Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Lessons in biology

I am lying on my back in a spring woodland, the sun full through the branches of trees which, this far north, are still bare of leaves. Each day I notice some new growth on empty branches; the soft green clusters on the hawthorn, the frilled rosettes on the rowans. Even the oaks are starting to assume their mustard-green fur of new leaves, a sign that spring comes faster than we ever remember.
The floor of this wood is soft with wet sphagnum and thick growth of woodrush; it has remained ungrazed by sheep for years, and the spaces between the trees bear some reminder of how rich and hospitable old woods should be; how welcoming they are, to us as another of the wood-dwelling species, how they retain this feeling that seems like home but is also unknown. Perhaps it is an ancestral memory of home, a genetic sense of shelter and warmth, of the abundance of fuel and food. As we step carelessly along one of the lesser-used paths, a deer rises from the slopes below us, crosses the track and skitters up the steep hillside above us, all grace and fluidity. We pause to watch it climb, the way it rests for a moment, ears and nose sensing the air, alert to threat or chance.

I have been lying on my belly, studying the folded leaf sets of the new wood sorrel; they way they droop like the hats of some archaic monastic order. I peer at new fern fronds as they unravel like the impatient hands of children, each one the promise of a new plant, a mystery of biological form in the way that the complete frond seems compressed into that tight coil, in the same way that each new shell in the sea seems to contain the structure, the implicit memory, of the complete mature form. It reminds me of that mystifying but memorable phrase from my university palaeontology classes; that 'ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny'; how the growth of each individual rehearses the development of the species, as though we are each destined to learn the same painful truths, to repeat the failures and mistakes of our species before we can progress.
Spring is a reminder of the cyclicity of the world, the way in which the patterns may be familiar, but not identical, that we may walk in the same woods, but they are subtly different each year; that our children can follow paths we may have known ourselves in the past, but they can run them unfettered, freer, wiser than we may ever be.