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.
Raspberries and crocuses growing in September cause Autumn to pause, and us to remember Spring and Summer as if they were still here with lost colours, tastes and warmth suddenly brought back near. This is the gorgeous, irresistible reason for growing varieties that feel out of season. For what could be more fun than time travel plants that whisk you back and forth as the year departs?
The downpipe was emanating a strange fluttering sound, so we gingerly took it apart to see what would be found. We expected a butterfly who’d somehow lost its way rather than a coal tit turned miner, tunnelling for the day. What possessed it to dive down our gutter’s water slide, it was, of course, utterly unable to confide. We set it, bedraggled and dazed, to dry out in the sun and trust it fully recovered, for later it was gone. The very next Thursday, while drinking our morning tea, what should we chance to look out the window and see but a coal tit perched on the buddleia in the pouring rain… I’m hoping, if it’s the same one, it won’t get drenched again!
The first leaves to fly are pilfered not fallen, as a moody Friday wind gustily breaks their fragile hold and seizes them for itself. Tossed up as well as down, they flicker and wheel like drunken sailor butterflies at the mercy of contradicting currents overwhelming their tiny wings. I witness the crime, caught in a snow globe of stolen tree confetti while the gasping, grasping gale thieves my breath too, and blows it who knows where.
Down where the river swells wide and greedily licks the bank in premonition and echo of flood, a brave alder stands resolute tall. A persistent survivor of constant colonising land grabs, it clings to its diminishing earth, rising on tiptoe to straddle the fleeing ground and remain balanced, poised and elegant above the fray. I think of a ballerina’s strength ascending en pointe, and applaud the beautiful struggle of the alder’s stoic dance.
I wonder which bird it was that dropped their tea in the terracotta pot under the viburnum tree? For we certainly didn’t plant a sunflower seed, and although of course I wouldn’t say it was a weed, one is flowering uninvited all the same. But as drizzle sets in, and our remaining blooms fade, it’s fabulous to find a brand new sun displayed, so we welcome it gladly though it shines out of place, a beautiful surprise; an unexpected grace.
There’s something about woodland that weaves tall tales from thin air, then embroiders them with thick undergrowth and dappled shade. Life and story blur and meld into something both and neither as the impossible trespasses into truth. Here, everything is close to being something else, shifting shape or casting shadow to wear imagination’s form as its own. Today, there’s a fallen branch emerging from the leaf mulch with a face so suggestive of snake that I hurry past its slithering before it can follow me home.
Low light polishes the river to mirror shine, projecting flying ripples on to the overhang to dance along its branches like water flames licking the wood with dappling burn, until it becomes a web of suspended tributaries rather than a solid, rooted, growing mass. I stop to enter the illusion, embrace still set elevated to cinematic motion as light pulls its playful tricks and quasi-consumes the river tree with liquid luminescence.
We didn’t know we were on a flight path, circling the reservoir at Thruscross and chatting away the afternoon. Our attention was on the water, where four Canada geese swam straight lines, transferring from the air their flair for formation to float in ordered elegance below. Then suddenly, flying low over the sharp rise of the moor, a whole skein descend in sequence with jet skiing finesse while we look up in awe as if at a festival where the Red Arrows are performing a stunt. I marvel at how close they come, their undercarriages shining bright white, as they dip just over our heads and alight with perfect precision on their glistening, rippling landing strip.
Some weekends when walking up Nidderdale’s gravel tracks, you see surprising characters out trekking in little packs. They’re singularly uninhibited and often directly stare, as if it were you that was a novelty to discover tramping there. Sometimes they stop to snack on unsuspecting wayside trees, eating with their mouths wide open despite being in company. If they do decide to smile at you, it’s a very toothy display but it brightens up the morning to meet llamas on your way!
Departed but not gone, ghost flowers linger on, echoing blooming tall despite the fade and fall of colour, petal and seed. This is an Autumn tragedy, glory reduced to parody, as brown stems still stand proud, bereft of rainbows shining loud, all their lustre lost to the wind. But still I remember their names, see them and greet them the same, for even when shrivelled and dry, they proclaim their histories gone by and promise resurrection return.
