There are few sights as glorious as a woodland in autumn. The autumnal palate is a delight in this temperate climate of the British Isles. From burning copper to glowing amber, the result of each tree’s efforts to draw out from its leaves the last vestiges of nutrition, is a wonder of nature we watch every year and never grow tired of.
Yet autumn in Bookham Commons isn’t just about the splendid colour change. Autumn is the time of harvest and this year’s bumper crop of sloes, berries and nuts decorate the branches. The oak yields its acorns and the squirrels, jays and other creatures scurry in to action to bury a winter store as the daylight hours wain. In the past, autumn on common land was a time of ‘pannage’ or the right to put pigs out to feed in the wooded areas of the land, fattening-up on acorns and beech mast.
While the fruits are falling and the leaves are changing we are aware of the cycle of nature, each event happening at its allotted time yet the changes we see when wandering the tracks and paths are only a part of the picture. Many matters of woodland health are undetected as processes unfold beneath the ground, under our feet, paws and hooves. Below the soil a subterranean network of roots is storing up the food the trees will need for the winter and beyond.
To continue the cycle of life, to grow, flower and flourish, trees must establish relationships. A healthy root system is vital as not all nutrients necessary for life come through the leaves; to survive oaks have established a symbiotic relationship with fungi strong enough to capture minerals from rocks. Bookham Commons is home to an abundance of oaks, so imagine a lattice of roots spanning across the entire landscape and in between, miles and miles of microscopic hair-like fungi hard at work to support this great woodland ecosystem representing a colossal exchange of energy, and it is all hidden beneath the surface.
On the border of Bookham Commons autumn’s early morning mist lingers over the drying meadow and the scent of recently bedded deer leaves an enticing aroma for dogs and other creatures. In the woods small birds chatter and skip through the canopy feeding on the last hatches of the season. During a warm spell clouds of tiny insects appear, nature’s way of providing a final energy boost for migrating birds and the hibernators.
As Bookham Commons settles down to autumn the paths and tracks are sprinkled with falling leaves, and in certain places muddy patches evolve as the foliage starts to thin out. It’s late afternoon and the meandering, narrow ways on the hillside darken, no more shafts of summer light. Walking back past the stacked timber-this year’s tree harvest, we are reminded of the shift in purpose of visiting the woods at this time of year. These days we may not driven by the necessity of subsistence, of felling and chopping timber for the colder months but rather seeking out the intangible benefits, the crisp fresh air, the tranquility, relaxation and a sense of wellbeing found when in the countryside, to some, it is equally as compelling.
*Acknowledgements: Oak Tree – Nature’s Greatest Survivor, BBC, October 2015.