Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Golden bands

Golden browns in the Villuercas Mountains (Martin Kelsey)
Standing at 1600 metres above sea-level on an early November  day...it was calm, the sun was shining....shirt-sleeves weather. Indeed, only the bronzed bands of autumnal colours betrayed the season, and as we had ascended to this peak, so we had travelled, as it were, through weeks of flux, the slow shut-down of the fall. That morning we had stood beside the ruin of an old mill, listening to the gurgle of water hidden from view behind a tangle of bramble. The poplars and alders beside the stream stood tall and clothed in leaves that barely were tinged yellow, whilst the rounded guarled fig tree beside the building was still heavily clad with lime-green foliage. A party of wintering Siskins emerged from their dangling foraging, stretching to reach the small, corrugated alder cones, whilst a Firecrest restlessly shifted through the nearby evergreen holm oak,

Old Mill near Guadalupe (Martin Kelsey)
We then took the track that moved serpent-like through wooded hillsides. Still-green maples contrasted with the brilliant gold of sweet chestnut and the russet-brown Pyrenean oaks. As we gained height, so the oaks became smaller and the initial shock of bronze on the leaves graduated to a more weary dull brown. Higher still, with branches dressed by folds of grey lichens, the very tops of each tree were now within touching distance and only the most stubborn, now tatty, leaves remained. In less than half of hour's slow ascent we had advanced a month, from the cusp of autumn to the entrance of winter.

From the peak of the Villuercas Mountains, looking north we could see the sweeping series of valleys and ridges, the products of fold and thrust that pushed these slates and quartzites, metamorphized sandstones dating back over 450 million years, into a quite breathtaking panorama of gigantic ripples. Each valley struck a perfect curve, smoothed and rounded, rising to a splinter of ridges, jagged vertical strata, like white horses atop turbulent waves. Breaking the wooded slopes were expanses of broken ground, a litter of rubble, like gigantic scree, boulders that had tumbled from the cracked torn strata as ice over the millenia had pushed open tiny fissures. The landscape before us has been described as one of the finest examples of Appalachian relief this side of the Atlantic and deservedly has been designated as part of the Global Geopark network of UNESCO.  Countless times I have paused where I was standing that day and without fail, sought a moment's silence in solemn respect to the poetry of this landform and tried to comprehend the forces that pushed these rocks into these rolling wavescape.

UNESCO Global Geopark Villuercas-Ibores-Jara (Martin Kelsey)
At the summit the vertical reach of the strata was even more obvious, metre-thick layers, rising upwards, 90 degrees from their norm, creating sides of the outcrops that were utterly smoothed, with the tops of the crags in steps, leaping from one plane of strata to the next. Focusing in from the landscape to the surface of the rockface, there was a gallery of lichens, patchwork quilt-like in the mixture of colours and textures. And there, amongst the stillness of the moment, a movement. A bird had passed from the small ledge and slowly was working up the near vertical surface of the adjacent strata. Amongst the lichens, its largely grey, rather finely marked plumage was well camouflaged. Only when it turned, did the russet of its flanks come into view, a recall of the colours of the oaks five hundred metres below us. It was an Alpine Accentor and soon others came into view, making short rattling calls as they flew in to the spot, materialising before our eyes as a small wintering flock, perhaps nine birds, but never all in view, as they climbed and shuffled around the ancient rocks.

Alpine Accentor on lichen and quartzite (Martin Kelsey)