use my garden as a lavatory. As long as they don’t eat my tulips, they are welcome.

The wood on the other hand has imperialist tendencies. Every spring I pull out hundreds of germinated sycamore seedlings. Left to their own devices, the progeny of the trees would march over the garden in a decade. When the autumn winds blow, sycamore keys spin down and screw themselves into the light sandy soil of the herbaceous border. They lie there like the stealthy advance guard of an invading army, until the rallying call of the spring, bugles them into active service. Surely after the apocalypse the sycamores will inherit the earth. This year I’m going to rake them up before they have chance to hunker down for the winter. Annihilate the enemy at the earliest possible moment is the plan.

I put my muesli bowl in the sink and pull on my gardening boots. Time for action.

The sycamore is not a native tree. It might have spun and spiralled its way across Europe from its homeland in the east of the continent, before finally arriving in Britain around 1500. (Although some sources give an earlier date of 1260). More likely however it was introduced. The pale, close grained wood grows quickly and shapes easily, so is useful for making utensils such as plates and spoons. The population increase after 1500 must have made the need for such small items more urgent and the decimation of English oaks to build English ships left space for this new invader. It’s not the best fuel though. We have a large stack of sycamore logs from a felled tree waiting their turn for the wood burner, but we have kept them too long and they burn like paper.

Acer pseudoplatanus says it all. The sycamore is an imposter. It’s trying to be a plane tree and not succeeding and because it’s not native, a sycamore tree supports only fifteen insect species. An oak tree supports nearly three hundred. But it’s not all bad; aphids love sycamores and tits of all sorts love aphids. The bird feeder in the garden is a regular haunt for the three common British species of tit – the great, the blue and the coal. Sycamores support one very specific aphid called Drepanosiphum platanoidis and it is this creature which produces the honeydew that drips from the leaves onto anything beneath. On the leaves of my scented rhododendron it results in a sooty black mould, onto the paintwork of my car it sets hard, like the caramel it is.The sweet substance also attracts honey bees, so I just put up with it and wash the rhododendron with warm soapy water just as I wash my car.

The sycamore is tree without a mythology. It’s upstart status cannot compete with the ash which is so iconic in Norse legend or the yew or the oak. It’s main claim to ancient use is that it’s a good tree for a hanging. The lower branches have sufficient tensile strength to support the weight of anyone unfortunate enough to be strung up on it. It does make a good whistle though and that associates it in Cornwall with both the habit of making whistles on May Day and decking the streets and houses with sycamore branches on Helston Flora Day. Although my view is that’s just because it’s always in fully leaf by then. When oak and ash might be more tentative about breaking their buds, sycamore is devalued by its abundance and its promiscuity. It is a victim of its own success in reproducing itself and colonising waste and abandoned land like Anne’s Wood.

I stand up and stretch my back and knees. There are hundreds of sycamore keys in my bucket. Hundreds of descendants of those sixteenth century sycamores. I can’t compost them, so I scramble down the badger steps and dump them in the wood. Back with their parents like the flighty children that they are.

It’s mid morning and I clamber back up the steps and kick bark mulch over the badger latrine. The wind blows a sycamore key onto the grass at my feet. Time for a coffee.

Published by Mole. October 2016




14 thoughts on “Before the wood is the water

  1. Lovely blog, Liz. Looking forward to reading more. BTW, don’t be too hard on the poor sycamore – it did have its uses in the past. Because it doesn’t absorb water, it was once used for draining boards and butchers’ blocks (like its cousin the maple) and, before the advent of cast iron, for guttering. You’ll probably still find Georgian houses with sycamore guttering – I used to live in one myself in Harrogate.


  2. I’m fighting the same battle against the alders at the edge of my five acres here on Whidbey Island in Washington state. I look away and look back, and the seedlings are two inches high.


  3. A beautiful and interesting post, and I look forward to reading more. I fight a battle with sycamores in my suburban garden – I have a lazy habit of chopping the stem and pouring a little pile of salt onto the cut edge. Don’t ask why these, ferns and others enjoy our back yard so much, though …


      1. If you do it just a tiny bit it kills the plant but doesn’t get into the soil. I did it with the Front Thistles a few years back and the front garden still flourishes.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Happy, happy, happy to see you in print again!! I look forward to whatever you have in store for us. Lovely that you begin in October, easily my favorite month. XXOO


  5. Growing up as an urban girl I knew nothing about trees and, if I’m honest, I didn’t really notice them! But when I moved to the Monkey Sanctuary I was surrounded by woods and learned people. And I learnt about the imposter! The invader, how dare you tree! I knew it didn’t belong but I never fully knew why until now. Thank you Liz, for the education and the lovely writing.


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