I wilfully plucked the word understory from the glossary of Colin Elford's book A Year in the Woods. As he writes: 'A shrub layer below the forest canopy that receives little light.'
Brilliantly, although I would not suggest this was Colin's desired effect, the briefness of this description (as befits a glossary) insisted that I go immediately and expand upon the definition; a minimalist movement.
Such is the ambience of the understory. It creeps up on you, a shrub here and a sapling there. It doesn't parade its strength or beauty as a great tree might. It exists in the shadows, in dappled light, in the shade of the overstory – the canopy of branches and leaves above.
As described in a previous post, the understory of Epping Forest includes seedlings and saplings of oak, hornbeam, beech and birch, holly, bracken, hawthorn, ivy and moss. In spring and summer there are also wildflowers such as bluebells, wood anemones and other native wildflowers. And within the understory, amid the rotting leaves and debris or snuggled in a carpet of moss or lichen live bacteria and fungi. The understory is a haven for insects, birds and animals; deer, squirrel, rabbits, voles, foxes... we've even seen a duck or too.
Many of the seedlings and saplings don't grow past a certain size. Their lifespan is determined by the canopy above. If they want to live a long life they must pick their spot well; choose an open spot or better still, nestle under a nurse tree that will provide optimum shade and sunlight and detract animals such as deer that might like nothing better than a tasty shoot for lunch. Nurse trees can be of a different species or the same and are often killed off by a pushy sapling that eventually takes the majority of its resources. When a nurse tree dies, it rots into the ground and delivers an even greater abundance of nutrients to it's charge.
I'm drawn to the understory for many reasons. To walk with Sylvester in the forest is to gain a new perspective on its many layers. Lying down in his pram he stares at the canopy above. Sitting up, he can choose from an eye level view, tilt his head to continue his gaze upwards or scan the ground to see what's on the forest floor as it glides past him. I am more aware of the understory simply because he is of understory height, at an understory age and in an understory world of sorts.
And then we have the understory, the backstory, the hidden or secondary tale. In novels, a backstory is often used to lend depth or verisimilitude to a primary narrative. In the same vein, the woodland understory tells us much about the forest above. It can be hidden and secretive but extraordinarily expansive upon closer inspection.
Out of the understory: emerge from it, belong to it, or leave it. I choose to keep one foot in it, at least, as a reminder to remember to look for the hidden depths and the details.