Spring is advancing – en garde! – be prepared, tiny leaf spears are breaking bud everywhere, and here in the woods, an army of new blades is piercing the soil, ready to conquer the glades. Out in the fields, the first lamb scouts are exploring, confirming received intelligence that Winter is indeed thawing. And back on the home front, the news spreads quickly as every trilling bird fulfils its patriotic duty. Advance Spring, advance, we welcome your invasion. You have the will of the people; the heart of the nation!
Who threw scores of paint balls at poor defenceless Hazel, when she was rooted in the hedgerow, unable to fight or flee? And to add insult to injury, when her limbs were bare, stripped of any cover to protect or distract? Doesn’t she look a sight now with a hundred splodges, staining her slender figure with round yellow welts?
‘’I did it, I did it,’’ pipes up proud Lichen, when I get close enough to see. ‘’I think she looks quite fine in experimental haute couture, and while we’re talking, would you really deny me somewhere to grow? It’s taken me a long time to achieve this look so if you don’t appreciate it, just move on!’’
It’s still February, yet here you are, peaking too soon like a childhood star. Didn’t last week’s snow give you a timely cue? The calendar isn’t quite ready for a flower like you. You’ll never be picked now for a Mother’s’ Day bouquet or trumpet triumphant news in a golden Easter display. But you do stand out now, alone there on the verge, shining ahead of your time, way ahead of the yellow curve. You won’t be lost in the crowd now, no one will focus elsewhere, you’re a vindicated Narcissus – briefly fairest of the fair.
Murphy’s law freshly redefined: try to capture wild creatures in time with any kind of focused lens to remember or share with friends. Just as you frame the shot, they’ll fly or dart or flee, this is a recurring trend I can completely guarantee. Today, a plucky sparrowhawk was happy to let us stand and gawk, until we tried to take his picture, when he quickly enforced the “no photo” stricture.
More than crisp fresh snow, bright white mistletoe, or any other Winter treat, there’s one favourite sight, one utter delight, that has everything else firmly beat. The absolute best is tree silhouettes reaching across every view to point out the splendour of delicious dusk colour – rich pinks against deepening blue. For this joy alone, I refuse to moan when Winter drags her feet, for although it’s a trial when cold stretches for miles, there is nothing that can compete with the beauty of trees stripped back to their seams – every single finger defined – as they gently shift while sky-scenes drift into glorious sunsets behind.
The market is fierce, the competition high, house-hunters are fighting over where they will reside. Forget gazumping, that’s for children and amateurs, in the nesting game, there are more violent parameters. The gloves come off to secure the perfect place when time is tight and you’ve a brood to raise. Finding the right home is stressful for humans too, but I’m still relieved we don’t approach it like birds do!
The first crocus is shy, keeping her colours closed and hiding behind the skirts of a wintered brown fuchsia, as if to say, “Nothing to see here; move on; look elsewhere”. She takes after Spring of course, all reticence and blush, tip-toing in, not quite sure yet of her place in the room… But the secret’s not safe with me – I point her out to everyone. And it’s cover blown, debutante exposed; time to be celebrated – ready or not.
I wonder, when the dale is covered in snow, whether they all know about it, down below? Deep in the river, in that hidden underworld I forget is even there, as I walk above it all. And this makes me question, more generally, who is swimming past, that I cannot see? Are there swarms of eels racing schools of brown trout? Which larvae are down there, lurking about? For all my adventures and lessons in natural history, underwater life still retains this air of mystery; for I walk along the river searching surface, ground and sky but am blind to fish and insects rushing quietly by.
We’re desperate for the longer days and the growing greater light – the shorter nights, the dampened dark, the medicine of bright. But how do the night watch feel as the shadows ebb away and their freedom is restricted by brutally advancing day? Do they live their year in reverse, working towards Winter solstice, greeting the gathering gloom as a time of peace and solace? Do they spend the summer season moaning about the light, counting down the days till there are more hours in the night? I expect they take some comfort in warmer times at least and in the bi-product of more sun resulting in better feasts. But still, I feel I must temper my lengthening day celebrations in deference to nocturnals and their likely sinking sensations. And as for those who’ve spent Winter in the joy of hibernation, well, there must be part of them that feels pure consternation!
The day is close to waking up before me now, and next to my window, on the maple’s bough, the winged orchestra is warming up again, harmonising with sunlight’s swelling refrain. Spring is almost stirring – stretching, yawning; hear her distant melody – catch her first chords dawning.
While others fall silent, Mistle Thrush sings on, filling the wet garden with her Storm Crow song. While others wait for sun, Mistle Thrush persists, reverberating her notes through drizzle and mist. While others hide away, Mistle Thrush remains, perching in plain sight to perform her bold strains. While others grow downcast, it will be to my gain, if, like Mistle Thrush, I can learn to sing through rain.
I’m living in hope that Red Squirrel’s bright tail will one day soon be seen in the trees of Nidderdale. I’ve heard of wild sightings as far south as Redmire, so surely the population won’t have to get too much higher before they leap lower still through North Yorkshire’s woods and arrive safe and sound in our neighbourhoods. If they reach here, I don’t know how I’ll celebrate the end of my agonising, life-long wait to live alongside this elusive, impish mammal, and have seeing one become absolutely normal. It would be nothing less than a dream come true, so come on down red squirrels, I’m rooting for you!
Deep in the earth, it’s already begun. Sleeping bulbs are waking – the aconites have come. Even when fresh snow falls, something is now in motion that can no more be deterred than the tidal pull of oceans. In a few short weeks now, anemones will bloom, tulips will proudly unfurl – colour will be here soon. The flower wave is starting, each arrival swelling the good, the quickening is hastening, bluebells will swiftly fragrance the wood. And every opening is welcome, tumbling over itself in yearning to lay out nature’s best carpet for the first swallows’ returning. Yes, the swallows will return my love, the garden will grow again, apple blossom is near now, Spring is just down the lane.
What is it about puddles that strip the years away, enticing every adult’s inner child out to play? As long as you’re in your wellies, it’s impossible to resist their promised splishy-splashy-sploshy mischievous bliss. Even when murking with lurking silt and slime, a magnetism draws you to paddle in their grime. And if you’re the first one to succumb to temptation – what delicious delight to rain down surprise precipitation! This is why puddle power strips the years away, drenching the greyest day with vivid shades of play.
The brook babbles like a cliché but its splashes quiet when iced into thick casts of bramble trails and scales of silent pan pipes. Everywhere else has now thawed but high up the bank’s micro-climate, stream glass is blown into shape and appears, for a moment, infinite.
There is a deep, delicious and powerful joy in turning fresh-fell snow into a sculpting toy; out in the magic, making more with your hands, seizing a moment you can’t schedule or pre-plan; knowing it’s fleeting, as will be your creation as it shrinks before the sorcery of evaporation. Forget clay or play dough, it will always pale next to forming white stuff figures at colossal scale. Yesterday, I broke tradition, and swiftly crafted a rabbit, which I think, on reflection, might become a new habit. I felt a special glee when the ears stood up tall, and all the twiggy details had me totally enthralled. If only every afternoon included such fun, I wouldn’t mind the cold, or miss the absent sun. If only every work out involved building with snow, I’d never make excuses, I’d definitely always go.
Every morning I go foraging, foraging for fresh finds – experiences and sightings, metaphors to unwind. I search every nook of nature to plunder its endless feast, filling my pockets with description, storing up assonant treats. One ear is deep in the moment, the other listens for the page, letting words sigh out in strings, trusting they’ll compose and arrange. Language haunts me outdoors, the wild speaks on inside; this is the glorious double life of idea-foraging delight.
Strewn with shards of thick cut glass, the path is littered with splinters, where rising warmth has cracked and split scores of ground bound mirrors. No seven years of bad luck to weather, this is good news for sure – Ice has surrendered to Sun, slippery tracks are starting to thaw.
Let Winter remind with shifting ground and stormy songs – we cannot tame nature. We are not in control. May the rising, raging rivers that threaten again to flood cause a warming warning thrumming in our stubborn blood to attend to the truth, not distract, avoid, ignore; to allow natural protest signs to come to the fore. There is a ravaging wildness our damaging further unleashes. Nature is not always safe, we don’t know what we’re releasing.
We must slow down. We must use less. Let Winter remind – let her violence bless.
