The possibility of spending time at Castle Semple park might have been just an afterthought when I began volunteering but it swelled into a powerful suggestion in my mind as weeks and month went by. I had spent some hours in the morning there during the early days of my involvement with Clyde Muirshiel Regional park and I was relishing to spend yet more time there.
It was on a Saturday morning in February that the occasion presented itself. Alan picked me up around 10 o’clock as the rain settled in a steady downpour. The car jerked into motion and we sped onward, up Kilmalcom road. As we soon drove by the last houses, Greenock gradually dwindled behind us. For a fleeting moment, the valley of the Clyde was revealed, the town spreading up to the hills, encroaching upon the woods; the river mirrored the graphite hues of the sky; the shape of the remote mountains etched into the horizon, their colors muted in the morning rain.
Then, the view eventually vanished at a turn of the road, as if swallowed by the landscape of the back country. Solitary trees appeared here and there on the moor otherwise covered with long clumps of grass that shivered in the wind, slanted hawthorns, tall scots pines, gnarled oaks or ash, slender birches and even, here and there, small woods of some conifers or other.
The car sped along the winding road, past the Harelaw reservoir, past an electrical substation, past isolated farmsteads, past successions of pasture field separated from each other by dry stone walls, where sheep, cows and the occasional horses were grazing nonchalantly. The narrow road plunged, now and then, towards deep hollows of dense woods with their wealth of ancient trees whose twisted branches rose far aloft and formed an intricate roof of emerald leaves. A bridge standing over the dark flows of a river was crossed. The shade of the trees gave way to an uninhabited tangle of glens and low hills on which lush green grass, stunted trees, wild tufts of reed and straggling bushes of brambles and briar grew. To the naked eye, the vegetation glistened under the rain. The low moan of the wind was drowned in the roar of the car engine.
How long did it take to travel the twenty miles separating Greenock from Lochwinoch on that late winter day ? I could not tell. Perhaps it was the spell of the back country scenery that made me lose track of time. Perhaps the gentle rocking of the vehicle gliding on the road lulled me into somnolent peace. Perhaps it was simply that I did not care.
When we reached our destination, The Johnshill parking lot which is located at less than 300 yards from Lochwinnoch, the morning was well advanced and the rain had stopped, offering us a welcome, if momentary respite.
A few others had already arrived. There was both rangers John and Mike who had taken out a wheelbarrow, lopers and wood saws out of a pick up truck. Lorna, both Eddies, John, Ian and Adrian, an English volunteer, were getting ready. After greetings were exchanged, we all started on the trail that led into the woodland which is part of the Castle Semple Park, towards our task of the day, towards the Rhododendrons.
Introduced in our shores by Victorian botanists, wild Rhododendron is an invasive species. Once it has taken over an area, it inhibits germination or the seedling of competing species; it releases toxic chemicals into the soil. It kills woodland. It destroys peatland. it causes the disappearance of animal species which relied upon them.
Doomsayers would would warn of habitats altered, a land irreversibly barren, and they would probably be right. In order to preserve the integrity of our woods and peatlands, wild Rhododendron needs to be, for lack of a better word, curtailed .
The walk through the woods was pleasant. The rain had started anew. The air was cool, if not outright cold. In fact it was quite mild for this time of the year. The violent passion of some earlier winter storm had left disturbing marks of its passage. Trees lay on the ground, broken and uprooted, and severed branches were strewn upon the carpet of leaves and moss. The scene bore a particular vision of chaos in green and brown hues which strangely contrasted to the sense of peace one would unmistakably associate with woodlands.
We finally reached the spot on which we were about to begin our work and we quickly established our base of operation by setting up a tent between a couple of slender birches. the place was a small glade almost surrounded by wild outgrowth of Rhododendrons. The ground had been repeatedly trampled, no doubt by the other group of volunteers attached to the Castle Semple visitor centre who had began the work earlier on during the week and, with the constant help of the rain, it had inevitably become a muck and mire terrain.
Some of us spent the following hours cutting down small branches with lopers and the bigger ones with wood saws. other gathered them and brought them to the glade, stacking them up on two mounds which were soon enough set on fire.
Small orange flames started licking the wet wood and green leaves with seemingly unrepentant gusto and, as the fire roared, we could hear sounds of snapping, popping and cracking while a whimsical wind began to toy with the ascending billows of white smoke. Wet and cold as we undoubtedly were, we welcomed the new heat of the bonfire with relief and joy and we took turn, now and then, to fan the flames and feed them with more combustible materials, lest they become inadvertently extinguished as might sometimes happen when rain and wind conspire to make it so.
In due course, after the recent enterprise was completed we all made our way back through the wood path towards the car park. As we finally assembled there, getting ready to part, my attention was drawn towards the tall pine trees on the opposite side of the road.
Their top was dotted with nests made of dry sticks and twigs safely sitting in the crook of branches, seemingly impervious to the lashing of the elements. Dark birds were restlessly flying around : a murder of crows. I have always wondered about this poetic term for a flock of crows that I have recently encountered while reading “The taxidermist daughter” by Kate Mosse. The term may be accounted, according to tradition, to the presence of crows near gallows and over the battlefield. Some ancient folklore tales recount groups of crows holding judgement over members of their flocks that had supposedly committed offense and then killing it if they decided against it.