On the last spear of buddleia to still be in bloom, a flutter of tortoiseshells spends half the afternoon delicately guzzling all the nectar they can eat, drinking through proboscises but tasting with their feet. It seems impolite behaviour to display when taking tea, but butterflies use different rules to define civility.
If you want to see wild deer leaping the walls, bounding the fields, you need to be up when it’s still dark and chase the seclusion sunrise yields. You can’t control their sightings, can’t predict when they might appear, but early in the morning is when I’ve always found them here. Watchful gazes fix on you, then white bobtails glide their retreat, caught in magical gladed moments, disappearing in rustles of leaves.
Everywhere around us, with new shades appearing each day, the trees are gradually revealing their true colours again. I used to believe Autumn’s turning was all about decay until I learned the dying green is really being drawn away. How strange these pigments flaming new were really always here, covered by chlorophyll’s mastery till they all but disappeared. It’s only when strength retreats that hidden hues can shine, weakness revealing burning beauty, fragile but sublime.
In my defence, the wind started it – stealing a piece of popcorn out of my unsuspecting hand and hurling it onto the path. An explosive act detonating a debris of gulls as eye after eye sizes up our bench as the main chance. A black headed battalion lines up, swaggering and cawing like a gang of drunken louts lowering the tone of the park. I am led astray, courting their absurd strutting by scattering more provocation to keep them keen and close. My cackles grow louder than theirs, and that and the swooping flapping leads you to plead for mercy to finish your sandwich in peace. But I am hooked on hilarity and continue my mischief all the way through lunch, much to the delight of our uninvited guests.
All is murk, mizzle and gust but glinting among the drear rain dust, a perfect arc of colour suspends. And though it’s a bleary morning, I feel tinted promise dawning, long to pass under it into more. But as I advance it retreats then swiftly dissolves and depletes, leaving only dampened desire behind. Then just as I fear all is rain, stripes of light re-appear again just a little way on, up the valley. I would rather chase rainbows all day than accept the world as painted grey, so I walk on to the next arching hope.
It is common to praise the ariel displays of swallows, kestrels and kites as they paint the sky in beauty with their dances, hovers and glides. But today my sights are lower, much closer to the ground, where the weightier wood pigeon is so often to be found. Here is a true miracle of fantastic feathered flight as frantic wings whistle and flap with all their might. Somehow the pigeon is conquering the air, even though the odds seem staggeringly unfair. The din overhead carries hints of impending dread, it always seems each one might just crash land instead! The effort it takes just to clear the garden gate suggests they were designed for a walking fate, yet with ideas wildly above their station, they’re trying their best at amateur aviation. But watch them when they’re distant and high, using momentum’s speed to fall, and you’ll realise extreme descent is their true airborne call. Seeing them soundlessly ride the downward current’s flow, suddenly they look born to fly, elegant and graceful from far below.
The schools are back, leaving beauty spots free so we drive to the coast for seaside therapy. Black sand marbles golden in abstract, flowing shapes and the currents within me shift with the push and pull of the waves. A sand piper plays for laughs, scuttling absurd little shows while I delight to reunite the beach with my shoe-freed toes. The gulls cry a perfect soundtrack as I breathe deep salty bliss, feeling my inner oceans calm while sea and shore gently kiss.
In my hand I hold a maybe future tree, a perhaps full forest of oaken possibility. All contained in the potential of a tiny acorn, dappled dreams and towering shade waiting to be born. This one is alone among thousands of fragmented shards that the leaping woodland warriors saw fit to discard, having eaten their fill and scurried on to find more, reducing rooting prospects on the earthen floor. I gently drop my green survivor back, and hope it will one day grow to wave tomorrow’s broad branches over me as I return to walk below.
In the season of seed it seems right to write a verse on the five magic ways seeds use to disperse… the first way they scatter is through gravity’s pull, the second is through birds and critters eating till full. The most dramatic way is when they explode by force, but drifting on the wind also works well of course. Lastly some use water and it’s transporting flow: and that, my friend, is the five ways they go.