When rainfall is high and sunlight is low, moisture rich moss comes into her own. Where bracken’s died back and trees are all bare, suddenly moss makes you stop stark and stare by gleaming a green that at least, initially, seems like it must be achieved artificially. So verdant it shines with its rich velvet folds that seamlessly drape over dry stone walls, and coat all the trunks with natural flocking, clothing the trees in long, thick stockings. Moss time is creeping so who is to know when this magic-in-the-making first started to grow? But now it has quietly conquered my dale, lending it landscapes of old fairy tales. So when rainfall is high and sunlight is low, moisture rich moss gets her chance to glow. And I am left asking, how did I ever dismiss moss to mundanity when it can look like this?
Holly drifts her fingers in the beck, like I do when I’m in a boat, feeling the rush of resist while I safely, gently float. But it is January not July and not really wise to linger, caressing the water’s surface with naked, exposed fingers.
So Holly’s fingers are icicling as the beck water freezes fast. If I was her, there’s just no way I’d have the resolve to last. The air alone has chased my hands deep into my bright red mittens, I wish poor Holly’s could get warm too, no matter how prettily they glisten.
No one checks their papers or protests their destination when pink footed geese arrive en masse in our nation. Three hundred and sixty thousand waltz in for Winter unbanned, despite emptying out their entire population from Iceland. They fly in with free movement to avoid hostile weather. and ensure their unfurling futures are given a chance to feather. They’ll say it is simpler with birds, but it bruises and breaks my heart when people in such desperate need are not given the same kind of chance.
Here, the loudest sound is silence, broken only by a distant stream that whispers constant chatter like an undercurrent’s theme. Even the birds have hushed, stealing the air of song, leaving a rare quiet peace my soul yearns to prolong. This is a gifted moment, everything calm and still, standing, lullingly listening, half way up Hawkshaw Gill.
Why do English people so often say, “it’s probably too cold to snow today”? Is it temporary amnesia that makes them forget the Arctic and Antarctic are much colder, and yet still the snow persists there, despite descending degrees; Of course it does! Snow is right at home in a big freeze. I think it must be deeply rooted in our ingrained association of clear, cloudless skies with cold – extrapolated to correlation. But please can we agree now, once and for all, it can’t ever get too cold for snow to fall!
An old rhyme says you can kiss whenever gorse is in flower, which means, of course, any day of any month at any hour. For even when every other colour has long since gone to ground, Gorse’s sunshine blooms can still be happily sought and found. Give thanks for her year-round yellow, unsung heroine of plants, who humbly and hiddenly shines with a constancy that enchants. Breathe in the scent of Summer whenever you can get a dose – for I promise Gorse smells of coconuts when you get really close. Just be careful of all those prickles, protecting her flowers and seeds, Gorse apologises to no-one, she simply does whatever she needs.
Cloudbow, proud bow, almost impossibility, claiming fame with no rain to reduce your visibility. Breaking the rules, too cool for school, having and eating your cake; please can I borrow your joy without sorrow to catch a cost free break? What do they say? When it rains, look for rainbows in the sky. Cloudbow plays editor, undoes the metaphor, leaves you mourning the why. Oh to have rainbows without the heart blows, just pure safety and bliss. But this it seems is the stuff of dreams outside of eternity’s kiss.
It’s unwise trespassing on a snowy day, unless you want your crime to be given away. For there on the surface, in crisp firm print will be the evidence of your footsteps, bold and distinct.
This is how I can deduce a pheasant has been here, even though its fabled form has long since disappeared. Its every step and turn documented in relief, I wonder what it took, the careless, clumsy thief?
What Herculean strength caused this eruption through the fallen white piling up thick brown snow from below, dispersed by burrowing might? How strange it looks now standing in a wide flawless sea, a lone dark mud volcano rising incongruously. Will any other islands be likewise bravely pioneered? Or has the exhausted founder simply down and disappeared after discovering extra resistance pressing on him from above, and concluding it’s not worth the effort, for money or for love?
Like a second snow fall, a flock of white wings float, mimicking murmurations in a spinning ermine coat. As below, so above, mirroring endless pearl, the gulls glitter and glint as the sun catches their swirl. What is all this purity? white every which way I look, washing the weary world wonder-full, like the once upon of a book.
Finally the Maple gets its long awaited day to blossom like a cherry in the prime of May – a whimsical makeover of fluffy white clouds that airily weigh down its bare brown boughs. Dressed in bridal showers until it must thaw and drop its melting flowers to the garden floor. So brief, it’s out of season rush of rich bright bloom, a chance to be another tree that falls away too soon.
Every year when Christmas is all packed away, I like to buy a hyacinth to put in its place. It’s always been brought on to bloom before the season, a premonition of what’s to come, an early Spring beacon. I choose one boldly bursting from its purple onion ball with a thick succulent stem already growing tall. I watch in delight as the first trumpet is woken, then drink in the scent as more and more open. A blaze of bright blue fills the newly bared room, prefiguring the colouring that paints empty ground anew. It’s just enough flowering to hold on to in the bleak, a promise March will be here in a few short weeks.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe nature is at work indiscriminately when the results of her touch show such particular artistry. Take the rock in a stream eroded into a fast swimming fish shape or the exquisite way frost traces each detail across the landscape. It’s as if such marvels have been sculpted deliberately by hand rather than simply appearing randomly and being totally unplanned. I’ll never tire of finding these magic eye picture surprises, artworks hidden deep in the swirl of myriad colours and sizes.
I wish I could bottle up pure golden winter glow for those grey days without compensatory snow. Then I’d stock up shelves with endless jars of the stuff so everyone I know and love could access enough of the hope-giving shine we so desperately crave to give us the get up and go we need to be brave. But all I can do is drink this dose deep for myself, then store up beautiful memories on my own mind’s shelf, and trust my imagination, when outside is dreary and cold, to pour them out and flood my thoughts with low light gleaming gold.
Isn’t it enough he has the pick of the flock without also deciding he can sit and lie on top of the hay trough his harem are trying to eat from? No, clearly this tup just thinks he is the bomb. Feminism hasn’t reached the ewes in our dale, they passively look on and allow their token male to dominate the field in reward for just being a ram, assuring he stays King Of The Drove, and Father Of All Lambs!
Every snowflake has a unique face, yet they fall from the sky in crowds. So easy then to miss each silent, perfect kiss as they cover the ground in clouds.
Just so with all of us when we neglect to fuss over each one’s wonder and worth, consigning some to statistics and others to sheer logistics as we strive to make our own way on earth.
If only we could slow the flow down, have time to prevent overwhelm-drown and see each six-fold symmetrical star, the world would no longer be the same for we could hope to learn every name, and understand all those stories and scars.
But so thick and fast they fall we don’t really see them at all as they fly, float, fall, lie or die… And so we must concede, life is lived at speed, even as we bravely continue to try.
The sound of snow is a paradox, so silent it muffles the world as it falls and dances and drapes – its beauty to gently unfurl, but then crunches underfoot in crisp, compressing crush, boldly making its presence heard as we tramp and tread and brush its weighty loads off branches in sudden thumping thuds and listen to its thawing drips grow to rush the river to floods. All this then is the sound of snow, from silence to a repertoire of tones, weaving symphonies of percussive peace, counterpointing the world’s very bones.
Yesterday we found a worm sliding along the snow, stranded many worm-miles from his earthy home below. What confused him into pushing up through all that white? Did the strange lunar surface he discovered give him a fright? He looked so weird and out of place, like an alien in the Arctic but perhaps he found leaving his comfort zone helpfully cathartic. Either way, we cleared some grass and placed him gently down, hoping he could burrow himself back through the hardened ground.
This morning Narnia came to me in a flurry of waking dreams, softly softening the ground below; coating the tree canopy beams. The whole whirling world a shook snow globe, spinning magic out of dross and rust, transforming every prosaic detail with Winter’s winsome fairy dust. Every larch dressed as a silver birch as wind wrapped their trunks in white, and I smiled at my five year old self as she clapped her hands in delight.
