Country diary: abiding beauty amid the bareness

Hamsterley Forest, County Durham: It’s tempting to think of evolutionary success stories as inexorable advances in complexity, driven by competition. But what about resilience?

A dense conifer plantation beside this steep road into the forest, which hid a magnificent vista across the valley for half a human lifetime, has been felled. The bare hillside will be reforested but, before the next timber crop blocks the view again, the decaying stumps of its predecessor will become a niche for plants that first evolved half a billion years ago.

Mosses and liverworts, arriving by air as invisible spores, thrive on these flat, porous surfaces left by chainsaws, free from the shade cast by surrounding brambles and ferns. Some recently cut stumps are already showing signs of colonisation; deeper in the forest I found others, felled a decade ago, that have become luxuriant moss gardens.

Ground-hugging mosses and liverworts were early land colonisers but never acquired the capacity to make woody stems and grow tall. The rest of the plant kingdom did, leading to the evolution of forests that relegated these diminutive plants to life in the shadows. Crouching down here to examine the tree-stump mossy microcosms, I could imagine what a treeless planet, clad only in ankle-high vegetation, might once have looked like.

There were delicate, ground-hugging shoots of bifid crestwort. Leafy liverworts like this are evolution’s early experiment in producing leaves – just one cell thick, translucent as stained glass. You need a hand lens to appreciate their delicate beauty; then their teeming microfauna, of nematode worms, springtails and mites, comes into focus too.

On another rotting pine stump, I found juniper haircap moss, just three inches tall, its spirals of pointed leaves glistening with dewdrops. On another, emerald cushions of mosses slowly engulfing grey-green encrustations of pixie-cup lichen, a strange amalgam of fungus and alga with inch-tall spore cups, shaped like golf tees.

It’s tempting to think of evolutionary success stories as inexorable advances in complexity, driven by competition. But there is another, less anthropocentric, dimension: resilience. The lowly organisms in front of me, whose origins span unimaginable geological timescales, now colonising remains of fallen giants, survived cataclysmic global mass extinctions. Mobility, as spores carried everywhere on the wind, has been their enduring asset in an ever-changing world.


Phil Gates

The GuardianTramp

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