Looking Up

novembergoldTruthfully I spend a significant amount of time looking down towards my feet, partly because as a dedicated believer in not wearing shoes I’ve learned to carefully – and by now skillfully – assess the path ahead.  The rest comes down to a mixture of bad social habits (I’m an eye contact avoider) and the forager in me looking for interesting things to glean from around me.   Even through shoes the feel of earth rather than man made cement path or tarmac road underfoot satisfies me enormously.  My feet flex and stretch to accommodate roots and stones, pushing me onwards through the crunch and shush of fallen twigs and leaves.  I’m always reminded that to be accepted by the Fianna, a warrior was supposed to be able to be pursued through a forest without their hair being disturbed or breaking a single dry twig.  I’d fail just on principle, I adore the sound of snapping twigs.  Also , well, my hair has a bit of a life of it’s own.    I suppose I’ve never had to creep away from something toothy and lethal, so I’m a bit spoiled when it comes to having to acquire *proper* stealth skills.

At eye level and below so much vies for my attention it consumes most of my thoughts, perfect for those days when you can’t get the brain weasels to give you five minutes peace otherwise.  I’m extremely fortunate to have the sort of legs that can just keep putting one foot in front of the other for miles if I so wish them to, and I can wander just noticing things happily for as long as I please.

For example today is December 1st.   As a kid we’re advised everything has stopped growing and is sleeping in December, so there’s not a whole pile of interest.   Ha, etc. True there has been so many mild winters over the last many years that there are a lot of things hanging on past their “normal” season, but even so.   In just the past couple of days I’ve noticed an explosion of lichens, sometimes in patches of such lurid greens I think if someone painted them the colours chosen might be declared unrealistic.  I didn’t get any decent photos of the tree clumps, dragging lost sheep’s wool like from the branches of the trees, or of the varieties swarming over the rocks today, but soon.

lichen on the board walkThe most plentiful variety of lichen on the bog rather than in the trees had an eerie, undead hue to it, and could be spotted lurking in much larger clumps amoung the heather.  It was far from the reach of the slick but reassuring boards that allow us to travel safely over the bootsucking squelch between sections of forest.  I *think* this is Cladonia portentosa but I’m even newer to the identifying lichen game than I am to identifying fungi.   I have been aware of maybe ten types of lichen, between ones I’ve noticed on rocks and trees, and I reckon I saw maybe five distinct types today? Having started to look them up I’m only realising that I’ve missed a very large number of others.  In my latest fungi discoveries we have Tremella mesenterica,  the Yellow brain fungus, pictured below as a sort of jellyfish pretending to be an orange flower on a branch in my hand.  It isn’t the most pleasant thing to look at, although it is an interesting shade of yellow/orange.  The other orange capped fungus I’m still working on trying to identify correctly.  And speaking of lurid colours, spindleberries with their hot pink casing and bright orange seeds don’t half cry for attention on a pathway!

It was a day of  interesting trunk textures, whorls and burrs and knots, gaps and hollows, and exclaiming at my bemused elder son about the interplay of ivy, moss and ferns or the treacherous ruin-eating moss that has all but hidden what seems to be the last couple of rows of stone in an old house.   Everywhere we went the furze bushes were festooned with gorgeous jeweled spiderwebs, though if you are an aracnaphobe maybe you wouldn’t like the reminder of just how many there are.

Of course I have wildly digressed from what I was actually going to talk about.  My youngest son, it turns out, is fascinated with the sky.  He has taken a great many photographs of sunsets, interesting cloud formations, and light effects and is always the first to notice rainbows and instances of God light.  He notices the ways the wind whips the tips of trees and birds coasting in thermals.   He is fascinated with air flow and the power behind it, how it can drive all before it or tease things playfully.  I’ve had some really great conversations driving distances with him the last couple of months, I’ve enjoyed taking on with his very different perspective.    The first photo on this post was an instant where I realised I don’t tend to notice the tops of trees so much, or at least not against a day time sky. There was this ball of gold in amoung the empty branches of trees in Russmore Park in Monaghan, and I’d likely have missed them before.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not immune to the glories of “little fluffy clouds” in a massive expanse of blue, lying in tall grasses contentedly listening to the low droning buzz of insects.  Flicking the tickle of seed heads away from my face idly playing with a satisfyingly sweet stem of grass is one of my favourite summer things, or at least old fashioned temperate Ireland.  But I never found myself as interested in the names of cloud formations as I was in trees, or undergrowth plants, stones and fossils.  Night time though, is utterly different.    One of the interesting effects of moving to the midlands from a city afflicted with orange sodium street lights, especially given my natural night owl tendencies, was the jaw-on-ground awe I still feel whenever the night sky  is properly on show.  There are few things as staggeringly beautiful as the sweep of the Milky Way over the full, uninterrupted and low expanse of heather here.  But I’ve never really combined my love of trees with my love of stars.  Would winter trees wear stars like jewels?  How does a moon sit in a really ancient tree?

I look up now more often under trees, paying more attention to things like the shapes of the dead leaves some trees hang onto (marcescence), or the strange shapes I would never have attempted to sketch when remembering how a tree looks because I just would have laughed that such things occurred in nature. Rain falling through trees is completely fascinating when you look up at it.  The twirling, silent fall of leaves from underneath rather than my more usual side on views is quite spectacular, if a little hard on the neck.

This seemed like a good follow up post to my first because things are, in fact, looking up at the moment.  I like to remind myself that seeing things from other people’s perspectives is a very good thing, and a thing I can do well – at least when not self obsessing with the brain weasels.   The smallest shift in your view point opens up all manner of interesting new things, so yes, look up, look around, it’s good for you.


(“Marcescence” – from the latin marcescere, to wither or languish, describes how some plants and trees seems to maintain their grip on dead leaves.  Beech trees do it a lot, especially the younger ones.  I discovered this through Robert Macfarlane’s word of the day on twitter last week some time.  I highly recommend following him on https://twitter.com/RobGMacfarlane)


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