When I suggested a walk at the reservoirs, I just didn’t think I was inadvertently luring my friends to a treacherous skating rink. The water was lapping as normal, but oh my word, the paths left me seriously concerned on absolutely everyone’s behalf. Like so much in life and nature, it’s all about your expectations because at other times, of course, we seek out skating sensations. But none of us came prepared with any blades or hopes at all and so we spent most of our walk simply trying not to fall. Next time we’ll know when the tops look dazzling and splendidly, snowily white, heading up to the reservoir paths is probably not very bright!
The Scarhouse stoat was different to most for he didn’t just scuttle away, but stopped by the wall opposite us all in order to properly survey such strange creatures with fearsome features and multi-coloured fluff at their throats. It was quite the sighting, although it was frightening – what a story to tell other stoats!
When waterfalls become icicles and streams shimmer under sheets like shoals, it’s hard to ignore the wonder in the world and the majesty of souls. So breathe in the crisp cutting air my love, let it clarify and clear, drink in the remembrance that for all you have lost, you have everything you need right here.
I think this silver birch must be rather pleased to see her trunk wound round and round with rich, thick ivy. For when it’s so cold and she’s lost all her leaves, why wouldn’t she fantasise about being evergreen? How smart to wear a creeping cloak that keeps her warm, to insulate and decorate her thin, bony form. How fabulous to be draped and utterly entwined by forest green that makes her look timelessly fine. How splendid to enjoy such a dazzling masquerade while other deciduous trees just mourn how they were made.
A cloudy pink morning covers the East but when I approach my western window, the moon still shimmers her quiet sheen like a pearl in an ocean dimly aglow. It’s proper day now, after nine at least, but the queen of the night still lingers, clinging to her chance at daytime shine as if nothing on earth could bring her to accept her place is in the dark, which of course is completely right, for every morning, she is still there, camouflaged by the sun’s greater light. It’s a rare treat to see her like this, a beautiful blushing morning moon, but even now she’s poignantly pale and will be lost to me far too soon.
The river path is slush now with brown breaking down the green but discarded fallen fireworks have been newly truly gleamed. Hogweed skeletons spark again with clusters of snowflake flowers, reprising their summer displays and turning back the Winter hours to August when they first exploded in glorious detonating white, and November when we echoed them with sky-flowers in the night.
When the twelve days of Christmas are nearly all done and back to work and school have almost begun; when you’re trying to start a well behaved January diet and hoping you can keep the continuing cravings quiet… the last thing you need is to encounter temptation in the form of seemingly expertly baked vegetation. But yesterday, the snow was falling and amid the sludgy bog, what should I discover but an enormous Yule log?! I knew it wasn’t chocolate but the damage was already done, right there on my healthy walk, loomed a spectre of sweeter fun. How am I supposed to resist when nature and confectionary conspire to conjure huge reflections of the objects of my desire? The bark became the thickest fudge icing that I ever saw and the snowy sprinkles topping it only made me want it more. No matter that I couldn’t actually consume this effigy when I could simply head for home, and so effortlessly raid the leftover treats that had been so nobly put away, shutting up the resolutions instead to revisit some other day.
Today was a picture perfect Winter’s day of wide Wedgwood skies and every surface glazed with varnishing crystals of thick sparkling frost accentuating each detail as if it had been embossed. Silhouetted trees line-danced along fields delicately as low light illumined their unrivalled intricacy. And as dusk approached, before the last rays had gone, a huge honeyed moon appeared and coldly-goldly shone. I crunched the diamond jewel-ground with my booted feet, wishing I could pause time and press repeat, repeat, repeat.
Look closely among the dross and debris of the year that’s gone to find the first precocious shoots of this year stirring strong. These are just beginnings, premonitions of blooms ahead, growing in the midst of what’s been left behind for dead. But out of all that lies discarded here on the woodland floor, a forest of flowers will soon burst through and shine as they did before. This is a new start, dear heart, you deserve another chance to drink in colour and scent – to live your one wild dance.
When the year is fading fast and there’s little growth to see, I’m not impressed to find Hart’s Tongue sticking out at me. It only highlights the largely bare soil that reminds of all that’s been lost to the seasons’ sorrowful turning and the bitter biting frost. Another day I’d laugh to see its silly bleurgh but not while I’m reflecting on all I’ve left behind this year. For I’m already tongue-tied, groping for words and deeper meanings, and am simply not in the mood for plants that are so cavalier with others’ feelings.
The wind chill has iced the air to several degrees below and it takes an age to layer up before I dare to go outside and brave the cold that pierces my thick coat and the dense woollen scarf that’s woven round my throat. I look at the tiny birds and shudder at their miniature forms before I remember their fluffing up is the model for all my warm. My down coat here and duvet at home mimic their heating system, layering up feathers and body-warmed-air in eider-inspired wisdom. I reappraise my view and imagine the birds looking back at me, assessing my futile attempts to keep warm rather pitifully, cosily inhabiting pom-pom poses of impressive winter adaptations, and rolling their eyes at my insufficient, knock-off clothing contraptions.
Deep into the twelve days of Christmas, but before New Year starts to beckon, is the best time to try hibernation, at least that is what I reckon. When we’ve posted and given and shared, and the feasting is feasted and done, there’s just about time to curl tightly up before life demands to be re-begun. This is the time to imagine you’re a creature such as a hedgehog or dormouse snuggling down for continuous naps inside a comfy, cosy house. There’ll be plenty of time to explore the wild during twelve months of fast coming year, so just for now, let’s ignore all that wow, and stay sleeping and snoozing right here.
There’s been no snow in the valley to whiten our Christmas, but there on the tops, glistening bright in the distance, a flurry of fine icing has been liberally spilled, crafting impromptu Christmas cakes out of the hills. It’s like it’s been arranged to lure me up to the heights in search of ever elusive Narnian delights. Whether planned or spontaneous, the results are the same, I can’t beat Winter when it plays this kind of game. I’ll have to respond by ascending to the drifts to receive the promised crunch and swift spirit lifts that hover on horizons where cloud and cover meet. Yes, until I obey this summons, I’m doomed to itchy feet. But for now I take another piece of Turkish delight, mix up frothy hot chocolate, and everything’s all right. There’s more than one way to re-live my favourite story – though dwelling in White Witch world misapplies the allegory!
After a day celebrating inside with copious quantities of feasting, it’s good to exchange crisp fresh air for the fug of central heating. The paths and fields are full of similarly replete neighbours walking off the excesses of yesterday’s fine, rich flavours; enjoying clearing their heads and some gentle exercise following the certain peril of indulging bigger-than-stomach eyes. We catch up on each others’ Christmases, and who ate most roasts at lunch before each completing our circuits, and returning to Boxing Day brunch!
On the first day of Christmas, my friend Sally received… a cuckoo in a Gabonese tree! She can see where he is, and track his odyssey… on a website for ornithology. He was here till July, when he left England behind… to fly several thousand miles. France, Spain, Mauritania, Senegal, Nigeria – an impressive global traveller. He flew alone that far with no compass and no map… how on earth did he manage that? Of all the migrations I’ve ever come across… Sally’s sponsored cuckoo must come out top!
Watching for the star to shine the way again, watching over sheep in the cold night rain, watching for the silhouette of Bethlehem’s gate, watching for dusk to dawn tomorrow’s date.
Riding across distant deserts to purposefully seek a King, sitting out late on the hills, interrupted as angels sing, labouring next to animals for the transformation of everything, walking by the river, wondering what gift I can bring.
All the world caught up in backdrop to the story, nothing too normal to be a stage set for glory, nature tuned to prelude in prophetic preparatory for one tiny infant to rewrite the whole of history.
The branches are birdless, I can see because they’re bare, but still insistent birdsong trills its trebles through the air. I’m not in a theme park with camouflaged speakers but it still seems I must be hearing pre-recorded cheepers. Where are they hiding in the dense twiggy hedges? Why don’t they show themselves and at least take the credit for brightening the whitening dreary of this day with their constant concert of first-class cabaret?
Whenever I see a hole in a birch or beech or oak, I just can’t help imagining miniature fairy folk. I’m delighted animals and birds find shelter in wood, but no matter how hard I try, it’s just simply no good, they are never what I picture when I see potential homes carved out of the middle of something that is grown. I don’t think I’ll ever reach a ‘pragmatic’ age – to mature past make-believe was not how I was made!