If I were a goosander living the river dream, I would fly to beat the current then land and drift downstream. But I’d never be as happy as in my younger days when I’d snoozily drifted safe above the babbling waves, nestled on my mother’s back gliding great distance effortlessly, experiencing the high life with no work required from me. I think after that beginning even flying might seem a chore, while doing my own swimming would be a total bore!
Whenever the waysides fill with seed heads and teasels, I half expect to come across paint pots and easels, so strong is their connection to lessons in art and a succession of teachers trying to impart the beautiful way they display texture and shape, the perfect still life subjects their arrangements make. The hours went slow trying to echo them on paper, and I spent most of the time talking to my neighbour. I still can’t capture Autumn’s emblems in charcoaled lines but I have learned to recognise them as treasured finds. I bring them indoors and group their stems in jars with flair, enjoying their finery now, and remembering then and there.
Disturbing the peace, at first they’re heard not seen, like the dissonant honking of competing car horns caught in angry confrontation somewhere in the next village. And then they fall quiet overhead, their swift soaring image conflicting with their previous sound, a graceful ticking yes in the sky, flying in perfect formation as if unity and close co-ordination were the only things on their minds. The perfect team, using the air and its slip streams to common purpose, they sweep on in silent, consistent shape. But once out of sight, synchronised motion is replaced again by cacophonous commotion, and I can’t help thinking, despite every analogy, that the goose at the back is protesting the route.
It’s way too light in the early morning to expect to find a bat gently snoring, but sure enough from the edge of the green pot, one is hanging fast asleep as if it forgot to follow its colony to more private climes, where all is shadowed and safe from daylight shine. We get close enough to marvel at tiny feet holding firm with so much more weight hanging down under them. We wonder if our bat will sleep till night’s cover returns but it wakes, stretches, scratches and quickly learns that it isn’t quite where it would like to nap all day, so it takes off during breakfast, and flies fast away.
We find a delicious recipe for hedgerow cake, which we cannot resist trying to make. So we climb the hills and scour the wayside for brambles, getting stung, scratched and temporarily entangled with the bushes that bear the confection we need to make the wild concoction we long to eat. And even though my hands are scarred and raw, tinged with purple that wasn’t there before, it was worth all the effort and the prickling thorns to slowly forage for a beautiful black store, and to enjoy the slowing, calming sensation of picking the ingredients for a new creation. We return laden with piles of juicy loot, mix the sweet batter, then add our fruit, and when it’s all baked, iced and served it feels so satisfyingly well deserved… but shhh, we picked enough to make more with nothing like the work it took before. And I suspect I’ll still enjoy the next one immensely, even without picking one single blackberry!
The first mornings of September feel just like that, with clear blue skies, low golden light, and crisp air that smells of fresh beginnings, carrying with it the always remembered expectation of brand new exercise books and shiny, sharpened pencils. The dew is so heavy it glimmers like frost and even though it’s decades since my terms began, I still feel I must be back to school soon. Focus and purpose pervade the day, the chilling air forcing a final goodbye to summer, and a growing acceptance that as the students return, so the swallows must leave again too.
The first Discovery was crisp and sweet, a tangy, tasty orchard-plucked treat. I eye the rest of the pile with tingling tongue, apple season has only just begun. Fruit bowl, fridge, cupboard and table we’ll find as much space as we’re able to fill with stocks of ripened fare to feast on, freeze, stew and share. But for now, even in this first crunch’s savour, it’s all here distilled – pure September flavour.
I’m still watching for the green to turn, but warm Autumn colours already burn in the shimmering flames of the first fire to cosy the house since last winter. Outside the blaze hasn’t reached the woods and there’s no golden glamour to compensate for the gusting cold and greying skies that steal sunshine memories as summer dies. But here inside, all is promise and premonition, as wild dancing colour draws us in and on to picture titian trees and hear crunching leaves, anticipating frosts and firework bursts by blazing bonfires, holding mulled wine in thick-gloved hands. So much of the coming season is felt now, prefigured in this first amber shining, as we sit in the living room glow and wait for the world to bronze beyond the grate.