Jean Dark’s Memory of 2016

Finally, today on the last day of the year, I actually saw the kingfisher of Snakey Path Brooke. I’ve lived here for 2 full years now and I often go walking around Cherry Hinton Hall, a regular circuit that takes in the tree sculpture, the Dawn Redwoods, the towering Scots Pines, the Mill Pond, the little slivers of woodland  up to and along Snakey Path. My friends have all seen the Kingfisher, they say “How come you live so close to the Hall, but have never seen the Kingfishers?”. Well, I have seen all sorts of creatures around, I’ve seen and heard the Green Woodpeckers doomy drumming in the wild overgrown parts and I’ve see the wild honey-bee nest in the forked Ash tree, and I’ve seen the Jay-birds flitting in a pair – in fact they come into my garden too – but I’ve never, til today, seen a Kingfisher. And actually, when I did finally see the Snakey Path Kingfisher, it was on Cherry Hinton Brooke, not Snakey Path at all.

Kingfisher

Kingfisher

I was crossing the little bridge over Cherry Hinton Brooke, and at first I saw a white Egret wading in the stoney shallows, so I stopped to look. A sudden dog bounded full pelt into the stream and the Egret flew, and that’s when I saw a swift curving shimmer of sky-blue swoop up into the winter branches – The Kingfisher! The little bird paused and perched in a shrub overhanging the water. It stayed perched for a long time, I fixed my eyes on it’s orange breast, not wanting to lose the sight of it in the trees. A family crossed the bridge, grandma, mum and two young boys, so I stopped them and pointed out the Kingfisher  and we all five of us stayed on the hump-backed bridge, staring as the bird serenely perched, sometimes turning it’s head so we caught glimpses of it’s white cheeks in the woodland gloom. We stood there fascinated, chatting quietly, fixated on the little shy bird, for quarter of a hour or more. They’d all seen the Kingfishers before, but usually just a fleeting glance on Snakey Path Brooke. A couple of dogs came tearing out of the wooded area, sniffing and scuffling along the bank, but the Kingfisher stayed put, perched, unperturbed. My mind was glowing with the Kingfisher’s radiant orange breast plumage and the memory of it’s flight, the steak of implausible searing electric blue along it’s back. The family moved on, tracking through the trees on the opposite bank, the boys with a camera edging silently up close to snap a picture of the Kingfisher from across the stream. After a long while the bird took off along Cherry Hinton Brooke towards where it forks off to Snakey Path Brooke and I got a long lingering view , a tiny smear of vivid blueness  heading off between the river banks. I was pretty pleased, well, overjoyed really, what a lucky day I’ve had, what a fabulous end to the year. So much so that I think my enduring memory of 2016 won’t be the horrible feeling that yet another celebrity coffin is sliding into the crematorium’s furnace, but the sparkling vision of a tiny, miraculously blue-backed bird, riding the curving course of Cherry Hinton Brooke, swooping colour through the bare overhanging branches, this year I’ll remember for the magic of the Fisher King.

Jean Dark
31st December 2016

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Sequoias Resurrected

Muffled up and walking in the park, that bright harshly cold midwinter morning I was horrified  to see what had happened to the Sequoias.
I’d identified three Sequoias, or Redwood trees,  in my local park a while back. I’d recognised them by their yew-like needles, their tall regular ovoid profile and red spongy bark, and I checked them out,  spoke to them, whenever I passed through the park. But the needles of the Sequoias that winter morning had turned an  awful lurid orange, the colour of the underside of a slug, or the nasty neon of cheap orange squash. It was as if they were shedding their needle leaves, yet as far as I knew Sequoias – Coast Redwoods (Sequoia Sempervirens)  and Giant Redwoods (Sequoiadendron giganteum)  –  were all evergreen.  I made a concerted effort to call on the Sequoias every few weeks over the rest of the winter and watched in dismay as the trees seemed to wither away and die.

Dawn Redwood in Cherry Hinton Hall Park

Dawn Redwood in Cherry Hinton Hall Park

I thought and read about Coast and Giant Redwoods a  lot for a few months, learning that Sequoias are the largest, tallest and oldest trees on the planet, there is fossil evidence going back 5 million years.  And although native to north west coast  USA, since the 1860s they have  become quite popular transplants in parks and botanic gardens across Europe, indeed Redwoods seem to grow larger, faster  and stronger in European soil than in their native habitat. In the website Redwood World (http://www.redwoodworld.co.uk/) I found an invaluable information resource and exchange, with a county by county list of redwoods in the UK,  there was no mention of Redwoods  in  my local park, only trees in the University Botanic garden and newly planted saplings in private gardens.
Although I thoroughly researched Redwoods it wasn’t clear to me why they appeared to be dying, there seemed no evidence of insect infestation and our local park has no large animals, like deer or cattle, to eat the trees, I began to assume environmental failure.
In googling image searches I tried to distinguish the two species and identify which species  was  dying in my local park. My local specimens were most like the Coast Redwoods (Sequoia Sempervirens), red burnished bark glowing in bright spring leaved green, growing tall, straight and wild in endless sun dappled groves on the internet. I was pretty sure  my park Redwoods were not Giant Redwood (Sequoiadendron giganteum) which seem to exist primarily in freak-of-nature type photographs – tiny human standing by stupidly enormous  tree, or  a cabin made from a single hollowed out log , or tunnelled through for a road, I decided that all those implausibly-giant-tree photographs on the web  are either CGI or Giant Redwoods. My redwoods although clearly mature were still small enough  to encircle with my arms, small enough to hug.
Then, one solitary park-walk in mid-April  I noticed the Sequoias gleaming with that tentative nearly-bursting  leaf-bud mild- halo of green, just like the park’s oaks, ashes and conker trees –  it looked to me like the Redwoods were miraculously coming back to life. Sequoias resurrected. I spent quite a while with one of the trees, noticing new growth, leaf shapes, patterns and sizes, and then I rushed home, giddy to google “deciduous sequoia”.
That was how I encountered the third member of the Sequoia family – the  Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostrobides), a tree believed to be long extinct, an ancestor to Coast and Giant species , known  only as fossils. Then last century  a stand of deciduous Sequoias were  discovered in China, it took until 1946 for the connection between the  Chinese  trees and the fossils to be made. To prevent final extinction seeds were gathered in 1948 and distributed to universities, research facilities and botanic gardens around the globe.
The Dawn Sequoia  is characterised by its deciduous nature and the leaflets occurring in opposite pairs on the stem, apart from this, for a lay person,  there really is nothing  to distinguish the Dawn from the Giant or Coast Redwood. The outline of the Dawn and Coast  are almost identical  and they all bear the distinctive bright spongy red bark.
All three trees in my local park are mature enough to produce cones  and to have reached  their current size they  must have come from the earliest batches of seed distributed in 1948. I have contacted the Cambridge Botanic Gardens and Redwood World website to see their thoughts, and it will be interesting to see if I can discover the story of these three rare trees and how  they came to be planted here, in a suburban Cambridge park.

Dawn Redwoods at Cherry Hinton Hall