The Wytham Ecosystem and Climate Change Poetry

Woodland Words on 8th September were on ‘The Wytham Ecosystem and Global Climate Change’, with Yadvinder Malhi FRS, Professor of Ecosystem Science at the Oxford University School of Geography and Environment. While walking us down from the Chalet to his experimental site Yadvinder introduced the woods as a place to understand ecological processes: not pristine and ancient, but left undisturbed and conserved ever since Charles Elton’s pioneering animal ecology studies as ‘a place to let nature go’ and to see what happens. Long term monitoring of the great-tit population – comprehensive records of how ‘tit begat tit’ – go back to the 1950’s, and badger studies to the 60’s.

Automation now allows researchers to monitor and record ecosystem processes continuously over long periods. The data not only help us to understand the functioning of an ecosystem at a fundamental level, but also serve as a ‘sentinel for change’, alerting us to impacts of climate change – in Wytham, such changes are hotter drier summers, more extreme weather, and ‘the shifting of spring’. Yadvinder’s research now extends to include Wytham Woods, as well as his numerous tropical forest sites, in an international network for global ecological monitoring (GEM). It is ‘the best-studied patch of woodland on Earth’, one of the calibration points for Nasa satellites mapping global vegetation structure.

On the ground, the experimental plot for which carbon flux is being measured is a 600 X 300 metre area of deciduous woodland - mainly ash and sycamore - on the outcrop of Jurassic limestone that caps Wytham Hill. Every tree is marked and its annual increase in biomass recorded. Rising into the topmost branches is the walkway, on to which we were all allowed to climb, and the flux tower that houses data-logging instruments which continuously record ‘the breath of the forest’ – for example, a sonic anemometer measures second-by-second flow of carbon dioxide into and out of the canopy. In summer there is a large net flow into the forest and out at night; in winter, with little photosynthesis, carbon dioxide is slowly released by both day and night from plants and soil. Biomass is still increasing, and the woods absorb 1 tonne of carbon per hectare per year, acting as a carbon sink. Yadvinder tells me that, at a rough estimate, Wytham and equivalent university and college-owned woodland near Oxford (like Bagley Wood) absorb the equivalent of about half of the university’s energy and heating related carbon emissions, which shows how important woodland restoration can be.

What happens in Wytham to the ‘captured sunshine’, bound up in trees by photosynthesis? Trees use only 10% for woody growth – the rest goes on plant defence, and leaves, roots and fruit. And 9% of the energy ends up in animals, most in deer (6%), 2 and 1% in squirrels and badgers, respectively. In tropical forests, far more – as much as 25% - ends up in mammals: 25%, in deer, bearded pigs and elephants.

In the afternoon poetry writing workshop, Romola asked writers to note down memorable phrases as a starting point for poems. There was no shortage of visionary words and images that we recalled verbatim from Yadvinder’s own account (I have italicized them above). How close good science is to poetry!


Sarah Watkinson


Here follows a selection of poems submitted by workshop attendees: 


ReW'ld, an illustration

Illustration by Simon Pressey


Not at all quiet, these roots - down here it’s noisy as hell…
Never an end to the pushing and shoving- even the lichen busily etching its scratchy
patterns, the fungi greedily swelling and bursting in empty spaces, both expanding
their own estates by a kind of deafening stealth - as if they imagine
no-one notices.

And the worms! My god - heard them
Brawling just the other night,
Head butting the earth and each other,
Battering tunnels in darkness.

Decay and its chemically team the worst of all - a squelching secretion with
fulminating rallies of belching and stinking farts.

What heaven above,
In amongst that quietly rustling
Green canopy -
Imagine the peace!


                                         Jane Muir 


Image of logs lying on the ground covered in moss with bluebells in the distance


These woods, stripped by war,

felled, abandoned, grow again,

their saplings cross-hatching

sunlight with nets of green,

deer crimping edges into

bluebells, hazel and wild garlic.


These woods rest now, untouched.

Becoming themselves in leaf furl, leaf fall,

they breathe in the gold of summer,

drop amber, rose and russet

leaves into soil  - the good housewifery

of sugars stored, a cleaned house


that is on loan, in bare trust

between ourselves and this planet Earth.


                                         Susan Wood

 Forest Breaths

Sycamore trees with the sunlight behind them



                                     suck up the heart of the sun for you

                                       transform its light into life for you 

                                    set up the cool of the shade for you.               



                                    soak up the blood of the rain for you

                                      save it up time and again for you

                                        keep its floods at bay for you.



                                     mash up the mix of the air for you

                                         store up its life for you

                                    clean up your waste for you

                                 keep up the flux and the flow for you.



                               warm up your soul in the dark for you

                                  fuel the fires of your wars for you

                                     break down the dead for you

                                        feed the earth for you

                                     nurture each birth in the soil

                                                   for you.


                                        Each breath we take


                                        Each bough you break


                                          Your own grave

                                              you make.



                                         Garry Maguire


Canopy walkway as seen from the ground

            Sunrise, new day

            Stretch out, unfurl leaves

            Open stomata to sunlight


            The elixir descends

            Down to the roots

            Spreading through earth


            Starting the engine

            Of capillary action

            hear it glugging up


            Up to the canopy

            And off as oxygen

            into the atmosphere



                                         Collaboration of Yasmin Mendes and Ursula White

Wytham Words

Ash leaves and seeds


Losing a native tribe

dis-ease on the breeze

Mourning from the canopy view

down to earth bound threads of empathy


What will come after the woodpeckers feast?

Like seeds that only split in fire

grey Ash will sprout black spores


Shifting altered states

Communications pass on the wind

trace through the soil


For balance watchfulness is no longer enough.


                                         Jane Corbett

Ten Butterflies

A group of people walking on a path through Wytham Woods


Ten poets walking in a wood, talking as they walk.

Breathing in the woodland air, admiring the trees,

And talking.

Strangers at first, slightly wary.

Ideas and questions start to flow

Talk develops and broadens.

They talk about trees and badgers,

About rivers, forests and oceans.

They talk about fears and challenges

They ask what will they do?

They make decisions, plans, commitments.


They go home and talk some more

To friends and neighbours who talk to others.

Soon ten voices become a hundred

And then a hundred becomes a thousand

All walking and talking


And then there are ten thousand, one hundred thousand,

Ten million and yet more,

Talking, walking, writing, marching.

A tipping point!

And finally, THEY listen, THEY have no choice.

The pressure becomes irresistible,


Things happen.

The Greenland ice begins to thicken,

It rains in the Sahel,

The oceans recover.

Nature is coming home.


Ten poets walking in a wood.

Ten butterflies flapping their wings.

We can breathe again.


If only !

                                         James White

Re-wilding at Wytham Woods

A path flanked by green trees


Days of being wild

Like the turbulent flow of air

Step back

And observe the velocity

Of extinction events

Bring them back: squirrel, deer, boar,

The interglacial elephant

Stamped out

Under shifting springs


Uncook the meat

After twenty million litres of orange

Oh how I want you green

Leaves from canopy to floor

Light hanging

On their branches until night

Fall to the forest floor

Scurried soil

Where one tree can be many trees

That die standing up and fall down

To be replaced

By passive management and

Post-human diversity

The kind of ecology to let nature be


To let it be wild

When we're not looking

Wild when we're gone


                                        Stephen Rocks

If you are interested in attending a similar event, do keep an eye on our events page. Our next poetry workshop will be on 10th November, on the theme of badgers.