The ground is absolutely solid under my feet. I can feel every rut in the field I walk over; my feet twist into every hoof mark, every tractor tyre dent. It still hasn’t snowed more than an icing sugar dusting, (much to my children’s disgust), but it has been cold; the cold of chilblains, and painful fingers, icicles and frozen door locks. So I am wondering, how will it be in the wood? So far into this winter, the woodland floor has been protected from the wandering’s of Jack Frost – has the cold finally penetrated the tree branches to reach the ground? As I climb the wall and look, I think not, but as I jump and hit the floor, there is the squeaking crunch of crushing ice.
I begin to walk up the path; it feels and sounds like I am walking on gravel. The path looks muddy, but as I put each foot down, it seems to sink with a crisp crunch. I bend down to investigate, and find grottos of beautiful ice crystals beneath the crust of mud; the surface of dark soil has been lifted on millions of frozen water pedestals, and with each sinking footstep, I am crushing the miniature caverns formed between the pillars. I don’t like being so destructive, so I move onto the leaf litter at the side of the path instead. Here the leaf litter looks defrosted, but there is the tell-tale squeak of ice again as I walk. I pull up the layer of leaves and beneath, there are the ice caves again. I decide damage limitation is the best I can do and carry on up to our basecamp along the path.
The water butts are impressively frozen and a layer of ice almost ten centimetres thick sits on the children’s trampoline. It is beautiful, full of frozen bubbles which sparkle like diamonds – but very cold. I carry on to the Cosy Shed, seeing deep badger digging all the way along the path. As I walk, it begins to drizzle. I can hear the waves of drops coming closer before they arrive, a light patter on the leaf litter. It is the same with the wind in the branches; I can hear it in the distance getting louder before it reaches the branches above, causing them to sway heavily, ponderously…
A nuthatch has spotted me. It gives me a good talking to, then keeps up an intermittent reminder to get myself gone until I hide myself away in the Cosy Shed. I sit, snug. Outside, it is still drizzling, but inside I cannot hear it, just the odd heavier drip from the trees overhead. I watch as small rivulets of water run down the clear corrugations of the roof and reflect that nothing really seems to have moved on in the woods since I was last here. The bluebell leaves are perhaps more abundant, possibly things are looking a little less grey, but nothing is really jumping out at me to announce the imminent arrival of spring.
But the wood is moving on, reacting to the cycling of the seasons. There is already another hour and a half of daylight compared to six weeks ago, there is a definite warmth in the sun now when it manages to break through the cloud. Honeysuckle leaves are emerging, bulbs are growing thick white roots, birds are beginning to pair up and look for nesting sites, and the badgers, who do not seem to have reduced their activity much at all this winter, will soon (if they have not already) give birth to cubs beneath the ground. I remind myself that just because I can’t see all the wood is doing to prepare for spring, doesn’t mean it is not happening. Hopefully, as the warmth returns, I will really start to see signs of the coming of spring.
I begin to hear a steady tapping on roof; the rain has become heavier. It’s time to go and I set off back. I don’t come to the woods so much in the rain; it’s nice to hear the noise of the droplets on leaves even though, at this time of the year, it sounds strange coming from the ground, not the canopy. I can hear bird song in the lull between showers. Holly leaves shine a darker green now they are wet. The boughs above are blowing more gently and the patter of rain has turned into a steady rustle on the woodland floor. It seems darker and duller all of a sudden. As I leave the woods, the air feels less cold, although the ground in the fields is still solid. Mist has descended, and I am glad to be returning home to a warm fire. I will leave the wood in peace to quietly prepare for spring.