This is the turning point, light will soon seize the upper hand, lengthening and strengthening its daily winning stand. Minutes more each day now in a slow, quiet ticking gain, inching us closer to warm despite cold, bleak refrains. But on this final darkening day, Weather has joined the losing side, shrouding the morning in dismal, helping the southerning sun to hide. If I didn’t know the science, or the date, or the hope of all ahead, I might be tempted by the gloom to surrender to creeping dread. But instead I fix on the promise of change and chivvy myself to rally, whatever my senses say, Spring is about to start her tally. In a few more weeks for sure now, I will wake to morning light, and my treasured late afternoons will no longer belong to the night.
Now the trees are stripped back, it’s easier to see the antics of Spider-Bird as he ascends trunks vertically. I believe he has super powers to so conquer gravity whatever experts conclude about the design of his feet. I love to watch him spiral up, following his helical path, as he forages for the bugs he resembles, hidden in the bark. I’ll never tire of marvelling at his Herculean hops or his sudden daredevil descents, when he abruptly stops. I think he deserves a flashier suit, more befitting an action man, but I suspect his very blending in is just part of his master plan to dominate the creeping world by beating them all at their game, which is perhaps also why he usually assumes a pedestrian name. But I will not call him ‘Treecreeper’ as it so woefully understates the brilliant thrill of wonder he miraculously creates.
Other people can seek perfect powder at Val d’Isère or hurtle down the Matterhorn in crisp Swiss alpine air. But I don’t see the need to spend a fortune on the slopes, no, slithering close to home is where I’m pinning all my hopes. I won’t need to hire or buy any smart, specialist equipment to experience the thrills of sliding and speeding fulfilment. Instead, I’ll head for the muddy fields of glorious Nidderdale, which, at this time of year, never disappoint or fail to offer up the chance to chase a hazardous black run, and enjoy the plummeting high of downright dangerous fun. Never mind watching the forecast for news of snow and ice, the quagmire readily waiting will more than adequately suffice. Here I can still break my leg, but it’s absolutely free, yes, budget Yorkshire skiing is the Winter sport for me!
It seems our little Jenny wren isn’t the only bird intent on replacing someone’s Christmas tree angel during this Advent. Last night, a sparrowhawk in Scotland made the evening news for coming up with a full, festive angel-replacement ruse. She waited till her target opened the back door nice and wide, then took her envied chance to relocate herself inside. She placed herself, happily, on top of the Christmas tree, fancying herself the pinnacle of all its glittering finery. Eventually experts came to help, and the bird was safely released, no doubt she was far from impressed though, to miss the 25th’s feast!
The leaves are all long gone now, so what is all this gold that suddenly and sun-fully is warming up the cold? The wooded hills burn again with bronze and copper fire as the twigs take their turn to shine with colours of desire. And these newly ochred acres, coloured in by low sunlight are like a little second Autumn that resurrects the fallen bright. My spirit is touched by the low light too, swelling to gleams and glows as it’s polished and uplit into uplift by reprising October shows.
When my boots are covered in mud and the path is oozing goo, I like to re-imagine the slime I’m sliding and squelching through as something far more appealing, and splendidly appetising, such as Mississippi mud pie or Yule log with rich, thick icing. Of course it increases Winter cravings when I fixate like this on chocolate, so perhaps I should always be prepared by having some in my pocket. For if I arranged things in this way, I’m sure that would compensate for wading through such a sticky mess and getting so thoroughly caked.
There is a little Jenny Wren who bravely leaves her huddle, and all the warmth that is her own whenever her chime cuddles, to perch on top of the terrace conifer and directly stare at the angel on our Christmas tree as if wishing she was there, trimmed in golden plumage with fallen stars at her feet, glittering in the twinkling and basking in the heat of seeming sunshine feathers ruffling in the grate, dancing on and on to conquer the dark and late. I call her the Christmas bird and imagine a full backstory where she longs to come inside and claim the angel’s glory, but learns in time it’s only fabric and can neither sing nor fly, and for all its glorious glamour will soon have to say goodbye, when Twelfth Night passes and it’s boxed up and put away, never to feel the air in it’s wings or the real sun’s stroking rays. Then I watch my Jenny Wren take off with a new sense of vision, as if reconciled to her one wild life and at peace with her decision.
There is no snow yet to smile at, but there are snowberries covering the branches of Symphoricarpos albus at Wysing – like little Winter winks suggesting more is on the way. So be patient, and perhaps, just perhaps, every bush and tree will soon bloom bright white for Christmas.
People think, in the countryside, you’ll always find more, but I confess I still miss the city sights I used to see before when my friends lived in Leeds at Foxcroft Mount and I honestly met more foxes than I could count. Each would slink along boldly with an almost feline grace, at surprising odds with the habit of then sticking its face in any rubbish it could rootle through to find choice fare, before looking up to fix on you with a nonchalant stare. It’s true, now we’re in Nidderdale, we are spoilt with sightings – kingfishers, otters, stoats, hares and myriad more to delight in – but I haven’t seen a single fox since we’ve all moved out here, and I do often wish one would magically appear with its burnished bright coat glinting in the moon, blessing me breathless with beauty even as it leaves too soon.
Every day the letter box resounds with a merry little crash as Christmas cards from far flung friends drop in on the welcome mat. Many depict idealised versions of crisp white winter scenes with the miniature man in red, resplendent against lush evergreens. His beak is usually open in song, as if carolling Christmas cheer, but it’s far more likely he’s really shouting, “get away from here!” For robins are feisty and fierce, defending their patches for all they’re worth, and are the most unlikely characters to be singing of ‘peace on earth’! It’s not surprising they’re romanticised when they perfectly fit Yuletide aesthetics, but you have to laugh when you realise they’re chirping the equivalent of expletives… I’m not suggesting robins should relinquish their role as chief festive bird, but just that we laugh a little at ourselves for being so quaintly absurd.
Last night, I dreamt of Summer and everything I miss when the world around me shivers and the sun shuns to kiss the hedgerows and the hillsides with its full bodied rays, holding back its warmth and putting in part-time days.
Last night, I dreamt of Summer and all the flowers that shone, but woke again this morning to find every petal gone, and only hardened earth in their place so bleak and bare, as if I’d only imagined there were ever colours there.
Last night, I dreamt of Summer and all that is to come on the other side of Winter when Spring has fully sprung; when the weary world has once again turned and changed and spun – and I saw myself dancing in what is yet to be begun.
Snow is the stuff of winter legends, elusive and long anticipated. And its warmer sibling rain is usually at least tolerated – after all, it’s always good for the plants and in heatwaves achieves celebrity status – it’s only when it drenches on and on that we long for a brief hiatus. But spare a thought for the middle child, wanted by no one and nothing at all. Yes, everyone moans and groans when sleet decides to fall. It’s a byword for disappointment, close the door on it, keep it away, “why can’t you just be snow?” we complain to it in dismay. To be fair it soaks to the bone, and inflicts an icy chill, with none of the beauty or fun that gives snow its superior thrill. But should it really be treated as such a social outcast? Do we always have to greet it with nothing but lambast? I admit I am struggling to find attributes to positively celebrate but perhaps I can still summon some kind of compassion to commiserate with the endless cold shoulders it experiences from us all, and resolve to be a bit more polite next time it comes to call.
Why does it cause such extreme delight when we bring various elements of nature inside? Cut flowers in the kitchen spreading scent through the air, animals scampering about, creating havoc everywhere! Pot plants on the landing, blooming courtesy of the heating, all bring a sense of the great outdoors (while only slightly cheating). And the the pinnacle of it all, I’m sure you must agree, that moment each December when we bring inside a tree. We move the furniture over, squeeze past branches every day, but exclaim “no it absolutely isn’t even slightly in the way!” We add to our living room grove by bringing the tree some company, bedecking every remaining surface with mistletoe and holly. And nothing else we buy or make can really quite compete with the ever-greens and berry reds we string out and spin in wreaths. Is there something deep within me that half longs to live outside? Even though I’m so far beyond even trying to acclimatise to life really and truly lived underneath a tree – that would be too much of getting inside nature for me!
Searching, stretching, snipping the best branches and sprigs, bravely capturing holly despite her fierce, persistent pricks. Twisting, turning, weaving all the foliage into place, working with its eccentricities to shape something uniquely homemade. This year I use jasmine vines to form my basic hoop, and I can’t quite believe just how well they weave and loop. Strange that I’m amazed by this, and by using just one piece of string, when these extraordinary climbers are used to winding round anything. So I realise all I’m doing now, as I braid in variegated ivy, is reuniting old friends and imitating their mastery. A little bit of gold dust and my work is near completing, my hands are scratched and cold, but my heart is warmed by wreathing.
