Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Small is powerful

Emerging grass shoots (Martin Kelsey)

It is a week since the first rains of autumn arrived. The moment the dust dampened we imbibed that familiar alluring scent. It even has a special name, coined by Australian researchers (who know a thing or two about droughts): petrichor. The distinctive aroma of rain as it breaks the drought is caused by two substances: oils from certain plants that become absorbed by the soil and also a metabolic by-product made by actinobacteria when the soil is wet. These actinobacteria act a bit like fungi, breaking down organic matter and enriching the soil. We depend on them, yet few of us know that they even exist. Only when we exalt in the petrichor do we have an unknowing sensory connection to them.  The scent of rain draws us to our roots. And, like when we gaze into the flames in a hearth or feel comforted by the embrace of savannas of the dehesas, it is a moment when that layer of modernity slips from our grasp.

Seven days on small changes are visible. Everywhere tiny green spikes of grass have now reached a height of two centimetres. Each one appears fragile but resolute, just a day or two old, emerging erect from the darkened soil. So small they are easily overlooked, but so powerful are they that the landscape will be changed. I mark out a square, five centimetres by five centimetres. There are about 70 tiny grass shoots visible. This means that in just one hectare, 280 million green spears have pierced the surface since the weather changed, and more will be following. In a few more days aided with the warmth of late October sunshine (and hopefully some more rain), our landscapes will be transformed. Green will return and we will embrace an emerald Extremadura right through winter and on to the eventual demise of spring.

Woodlark (John Hawkins)

The landscape changes in other ways too. Joining the transformation of colours and a clarity of the air, briefly laundered by clouds, there are new sounds. The sweet cadence of Woodlarks seems totally in tune with the freshness of the morning. I eagerly await this most uplifting of autumnal sounds. Robins have also arrived from northern Europe and their fluid winter song glistens like a resurgent stream.

Moisture in the soil has provoked other stirrings of small beings. We stood in the middle of a vast rolling expanse of open plains. Our journey had paused so that we could watch the drunken wheeling of a gathering of Common Starlings, just arrived from eastern Europe. Skyward we directed our binoculars, picking up the eccentric twists that the starlings were making. As we focused, the reason for these manoeuvres sunk home. Amongst and beyond the birds were myriads of particles, showing almost Brownian motion. As we concentrated a subtle buzzing or crackling sound could be heard. At first we assumed this came from the nearby power lines, but the timbre was not quite right. It issued from these tiny objects themselves, the sum of a countless mass. We were watching the alates of an ant: large winged-queens and multitudes of winged-males. The latter pursued the queens, seeking aerial bonding, which usually brought them sliding down to the ground. Their mission accomplished, wings were discarded unceremoniously by some mysterious disconnection of tissue.

Firecrest, photographed in March 2016 (Martin Kelsey)

Across the dehesas, barely audible high-pitched whispers help me locate a tiny bird which, shrew-like, is perpetually on the move from dawn until dusk in search of tiny invertebrates. Through the dapple of holm oak leaves, it rewards me with the briefest of glimpses, but never of the whole bird itself. The visual fragments fit together like a jigsaw and are crowned by the shock of black, white and red on the head. Firecrests, so aptly named, are also moving into Extremadura now, taking advantage of the landscape of trees and mild winter days. Food can always be found, even if the tiny size of the morsels means that foraging becomes their sole pursuit all day long. Across our region there will be tens of thousands of Firecrests this winter, so small that they too are barely noticed but also playing their role in shaping a landscape. 



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