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.