All across the field, like dot to dot puzzles, are the hilly remains of moles’ secret bustles. If only they were numbered, we would be able to chart the lines they have tunnelled in their underground art. Then we could perceive what they’re drawing below, but alas it’s all a muddle, so we will never know what masterpieces they’re making out of all that soil, and so most people conclude that all they do is spoil the smooth green turf that is so highly prized, negating their creating, and seeking their demise. But I suggest their work is perhaps misunderstood, it’s not necessarily fly-tipping, it might be rather good. Just because it’s abstract and a little hard to fathom, doesn’t mean it’s not deserving of a bigger fandom. So let’s hear it for the moles and their unconventional school, they’re not the first artists to break a few rules!
The first frost is soft, a subtle hint of glint on glistening gables that catches the morning light. But out in the fields there’s more to find, hidden here and there on the ground, as if Jack’s little sister has been practising her art like a precocious apprentice; running odd blades of grass through her icy fingers and learning to lace a leaf with sparkling glitter thread. I smile at these small sugared touches, appreciating their delicate shine and their tiny perfect prefiguring of the hoar frosts that will follow in time.
It’s only ever the female holly that treats December as one long jolly, dolling herself up from head to toe, trying to outshine the mistletoe. Cherry red lipstick on bright berry lips upstages even the remaining rosehips. But can you blame her when she knows she’s going to visit so many homes, and as she struggles with witty repartee, how else will she dazzle at every party? The lady in red knows this is her time and stealing the show is hardly a crime. She’s the belle of the ball but look, don’t touch – hugging holly close hurts far too much!
There’s something about Winter that’s pale – like it’s caught its own chill and shows it in washed out skies of bleached-bleary skin peeking out between thick duvet clouds. Its hues are quiet and withdrawn – muted, muffled, scarce – as if it’s shy, or somehow reluctant to be defined by anything except absence. But even in its half-hearted light, it still has hidden beauty to bestow if you’re willing to go on a quest to seek and see it up close. So be the one to make the move, pursue friendship with its wary ways, and you’ll find underneath all that white, weary bluster, Winter will often respond by blushing to sudden colour.
I know it was calculated planning that led our Advents to fall in December’s darkening nights. But I am glad of it all. For Winter draws us to waiting, waiting for growth and light. So why on earth not remember waiting for the coming Christ? The trees are fasting their colours, they’ve shed all their crowns at his feet, and I study their bold emptiness as I wait for the strength to seek. The wind carols lyrics of longing, the night draws close to see the watching candles all lit for a man from Galilee. He too found meaning in nature, shared pictorial lessons of wild to parable profound promises with the sage simplicity of a child. So I turn my heart’s full attention to listen and quietly look at the Winter world around me as it opens his truth like a book.
Autumn’s last stand is one small flag flying at full mast on the final branch to bear the colours. But like them all this too will fall, deserting its post and giving up the ghost as Winter’s winds win. And when it goes, that’s when I’ll know, this season is done. The next must be begun – it is time to surrender.
Not every life achieves a zenith in its glory days. Some shine best as they ebb and fall away, like bracken gilding the growing grey. I’m not inspired by its bold summer strength but by its triumph as it bronzes and bends, drenching moors in molten gold just before it ends. At the late and last is where it truly peaks, laying down its life to burnish the bleak with brilliant broken beauty burning quietly weak.
Haw munchers and hip crunchers are dominating the trees as flocks of fieldfares fan out for their flying, foraging feast. Like locusts descending, there’s a scorched earth policy, each gorger committed to stripping off every berry. They eat like teenage boys with constantly bottomless appetites that hardly even pause to swallow between endless bites. Is there a frenzy to it, as the last Autumn days drift by, like stockpiling groceries when you’ve got plenty put by? Or taking another chocolate, just so you don’t miss out, when you’re already uncomfortably full and there’s considerable doubt that you have any room left to squeeze another mouthful in, but still you plough on, much to your own half-horrified chagrin? This is how I imagine they feel as their bird bellies stretch and bulge, but of course I don’t know if it’s true as I can’t get them to divulge what it’s like to depend so completely on seasonal fare, and just how stark a spectre looms when the branches become bare.
If you want to taste truly gorgeous gourmet food, don’t book a posh restaurant, head for your nearest wood, or better yet trek for miles and climb a long, steep hill; spread a blanket on the moor, then sit and eat your fill. Never mind the mizzle or the fierce, gusting wind, this is where Michelin-starred dining truly begins. Replace fine wines with flasks of well brewed tea; make the menu sliced spiced cake smeared in rich toffee. What is the science behind the supremacy of outside food? Is it working up an appetite that makes it taste this good? Is it some kind of reaction with plain old fresh air that creates culinary triumphs out of ordinary fare? The best fish and chips are always eaten on the beach, go ahead, keep testing this philosophy I preach. I dare you to try and find something that tastes better inside than outside, even in inclement weather. So go on, treat yourself, dine out in your woolies, crown yourself the connoisseur, king of all the foodies.
More and more light seeps through the cracks of each day as morning sleeps in and dusk nudges afternoon out of the way. The sun is growing distant, when it deigns to show, as if it’s silently sulking with everyone below. And mist muffles the world with cold encroaching gloom that makes us think the evening cannot come to soon. At least then the fire will blaze and the lights can all burn bright, we don’t feel the darkness so keenly when it’s supposed to be night. Roll on December’s promise, when the struggle turns the other way, and growing light diffuses in again, more and more each day. Hold on through the shortest days now, through the longest nights, be thankful that this dimming drawing in is a temporary plight.
Strutting about in their cocky crowing crowd, a stag party of pheasants define loud and proud. Dressed to the nines and swaggering through the field, what high life do they think our little village will yield? What dares are they planning and who is the groom? I hope their hens will peck them into line again soon. Meanwhile they’ll continue on as if they own the place, guffawing and cawing constantly with no social grace. The day is only just beginning, have they any shame? Were they out all night long playing wild drinking games? I leave them all behind, retreating to the peace of home, I hope they keep out of my garden and leave me well alone.
The presents and cards are piling up for me and the house smells of cinnamon rolls, deliciously. The bunting is hung and the party’s all organised, the perfect day starts to unwrap before my eyes. But what will you bring me to celebrate this day? Could I request a sighting of some hares at play? I wish I could submit a lengthy letter to you – a wish list of everything I’d like you to do; I’d say please strew animal encounters all through today, preferably peppered with humour to keep the ageing blues away, and polish up the weather till it has a brilliant shine that lights up each wonder you intend to make mine. But perhaps the best gift is really the surprise – the mystery – of never quite knowing what you’re going to give me. So I’ll set off with my friends, everything else fully planned, but leave your gift up to your spontaneous, subversive hands.
Land-shaper, ground reclaimer, swelling with the flood of moorland streams and becks’ best dreams pouring from above. Storm snatcher, deluge catcher, racing full and free; gush your ardour into harbours, re-fill the placid sea. Express your rage, we understand this stage, you have to vent your flow till you’re spent and drained and restore restraint by reinstating rippling low.
Just when so many trees stand stripped back stark and bare, Viburnum gently creates delicate colour and honey-scented air. It’s like cherry blossom in November, exactly when you need it most, as if Winter’s shyly haunted by Spring in clusters of blush-pink ghosts. Each year now I look for its flowers, a treat to ease the loss of bright and keep me going till December and the stringing of fairy lights. I’d plant it on every street, if I was in charge of the nation, where it would lift each muted spirit with its beautiful, fragrant sensations. So let’s hear it for Viburnum, late blooming heroine of Fall, may she multiply and flourish, and blossom broad and tall.
The curtains go up on an early morning show as Kite, Crow and Sparrowhawk fight a fly-off in the glow. ”Wings at dawn!” is their battle cry as each competing warrior claims the same sky. Mobbing, jeering, swooping, executing elegant aggression, each one is determined to make no concessions. Who will win the territory and dominate the air? None of them are interested in trying to play fair. Kite plummets first, a muscle-bomb let loose, talons outstretched wide ready to tear and bruise. This is war – to the victor go the spoils, rapturous raptor charges as his bird blood boils. Crow and Sparrowhawk circle, reluctant to submit, but it looks like Kite is king and that is the end of it.
