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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Elizabeth-Jane Burnett

Country diary: Caught in a web of late winter branches

The palm house at Kew Gardens in winter.
‘Before the riot of unfurling, and of green, there is a clear, and no less striking, shape to the darkness.’ The palm house at Kew Gardens in winter. Photograph: Ellen Rooney/Alamy

Before the deciduous trees come into leaf, walking underneath them is dizzying. It is like moving through a large, deconstructed nest – one that expands from tree to tree. Without leaves, the nest is airy and flooded with light, made from whole branches and lined with the sky.

The trees lose some of their familiarity when leaves do not reveal their names, and it is their silhouettes that speak. A crown of fine twigs reveals a beech. The horse chestnut’s branches, upturned at the ends, hang like chandeliers. There is something intimate about moving through these shadow portraits, seeing a level of exposure that is not, for most of the year, available. There is an invitation to drift under all this uplift, to trace new pathways through wooden cobwebs.

A large English oak draws me to a standstill. For a moment, I am caught in the web as I follow the outstretched branches. High up, a larch’s twigs brush against its own; lower down, sun soaks the bark in bronze. The width of the trunk denotes an old age, and with many oaks of this kind not producing acorns until they are more than 40 years old, there is a message of slow and steady growth fitting to the season preceding the sudden spurts of spring.

Although there are other silhouettes to trace, it is here that I stay as the sky streams through the branches. I stay as the blue, without leaves to hide it, is at its brightest. A green woodpecker chatters from the larch and a jay flashes turquoise feathers as it passes. I stay until the cold forces me to move.

At ground level, there are scatterings of snowdrops and winter aconite. A little higher, camellias pour in colour from the fringes. Higher still, red catkins dangle from the hazel. The message of coming brightness is clear. Yet, just before the showiness begins, before the riot of unfurling and of green, there is a clear, and no less striking, shape to the darkness, looking skywards through webs of bare branches.

• Country diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary

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