by Lisa Andrews

carve oak-dappled light
every paper mark a prayer – 
i will be more tree

It is a crisp morning in late autumn, deep inside a deciduous wood when an oak leaf decides it is time to fall. It is the last of thousands that have made the 20-metre drop from their home high in the canopy. And since this is a slow fluttering, rather than a crash to earth, leaf has time to take in its surroundings. 

Across the ride, for instance, stands a family of silver birch, all slim, pale trunks and papery bark. Oak leaf feels a flash of pride for its parent’s far more substantial, gnarly girth, a work in progress these past two centuries of leaf fall. Birches are popular with other woodland species, such as aphids and great spotted woodpeckers, as well as the herb layer lot, like wood anemone, bluebell and wood sorrel. 

Oak, too, has always welcomed other species. Sometimes, thinks leaf, a little too welcome. It’s seen many a companion lost to the insatiable appetite of a purple hairstreak caterpillar. Thank goodness for the blue tits. 

Beyond the birch stand a handful of ash trees. They drop their leaves at the first sniff of autumn, hardly bothering to change colour. Where’s the fun in that? Beyond them is a new space in the canopy, left by a fallen beech limb. Leaf knows that while beetles are busy munching on decaying bark, young saplings will quickly take advantage of the autumn sunlight that now floods the area. Perhaps a squirrel or jay will forget a buried acorn and a new oak will be among that number. 

Way out on the woodland edge, stand the domed skeletons of field maples. They’re a strange crew – hanging out in the hedgerows and scrub, inconspicuous most of the year until, bang, autumn arrives and they’re all gold, lobed leaves and winged fruits. 

Halfway now and the canopy gives way to hazel and hawthorn lurking in the understory. Beneath hazel’s crisp yellow and brown leaves lie hazelnut shells with tops nibbled off in perfect circles. Leaf has always wanted to see a hazel dormouse but they are shy so…

…the thought is cut off by the need for a quick shimmy to avoid the sharp edges of a holly leaf. The mean girls of the woodland – all gloss and talons. It’s not their fault, though, it’s just their way of deterring lunch and dinner browsers. 

Leaf’s final destination is close now, its fox-coloured companions already a blanket of leaf litter across the woodland floor. They’re a tough bunch, the last to succumb to this seasonal ecosystem. As it lands, leaf hears a gentle rustle, suspects a mole going about its autumnal business. Below that the faintest hum of the wood wide web – the complex mycorrhizal network that has connected this woodland for centuries. 

In time, leaf and friends will become a snack for millipedes or decompose and create a new humus layer that will raise the soil’s nitrogen levels, which will feed oak’s roots for another year. Death is always life in the deciduous woodland. 

With thanks to Ross Wingfield for his help on understanding the complex cycles and layers of a wood.

Read Margaret Kenna’s 26 Habitats deciduous woodland centena and essay.

Read Gemma Cantelo’s 26 Habitats deciduous woodland centena.

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