Suddenly Autumn is conquered by fierce winds from the east and pours out all her colour as she hastily retreats. The canopy of gold that yesterday blazed strong has been seized and separated and is almost gone. The trees stand weeping their last remaining tears, trying to remember there’ll be new growth next year. And what’s left of all their beauty is spilled out on the ground, a fleeting magic carpet of November’s lost and found. Tomorrow I’ll look for wonder in newly-skeletoned trees, but today I only want to feel Autumn’s farewell grief.
Some tree bark looks almost exactly like smooth skin that’s been stretched and puckered over wood-bone limbs. And once you notice it creasing round particular points you can’t help but think those points are just like joints. And once you’ve got started on this line of reflection, you’ll begin to see arboreal humans in every direction. Roughened bark brings nothing but wrinkles to mind and each sycamore has gnarly knees to find. Good luck not perceiving branches now as fingers reaching out, and being sure it’s just the wind that’s moving them about. What is it about us that sees ourselves everywhere, projecting characters and motives on to creatures, plants and air? Still there’s little more wonderful than taking a creative walk, ignoring your rational self and letting your imagination talk.
Drop the leaves, bare the trees, reveal my prey to me. Russet the land, camouflage my brand, make me hard to see. Dim the days, up the haze, this is my time to shine. Autumn weather is just my feather, it’s one long dinner time. Sorry to alarm but I am here to harm, it’s how I’m wired you see. So do be a dear, don’t let on I’m here while I’m hunting from your tree.
Stacking and packing logs out in the cold, picturing weeks of warming fires as I pick and hold each chunk of potential in my grateful hands, recognising wood-piling helps me better understand the cost of the heat my winter body seeks, the gift that is held in each piece of tree. There is a kind of grounding, connecting education that builds as I build the stack in tessellation. And as I mindfully take each log out from the bag, what do you know? One smiles back.
I usually view mist as a stealer of sights, a dampener of colour; a duller of light, a smothering enemy of diversion and delight. But today’s fog gives me cause to reassess this view as although it’s absolutely dimming every hue, it’s also making masterpieces from all-day dew. Each spider’s weaving is outlined with watery gems revealing high tightrope paths, and full, storybook webs, and little liquid fairy lights gleam on every twig’s end. Then from deep in the gloom comes a donkey’s bray, like a phantom’s scream piercing through the grey – if I didn’t know better, I’d expect foul play. As it is, after the shock, it makes me laugh when this sudden crazy sound penetrates the murky path, like the whole wild world is speaking up on my behalf. It seems then that even mist and fog can play their part in creating show-stoppers of brand new natural art, which means even the bleakest days can still lift my heart.
Millions of poppies brightly bloom though it’s long past July, and even their former seed heads have long since said goodbye. I see them planted in coats and strung up in the air, bringing memories of forgotten fields to every thoroughfare.
Grandad’s tales tell again though he’s no longer here to speak, they play freshly round my mind in precious, looping repeats. I know now he softened his stories in a child-friendly way – narrating how he kissed worms in relief and bought Nana French lingerie.
The histories I’ve heard and read over years tumble back to the fore, myriad mosaic struggles of so many people’s Second World War. I let them bloom out of season – bravery, drudgery, loss, freedom, regret – to receive poppy seeds of wisdom lest I grow complacent and forget.
But I also remember I don’t yet live in a season of real peace, others’ wars rage on even when Western news coverage has ceased. I must not see the poppy as a laurel, or a relic of something past, but pray for true remembrance to motivate peace-building that lasts.
Millions of poppies brightly bloom though it’s long past July, covering November in blood-red flowers till it’s time to say goodbye. I welcome their beauty, their time-bending truth, and their poignant call, I will try to tend them always, inside, even after they fall.
Down on the bank, the path is covered by leaves and it’s easy to slip on hidden acorn scree – stockpiles of seed surplus to growing need roll on rough ground and get under your feet. So be careful as you crunch through all that fallen copper that you don’t join the falling trend and find you come a cropper of the bounty that is broken and discarded underneath – the health and safety hazard that is Autumn’s debris.
Why doesn’t every poet celebrate the long tailed tit? I simply cannot understand the reason for it. Perhaps they haven’t noticed them bobbing in the trees like little feathered yo-yos flung up at ninety degrees. Perhaps they haven’t taken in their delicate pink blush or experienced the joy of the singular rush that comes from seeing a small flock of them all alight, brightening baring branches with whimsical delight. Perhaps they don’t know that these cheerful dancing troupes include designated helpers alongside their family groups. Perhaps they’re unaware of this bird’s superior social system, its constant communal care and corporate foraging wisdom. It’s time for the long tailed tit to rise to greater fame, to be drawn and sung and rhymed and sewn into a household name. Then no more woodland walkers will fail to look up and see these brilliant little birds that mean so much to me.
At the edge of the field, in the corner, on its own, stands the Coventry cow – completely alone. What has it done wrong to be shunned to this degree? Will it ever be forgiven? Does the guilt weigh heavily? Poor estranged cow, left to think upon its shame, I hope it will be welcomed back by its herd again.
You have to slow down if you want to see the sloes scattering blue berries across the starkening hedgerows. You will not spot them ripening if you move past too quickly, so unhurry your pace and take the time to get your hands sticky. You have to wait it out if you want to infuse all their flavour, sloe seasoned delicacies require time-consuming labour. But you’ll be richly rewarded for the effort you put in when sloes’ sweet syrup suffuses all through your gin.
See how far you get by car, little leaf hitchhiker. Cling to windscreen, ride the machine, watch out for the wiper… Up the A roads, through new postcodes: make the motorway! Hold on tight, win wind’s fight, keep on being brave. Don’t unravel, then you’ll travel further than you dream. Stay this bold, go for gold, join the Olympic-leaf team. Keep going forth, conquer the north, perhaps you’ll reach the border. If you do, congrats to you, a ceilidh is in order!
Lying on the grass, by the side of the lane, a football is resting, waiting for a game. But please don’t kick it for it’s not what it seems, and I’ll tell you now what kicking it would mean. Seven trillion spores would be let loose in the air, for this is Giant Puffball and it doesn’t play fair! If you don’t withhold your feet, you’ll have so many more, all waiting to play along and release yet more spores… So be wise now my friend, back away while you can, this is not the kind of football that deserves you as a fan.
If only the fieldfares could tell me what they’ve seen in all the distant lands where they’ve previously been. Their stories would sing of northern lights and deep, lush fjords, of flocking over wide blue seas in one seamless, flying hoard. They would speak of Russian cities with bright coloured onion domes, all the sights they’d seen so rapidly on their way to Siberian homes. They would bring alive for me everywhere I associate with snow, and weave wild pictures of half the world seen distantly below. If only I could hear their tales, I’d live their travels vicariously, and all the wonders they have known would be enough for me.
Teach me, like you, to be an instrument of peace, to walk lightly on this planet with careful feet; to celebrate what I see rather than extract or dominate, to love each part of creation for its own sacred sake. Teach me, like you, to recognise my kin in brother wind, sister water, and every familial living thing; to see the wonder of Creator spun into vista and vole, to marvel at each detail and the vast, breathtaking whole. Teach me, like you, to come alongside the earth, to kneel in humility and elevate her worth; to speak as her champion, urge protection for her young, to continue in your footsteps as I have begun. Teach me, like you, to walk slower than I have, to be ready for rescue moments, and to give the help I can; to turn my hands to your cause and join in your song, to praise God with greater reverence for where I belong.
Have you noticed, as the nights draw in, an arachnid invasion also begins? It’s the same every year, around this time, spiders boldly proclaiming ”your house is also mine”. I thought invitations worked the other way, that the owners decided who was welcome to stay. But at least eight legged friends don’t frighten me any more, at least not the little ones, not like they did before. I used to scream for rescue from any creeping long leg, crying out for my dad to clear up every spider mess! Now I have grown adept at sharing the same space without cowering in the corner or shouting down the place. Good job, as they’re clearly making themselves at home, and I have next to no control over where they choose to roam. Oh well, the more the merrier, isn’t that what everyone says? Though I don’t suppose they’re referring to prolonged arachnid stays!
