Notes from an English wood

On a clear day Chris and his beloved com­pan­ion visit their tree to closely ex­am­ine the va­ri­ety of colours in its canopy.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Column - with wit CHRIS PACK­HAM CHRIS PACK­HAM is a nat­u­ral­ist and con­ser­va­tion­ist. He presents Spring­watch and Spring­watch Un­sprung, air­ing on BBC Two from 29 May.


Last night we crept out to see what all the stars were chat­ter­ing about. I won­dered at their twin­kling semaphore and lis­tened to their hum, but couldn’t dis­tin­guish any of their con­ver­sa­tions over the naughty mur­mur all the new leaves were mak­ing in the trees be­yond the barn. They were too ex­cited to sleep, busy whispering about how they couldn’t wait for the dawn, about how they were go­ing to seize their share of the sun and feel all fizzy as they started to make their first batch of sug­ars.

We emp­tied our blad­ders, shiv­ered at the lost heat and went back to bed, and as he slumped onto my pil­low with his oblig­a­tory muddy paws, I told him that if it was still clear in the morn­ing we’d go to the tree. Our tree: the tree where only we go.

We leave cal­cu­lat­edly late – it’s squinty time, the sun is sharp and high. As we get gen­tly nipped by the fad­ing niff last night’s fox left on the gate, I fon­dle my new ob­ses­sion, fan out its pris­tine rain­bow, revel in its neat­ness and prac­ti­cal­ity, and smile, be­cause to­day I am go­ing to pre­cisely de­fine the colour of leaves, the most beau­ti­ful leaves on my Earth.

Pan­tone LLC is the self­pro­claimed world author­ity on colour and seeks to com­mu­ni­cate ac­cu­rately a stan­dard lan­guage for it. Its swatch, which con­ve­niently fits my coat pocket, has 1,867 small rec­tan­gles of pig­ment and my, al­beit child­like, mis­sion is to find a pre­cise match for each in na­ture.

Most are only numer­i­cally coded, but some have names, such as ‘Green­ery’ (15-0343) which is 2017’s “colour of the year”. It is de­scribed as “a life-af­firm­ing shade”, which is “em­blem­atic of the pur­suit of per­sonal pas­sions and vi­tal­ity” and cho­sen to rep­re­sent “a colour snap­shot of what we see tak­ing place in our global cul­ture”. Maybe ‘Pitch Black’ would have been bet­ter.

Be­fore we reach the tree, I can smell it. Ripe, wet, soft, nei­ther too sweet nor too bit­ter, and – like the peel scraped from sweet chest­nuts – it makes me sali­vate. As we ap­proach the vast trunk, I glance down and see my hands turn grey, the ground bleach and the wob­bling sunspots flare. I stoop, close my eyes and then roll over into the fug of hu­mus, and when Scratchy tires of lick­ing my face I gaze up into the glit­ter­ing spec­trum of spring.

Beech, big, new, fresh and bril­liant, a mil­lion leaves ablaze, sparkling, flick­er­ing, glow­ing with a green­ness so vivid it hurts. The em­peror of my woods has new clothes and their finery has no equal, and when I’m drunk on their ex­trav­a­gance I be­gin to study in­di­vid­ual leaves and raise my swatch and cau­tiously match the leaf lights with their printed cor­re­spon­dents, not­ing the codes on my phone. It’s harder than I thought; I can see more leaves than I saw stars last night.

There are an es­ti­mated 1022 to 1024 stars in the uni­verse, but across both hemi­spheres just 9,096 are of mag­ni­tude 6.5 or above and thus vis­i­ble to the naked eye. Our vi­sion may be lim­ited as­tro­nom­i­cally, but it is ac­com­plished spec­trally. Us­ing the six mil­lion colour-sen­si­tive cone cells in our reti­nas it is claimed that the hu­man eye can dis­tin­guish 10 mil­lion dif­fer­ent colours. Their peak sen­si­tiv­ity is in the green­ish-yel­low re­gion of the spec­trum, al­low­ing our eyes to process more in­for­ma­tion about this range of colours than any other, and now I’ve be­gun to de­fine this numer­i­cally. Beech ( Fa­gus syl­vat­ica) canopy, early May 2017, Hamp­shire, Eng­land, is made up of…

2290U 2297U 2299U 374U 387C 397U 2298U 3955U 2278U 2272U 3935U 372U and the rest.

As I trip back through the woods jug­gling my swatch and phone, I’m struck with a con­trast­ing mix of emo­tions. I’m sat­is­fied that my task has been at least par­tially achieved – I have a list – but am wor­ried that my ir­re­press­ible de­sire to dis­sect and cat­e­gorise has re­duced one of my great­est an­nual plea­sures to se­ries of in­ert codes, that I’ve di­luted ab­so­lute beauty into a mere se­ries of num­bers.

I pause for him to catch up and note that Scratchy is not as black as he used to be. I bend down with my swatch. Minia­ture poo­dle ( Ca­nis lu­pus fa­mil­iaris) muz­zle, New For­est, May 2017. ‘Cool Grey’ 3U, duly noted on my phone.

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