Back to nature: Gaynor Funnell charts the natural rewilding of a derelict farmyard
…and under the pavement the soil
is dreaming of grass.
The old yard is an emptiness of grey – a tennis-court sized base with a side of pitted concrete and a bleached wood wall. An empty farmyard is a strange, hushed place; it holds an air of waiting for something-to-happen about it. Once full of noise, it now seems devoid of life. No tractors or trailers rattle through; the cattle and sheep are silent. But if you look beyond the cracks, the rusted metal and broken gates, different lives can be found.
Cross to the old stone cattle feeder. It only took a week to fill with stair-rods of Welsh mountain-and-sea rain and it wasn’t long before life appeared. Water boatman scull with feather-fine fingers to the surface and hang upside down to draw breath before descending, clasping mercury-bubbles of air. Whirligig beetles like shiny-black rice grains twirl madly in circles, looking skyward with one pair of eyes and waterward with the other. Perhaps that’s why they appear so frenzied – they’re not sure which field of vision to follow.
Green algae called blanket weed forms when the sun is high and the name describes it perfectly as its capable of covering the water in a couple of days. I pull out soft emerald-green handfuls which I drape over the rough side of the trough so any pond-life can wriggle back into the water. Blanket weed is surprisingly silky to touch whilst in the water, but clings to your fingers when exposed to the air. The almost seaweed drying smell lingers for days. I leave a small patch in one corner – it gives the honeybees a safe surface to drink from.
Sparrows congregate on the crumbling wall behind, chattering, nudging, squabbling and jostling like children at the lido, arguing whose turn is it to go first. They fly down to drink and to take an occasional bath when the algae is strong enough to hold them. Sparrows normally like to nest near each other and have colonised an old shed and the hawthorn that is helping to hold it up, but a pair have gone up-market and are nesting in an old metal gantry attached to the wall, their slate grey and chestnut heads perfectly matching the rusting metal. Disembodied cheeps echo at feeding time.
The concrete isn’t as flat as it appears; there’s a slight tilt to the east so excess water can drain into the ditch, and the decades of machinery have caused it to buckle and crack. Now, these cracks are evolving, the winter deluge bringing soil and seeds which have started to colonise wherever they can.
Cocksfoot and perennial rye grass are the first to appear, along with nettles and docks, which handily sit side-by-side, so you can rub with one after you get stung by the other. This year, there’s a handful of foxgloves not yet flowering – they’ll take another year before they do – and white clover, bittercress and groundsel weave between their feet.
Buttercup-yellow dandelion and daisies, pink flushed by the sun, add a splash of colour, whilst in a shady corner, herb-robert reaches out, looking for the light. In autumn, the plant turns glorious shades of amber, copper and scarlet, and in summer its small pink flowers clash against the red of the stems, which have an unpleasant, almost burnt smell when picked, which is why Stinky Bob is one of its country names.
There’s a patch of blues under the self-sown sycamore (which I ought to pull out as it’s beginning to crack the concrete even more) which I couldn’t have orchestrated better myself. Speedwell, forget-me-nots and a stray violet inter-mingle with the little dangling, triangular heads of shepherds purse.
Germander speedwell has a tiny white eye and four petals, which are the same shade as the bluebells that wander through the wood nearby and its cousin, the common speedwell, is a shade darker. Both were used as good luck charms, sometimes being sewn into coat pockets, to ‘speed you on your way.’ Forget-me-nots are more turquoise and have five petals with a yellow-bead eye. Their name is borrowed from the German, Vergissmeinnicht, and always reminds me of a war poem I read at school with that title. The flowers signify remembrance and have been chosen to represent the Alzheimer’s Society, for obvious reasons. The two plants twine so tightly together, you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins.
In the hairline fissures, a pea-green moss-like mat of procumbent pearlwort stretches in all directions, trying to find another gap to reach in to. The plant is almost unnoticeable as you walk across the yard as it sprawls horizontally and you have to kneel to see it properly. The stems are smooth and succulent-like and the flower buds are like tiny baubles which open to chalk-white flowers which smell of nothing in particular.
It’s a tenacious little plant and seems to be able to grow anywhere including vertical walls, withstanding people, dogs and cars treading over it, and can apparently be submerged in water for a number of days with no ill-effects. It is said to be the first plant that Jesus set his foot on when he rose from the dead, and in Scotland, a spray on the door keeps the fairies away.
To many, the crumbling walls, exposed breeze blocks and cracked concrete are something that needs sorting, clearing, removing. But nature is slowly winning. She is creeping with green and brown fingers, poking into corners and smoothing rough edges. Rewilding speaks to me of doing something to actively encourage nature in all its forms. I have no hand in this – here, she is managing by herself.