Trudging the high ridged furrows, hoping we’ve found the right track, eyes down on uneven ground, trusting it matches the map. When suddenly our boot vibrations unwittingly disturb a scrape, a Jackrabbit-in-the-box leaps up and hares across the field at pace. We watch its bounding beauty, marvelling at wild sprinting grace, a little, long-eared cheetah winning the British land-speed race. Its form gleams bright in the low light, its movements are sure and bold. In every sense, for me, this mammal claims the gold. The field is transformed to film set, the hike elevated to legend, what a moment ago was chore, I wish would never come to an end. I will the hare to stay with us but of course he is bent on retreat, and the cause of constant freedom that is hard-wired into his feet.
The wasp in my lounge is drunk on sleep and careers into everything with force, at speed. First it’s the ceiling, then it’s the beams, what is it imagining in its dreams? It dive bombs and bounces off almost everything; I am frightened for its life, but also by its sting. It’s hard to relax when a weaponised beast keeps falling from the roof and disturbing the peace. Eventually it crawls into a crevice to rest, such a relief, I don’t know which of us was more stressed!
Down at the beech beach, the leaf-sand glows beyond the reach of the path, where nobody goes. I long to vault the wall and explore this secret stretch, to curl my toes round golden crunch, along the river’s edge. But where no feet have ventured, the shining remains like virgin snow, a glimmering colour cover, gilding the humble browns below. So I’ll stand considering perfection for as long as it can last, committing the beech beach to memory, where its landscape lives on in the past.
If a creature harnesses honeysuckle to use as its trapeze, and swings and leaps with elegance and long practiced ease, you’d think I’d be eager to celebrate its flair, and announce its prowess with a wild word fanfare. But the truth is, this creature, for all of its cunning is classed in a species that we’re constantly shunning. We say we want to cultivate wildlife-friendly spaces but the fact is our welcome isn’t open to all races. And so it seems my poems baulk at serenading rats, downplaying their aerial antics, despite the impressive facts.
Don’t rely on my local rooster for your early morning alarm call, unless you have no intention of keeping any appointments at all. He can hardly be bothered to crow until at least half past eleven, I can only presume he’s still sleeping when he’d be most useful at seven. I call him the teenage cockerel for his lie-ins last legendarily long, and when he does deign to cock-a-doodle, it’s a reluctant, embarrassed type of song. Perhaps he’ll grow into his calling, piercing the dawn with his squawking cries, then of course I’ll regret my complaints and despairingly roll my eyes. I’ll wish for the halcyon days when the village could snooze on in peace. Alas! The bird never wins – there’s no conquering my caprice.
Welcome to the thrill of the night drive, where Little Owls rise, twin-moonlit rabbits dive, and ghostly sheep appear. It’s never quite quiet on the night drive, where stalwart hedgehogs thrive and kamikaze bats collide with the metallic seeker you steer. So always stay alert during the night drive, for this might be the right time to disbelieve your own eyes at the creatures that come near.
Thundering falls turn water to foam, painting wild abstract patterns all over the flow. Ebbing, marbling, drawing leaves into the spin; a dizzying circling, kaleidoscoping everything. Reflection is suspended to mesmerising whirl. I stand stock still, surrendered to the swirl.
Faltering pheasant, this is not the time to dither, I’ve slammed on the brakes but you must move quicker. Don’t get confused now, swerving one way then back, I understand you’re scared but don’t get in a flap. Head for the hedgerow, wherein lies your salvation, you’ll get there safely if you stick to one direction. Faltering pheasant, keep your head together, don’t be feather-brained, move your actual feathers… What a surge of relief now you rise above the lane, but please don’t ever do that to my fragile nerves again.
The mists have returned to their old thieving ways, kidnapping the moors, keeping them captive for days. The tops have been exchanged for a thick damp haze which shrouds out everything but close, cold greys. Mists are lauded by romantics for their air of mystery but their weeping, creeping gloom forces me into retreat. I flick every switch to flood my world with light, hoping for bluer skies tomorrow, or even frost’s first bite. Mischievous murk, please return my upward view, I want to look to the hills rather than only seeing you. Lift! Leave! Evaporate! Unhang your encroaching cloud! Let the sunshine in again. Please. Soon. Somehow.
Standing on tiptoe to reach, twist and pluck fresh from the tree gives you quite a rush. Better than posh piles stacked high in supermarket aisles, one imperfect apple picked yourself is superior by miles. Feeling the rounded weight in your lucky hand next to the tree that gave it helps you understand the worth of what you hold, and the time it took to grow; a brand new revelation of what you already know. Surveying your bounty now, you recognise it as treasure, magnifying the joy of juicy, crunching pleasure. Visit an orchard if you can, meet different varieties, their names will entrance you with their possibilities. The Russet tastes like pear, the Sunset’s sweet as pie, put Blenheim Oranges in crumbles to serve up Autumn highs. Gather them all in October before it is too late, if there’s too many to eat, it’s the perfect excuse to bake! But don’t forget the wonder of seeing them on the tree, grasping them one by one, savouring the moment deliciously.
I didn’t see who did it but I’m on to their kind, though they won’t really care just how much I mind them covering my wood stain with their foul graffiti, spoiling my fresh paint job so utterly brazenly. Hours of work invested to make the wood shed smart, now they’ve sprayed it with their filth, have they absolutely no heart? What’s the point of scrubbing it clean when I know they will return, after all, I put it in their space, when will I ever learn? How are they supposed to know what is tree and what is not? And if they could tell the difference, why would they give a diddly squat? So let this be a lesson to me and to you, you can call it ‘garden furniture’ but they’ll still name it ‘loo’!
Starlings suspended in air, whispering silent conversation, miming complex charades of shapes in ebbing, flowing synchronisation. A shimmering shoal of black rippling with tides of turning wing, a seamless fabric floating dance, an almost mystical thing. I long to join the swarm, to warp and weft with feather in flight, to harness the power of wind to be in the swell, at one with the might; to swirl in a soup of bird, a temporary twister let loose in the clouds, to help cover the tops and fields with extraordinarily beautiful shrouds. But it’s enough to stand below and drink in the awe-inspiring sensation of marvelling at the mirages of a shifting murmuration.
I thought the results would be predictable when I decided to be more hospitable to creatures exhausted by flying and creeping; any minibeast looking for a safe place to sleep in. I established my bug hotel resort with pride, congratulating myself on protecting those inside; a five star shelter offering only the best, a luxury holiday, a first class nest. (I’d followed the experts’ advice to the letter, it would be hard to build anything better.) So imagine my shock when instead of offering rehab, I found I’d unwittingly created a deadly trap. What I had designed as retreat accommodation was commandeered by blue tits seeking feeding stations! All those sleepy residents, enjoying comfort and style had been lamentably lured into somewhere horribly hostile. It just goes to show when you get involved with nature, you’re not always in control, and that is the danger!
Way to go! Ride the flow, see how far you float. Perhaps you’ll see the vast North Sea, little leaf-fall boat. What a thrill ride, surfing wild tides – sailing made extreme. But first you need to balance speed with staying above stream. Down the Nidd now, show the Ouse how, make it all the way. Do a number on the Humber, conquer the leaf boat race. Be a winner, little skimmer, play the game and thrive. Stay right on course, jet ski the force, just remember, do not dive!
Not every Autumn leaf heralds colour and beauty worthy of serenading in song and poetry. Some take on more sinister complexions, inspiring singularly ominous connections. Hostas are case in point, snakes in the grass, mottled scaly skin urging you to walk fast lest they grow into motion and slither after you, yes, hurry on past hostas, whatever you do.
Why are you still here, October Swallow? Your swoop is long gone, how can you follow? Will you try to navigate the currents alone? When did you discover you were all on your own? Were you caught sleeping while the others stole away? Are you pathologically late, or are you just afraid? Is this your first winter? Have you flown the route before? Have you any premonition of what is in store? I see the panic in your flight as you search the empty skies for any other travellers accidentally left behind. Two weeks ago I wished all the swallows had remained, but now I find I’m wishing you were far, far away. I’m willing you to beat impossible odds triumphantly, to fly six thousand miles alone, to arrive miraculously. I don’t know if you can get there, but I’ll hope with all my heart that you’ll make it to Africa if you’re brave enough to start.
