21 June 2012 a post by Bruce Stanley

You must increase, I must decrease

It is mid-summer, St John’s eve, the longest day of the year. Imagine that you’re looking at one of the rarest things in the other-than-human world ...

... a field of exposed, bare soil – the very beginning. Perhaps there was a great storm or flood or fire. Or perhaps this season marks the end of some persons interest in this acre. The story is about to start, listen … In nature the loudest explosion is the playful, vulnerable rush of the pioneers to lay claim, to colonise, to live and set seed. Destined to thrive in glorious profusion on this empty stage. In come the mustard and cresses, the goosefoot and dock, the grasses, and a score of flower species. The bare soil says to these countless seeds and seedlings, you must increase, I must decrease.

rosebay willowherb

A year on and the chickweed marks the wet patches, the plantain grows where the ground is compact. Nettle grows where livestock congregated under the shelter of a long gone tree, liking the nitrogen. Grass, dock and creeping buttercup compete for the crown this year but there, near the edge, a bramble reaches up and over – and there, the willowy leaves of fire weed (also known as blooming sally, purple rocket and ranting widow). The tender meadow pioneers say to these new champions, you must increase, I must decrease.

It is mid-summer, St John’s eve, five years on and the grass, cress and clover have all but gone, lost for light under the canopy of briars, willowherb and thorn. A transformation is happening at ground level. Rich, fertile soil is being made and without the choking mat of grass, space is appearing for the first tree. Thorns exclude those with tender flesh and hungry mouths, seeds blown in by the millions have a chance, only a few need push for the light. The beginning of the birch, the prince of the north. Bramble says to the birch, you must increase, I must decrease.

birch trees

We’ve been waiting now 30 years. It is mid-summer, St John’s eve. We’ve been waiting for a miracle in the soil. It isn’t what’s gone on above ground that has prepared the way for the coming king but what’s gone on below, inside. As the annuals gave way to the herbaceous perennials, and then to woody perennials and shrubs, mycelium, the underground filament-like bodies of mushrooms and toadstools have began to colonise the soil. A broadleaf standard planted in that open field all those years ago would have struggled for want of this subterranean symbiotic connection.

But now, the time is right. Reaching through the space left by storm felled birch comes an oak and an ash. Growing faster, the ash may win this one. And a sycamore and an alder. But there, under the shadow of its father on neighbouring land, comes the king, pushing through, from darkness to light, baptised in the sunlight, the mighty beech. On St John’s eve, as the buttercup prepares the way for the bramble, and as the bramble prepares the way for the birch and as the birch prepares the way for the beech, they say, as St John himself said to Jesus, you must increase, I must decrease.

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Your comments:

thank you, I loved this

#1. By Sally on June 21, 2012

really great reflection - and a lesson about time and not rushing what is going on

#2. By Steve Hollinghurst on June 21, 2012

So wonderful.  What a lovely, descriptive narrative.  I loved it!  Thank you.

#3. By Elizabeth McNally on June 22, 2012

This is really lovely.
A great blog

#4. By Helen on July 19, 2012

Thank you for your encouraging comments, Sally, Steve, Elizabeth and Helen.

#5. By Bruce Stanley on July 23, 2012

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