This silver birch requests a new valuation, an upgrade, a higher price, a re-estimation. Yes its trunk is silver but its leaves are shining gold, its two-tone precious metal is making it feel bold. This championing fan thinks it should have its way, a re-appraisal, a neo-naming to commemorate its Autumn blaze.
The clamour is circling, parliament begins with dissonant debating in a loud cawing din. No ‘order!’ caller, no mask of civility, every claw is out in a rook committee. “Where should we roost?” “What should we eat?” “If we can’t agree on anything, why do we meet?” Who is in charge? Nobody knows. On and on they squawk, round and round they go. At least that’s how it seems from down on the ground, but perhaps I’m misinterpreting their murderous sound. Maybe they are experts in clear communication, perhaps they should contribute to governing the nation!
I will stand under the beech tree as the west wind blows and dance among its whirling, twirling gold leaf snow. I will gaze up at its burnished clouds that scatter gilded birds and let myself rest from trying to find the perfect words to capture, to conjure, to hold the moment tight, to pin it to paper before it’s lost to time’s wild flight. I will stand under the beech tree as the west wind blows and spin and laugh, rejoicing in its rustling, radiant glow.
If you want to walk in Grassington you need to get up with the lark to be totally sure to guarantee there’ll be enough space to park. Although it’s not always cars of walkers that fill up every space, but large gangs of sheep who think they own the whole place. Good luck finding room if they’ve come out in force, they’re utterly prepared to stop you seeing Linton Falls. They don’t believe in Welcome to Yorkshire’s open philosophy, it’s your departing they are marketing as their top priority! But if you squeeze in somehow and finally get your break, at least they won’t block your way to finding tea and cake.
I have put my roots down here, but they are new and shallow next to yours. Mighty Oak, how many of my lifetimes have you lived here watching settlers walk past, towering over the bankside path as it erodes towards you? I am impressed, yes – with half the world – by your staggering height, your broad shoulders and wide sheltering arms that seem to carry the sky. But your roots captivate me most, exposed by the water to reveal their true power. Fingers of weaving strength sifting, moving the earth, grasping huge boulders, twisting, turning, steadying the ground as much as yourself. Teach me how to root like you, to spread my palms wide in this soil, coil myself back around the real; and have and hold my belonging here, on actual ground.
Little, lost, lonely sun, where has all your lustre gone? All your shine’s shone out and fallen, every charred quartz treasure stolen. Dazzling show reduced to husk, lights turned off, day made dusk. Do you remember when your bright head beamed spotlights of shade across the ground beneath? Do you mourn all you used to be, towering tall and blazing free? Little, lost, lonely sun, don’t despair, you are not done. You will rise again – at least a thousand fold – dawning brand new stars of beautiful, burning gold.
I’m only now waking to the secret power of the completely ignorable ivy flower. Who could imagine its strange ball ended stems would prove so irresistible to our buzzing friends? But its hedgerow wands are swarming with bees and wasps, sleepily downing pints, then making sudden stark drops. This is the last chance saloon for dosing up on nectar before gracefully retiring from public life for winter. So be careful when you go walking down ivy woven lanes and you hear the soft humming of gentle refrains; respect the spell of binding growth that draws each insect in and marvel at mysterious blooms bewitching flying kin.
Flames dancing the hillside, polished stained glass trees, wild abstract paintings strewn on pavement’s sheen. Deep perpetual sunsets setting on ground and growth, greenery wearing giant gems and bold designer clothes. Bright constellations of hanging sycamore stars, fallen red dwarf suns lying under ruby scars. All in one small corner of October’s gallery, a dazzling show of leaf art in just one stretch of street.
One of the best perks of living in the English countryside is the more unusual chances for pet care that so often arrive. Each year, early in October, we chicken-sit next door’s hens, releasing them, then chasing them back into their pen. They waddle and squabble like living parodies, but there’s nothing like warm, fresh-hatched eggs for free. The house across the road is still up for sale, I really want our new neighbours to have animals as well. I saw a girl in jodhpurs looking round positively, I’m hoping horse-sitting is on the horizon for me!
The first day to bite carries a sting from the north but the dog needs walking, so we must go forth. Here comes the challenge of British inclement weather, the wrapping up in endless layers that seems to take forever. But here comes the joy too of thick woollen clothes, of unearthing your favourite gloves, and pulling your snood over your nose. Here comes the cosy, the comfort and the cuddling, so hug the cold wind close, for without it there’s no huddling.
I know there are other birds still painting our broad, bright skies, but I can’t help seeing emptiness when the swallows have said their goodbyes. I know there are other Springs that will bring them back to me, but I can’t help feeling bereft every time they take their leave. I know there are other people longing for their arriving, but I wish I could keep them near while ensuring Winter thriving. I know it must be a lure, visiting multiple nations, but I wish they’d give up their tours and consider a nice long staycation. I know they deserve acclaim for flying six thousand miles, but I’d be much more impressed if they’d just not go, once in a while. I know they need African sun to warm their artistic wings, but still, I lament their loss as Autumn’s most painful thing.
It’s customary to see clubs of birds perching on a telegraph wire, but not ones including a predator among objects of its own desire. That’s why we didn’t so much look, as openly stand and gawk when a charm of goldfinches sat comfortably – next to a sparrowhawk! What on earth possessed them all to court danger so brazenly; to nestle next to a creature who would regard them as its tea? I know there’s strength in numbers, but did they do it for a dare; goading each other on to seek thrills by precariously staying there? Hearts in mouths, we watched them, waiting for one to call chicken and flee, but they all remained there resolute, standing their ground recklessly. Thankfully they did react when their neighbour took ominous flight, bouncing away delightedly without suffering a single bite!
Did you ever see the wonder of light painting plants before your eyes, like an escapee science experiment in the laboratory of the wild? In primary school we shut beans in the dark to see what they would do, and were amazed to watch the staggering heights to which they desperately grew to find the light they needed to transform white into thriving green, to look again like the healthy shoots we’d previously always seen. This year, inspired by the neighbours, I bought Autumn crocus bulbs, and we’re watching the sun paint them purple as their light-seeking petals unfold. Tucked away in their paper bag, they had already started to flower, but were pure delicate white before feeling the sun’s magic pen power. Now I’m reminded of this colour play, I look for it all around and find creeping veins pumping green into shrubs on shaded ground. But I have to rest my brain after thinking so hard about the biology that conjures such incredible shifts with a touch of illuminosity.
Which wasp larvae have had the gall to irritate this wild rose into growing a ball of frantic, frenetic feathered growth? – a beautiful, living, practical joke. For the last laugh is on any bush or tree whose defence can be used symbiotically to create such a perfect nesting place for a new swarm’s cosy nursery space.
If I could, I’d spend all of Autumn’s precious days chasing the changing up the country’s motorways. I’d drink deep colour all the way from coast to coast, moving on before it faded to brown so I could boast the biggest dose of blazing leaves one person ever saw, a greater drenching in acorn rain than anyone had before. I would gather vast bouquets of perfect poppy heads and make giant installations of all the beautiful living dead. I would feast on fruit from every corner of the isle and stir great batches of sticky jam all the while. I would absorb the abundance, immersed in every vivid sensation till there was no time left for that feeling of consternation that creeps and persists as the grey also builds, and paints a counterpoint of gloom to all that glorious gild. This is how I’d choose to celebrate all that Autumn has to give and rise above the dampening bleak to truly, fully live.
A butterfly in the house is a strangely magical thing, like a fairy painting over ordinary with whimsical wings. All that fluttering motion against the stasis of four walls whispers to the freedom deep within that eagerly calls back to childhood, to wonder, and to lingering play, to chasing fleeting colours on bright Summers’ days. I seek to guide them out, though their leaving is loss, but today’s snoozy Tortoiseshell won’t accept me as boss. It’s determined to move in for winter’s full duration, folding up its wings to suspend in hibernation. We’ve coaxed it from the stairs and the shelves in the hall but it won’t budge from the conservatory roof at all. No matter, now it’s safe, it’s very welcome to stay where the heating can’t confuse it that it might be May. It’s a very special guest I’m delighted we can keep – a still-winged sprite taking an enchanted beauty sleep.