Autumn Equinox

Often, it still feels like summer at this time of year, but I feel autumn has truly arrived now. This morning I walked a path I haven’t walked for a week or more to find the sun was that much lower than it had been and I was constantly having to shade my eyes. It’s all about colours, now. Colours and the cooling of the world. Russet. Browns. Fading drab greens. Yellows and orange. Autumn can be beautiful, although it can also be dull and dreary and occasionally fierce. But mornings often arrive with an added sparkle, with heavy dews on cobwebs and leaves glinting in the low sun, hedgerows of thistledown, rosehips, and hawthorn. There is usually a freshness in the air, especially in the mornings, which has been absent for most of the summer, that invariably lifts my spirits.

I like summer, of course I do, but the arrival of autumn reminds me in some ways of the arrival of spring. In spring we have the stirring of life after a long period of hibernation, whereas the beginning of autumn always feels to me like the start of a new, second, outburst of life. Many plants have a sudden growth spurt, fruits and nuts and berries swell and glow and are plundered by birds and beasts. It is still warm, warm enough to bask in the sun and to feel hot walking up even quite gentle hills.

The Equinox occurs on Friday (at 2.03am in the UK, to be precise) and after this the hours of darkness outnumber the hours of daylight until the end of next March (counting dusk and pre-dawn as night time). After this, the year always feels to me quite different, even if the weather from the one day to the next is much the same. I can already feel myself slipping into a different place; the logs for the burner have arrived and have been stacked ready for use. The apples have been picked, shortly to be wrapped and stored away. Much in the garden is in the process of being cut back for winter. When the days are short and the nights are long, there will be many books to read, lots of music to listen to, a few beers to drink, and many long conversations to be had.

But also many long walks as well, I hope. I love winter too.

A Scottish Coast to Coast Walk(1)

Click on map to enlarge

18th June 1994

My coach got into Inverness at 8.10pm after almost twelve hours on the road, and I was more than ready to begin walking. With over two hours of daylight left, I aimed to get well clear of the city and find a good spot to camp for the night. I grabbed a bag of chips from a chippy, then followed the Caledonian Canal southwest for about four miles, left it and climbed a little more to the west to find somewhere to sleep. I filled my water bottle from a stream, then wandered into a little wood and got out my bivvi tent and settled down for the night, black clouds heading slowly towards me as I did so.

Altourie – rain clouds coming in from the west. Torr Mor in Foreground

19th June 1994

This morning is dry and bright, but quite windy. I boiled some water for coffee and set off as soon as I could, intending to make the most of the good weather. Today I intend to cover quite a few miles on side roads which I hope will be carrying very little traffic and so get a substantial fraction of the journey under my belt before the weather gets any worse. This is Scotland, after all. I‘m expecting rain. It should also break me in gently, being easier ground than much I expect to have to walk. So, I’m aiming for Urquhart Castle, which overlooks Loch Ness and will be a slight diversion from my route but I just fancy having a look at it, and from there I can leave the road and follow the river southwest through Glen Coiltie before turning further towards the west.

As soon as I set off, I was walking straight into the teeth of a strong wind. Long distance footpaths are usually walked from west to east, at least in Britain, and there is a strong argument for that; we get the majority of our weather from the west, so by doing that we have the wind (and whatever it brings with it) at our backs. I’m walking it in the opposite direction not just because I am naturally perverse – or not only for that reason, anyway – but because the more interesting and exciting scenery will be on the west side of the country, and hence my destination. Walking from west to east I feel I would arrive at my destination with a certain amount of disappointment, with all due respect to Inverness which is a delightful city, but I’m after the spectacular wilderness.

So, into the teeth of a strong wind. It is not long, though, before I am walking through Abriachen Forest and I stop for a rest sheltered from the wind.

Abriachen Forest

I rather think Abriachen Forest has changed a little since I passed through there in 1994. I remember it as a dark wood of densely planted conifers, typical of the conifer woodlands planted in the middle to late twentieth century with the intention of producing the maximum possible yield of wood. The trees allow so little light through that other than the trees themselves – Douglas Fir and Sitka Spruce, typically – these plantations (forest is the wrong word) house very little life. But in 1998 the community of Abriachen (a small village) purchased 540 hectares of the woodland and since then have been improving it – thinning the trees, reintroducing native species and creating footpaths and trails.

But on the edge of the forest, and beside the road, there are a multitude of flowers: vetches, Ladies smock, and violets, particularly catch my eye. I draw away from the forest and I am back amongst a more natural landscape, with banks of pepperminty smelling gorse, occasional rowan trees in blossom and heather beginning to flower.

In places, the ground is bright with cotton grass

Now, for the first time, as I leave the road and walk uphill along a track towards the farm of Achpopuli, I get my first good view of large snow-covered mountains to he west. Once past the farm, I am on a supposed footpath heading up towards a saddle between two hill crests but the ground is extremely boggy and proves to be a taste of much of the rest of the route. My feet sink about six inches into either water or soft moss and heather, slowing my progress significantly. But then I m over, and down to a small loch where I stop to refill my water bottle and have a wash. I am surprised by how warm the water is, and I brave a quick dip as well as a shave.

Loch Glanaidh

On, then, to Urquhart Castle and then a little further out of my way to visit Divach falls, a waterfall with a drop of about a hundred feet. And near the bottom, primroses were still out.

Urquhart Castle and Loch Ness

Following a track up Glen Coiltie looking for a suitable spot to make my camp and cook supper I am walking through old forest, such a contrast to the plantation I walked through earlier. The trees are so covered in mosses and lichen it seems at times almost a wonder they are still alive. The path winds up and down and left and right and feels at times like a high mountain trail. Far below I hear the roar of the river, and for almost the first time that day feel I am absolutely in my element.

Eventually I make camp in a small hollow just below Carn a Bhainne. There is a low ridge towards the west which should shelter me from the worst of the wind. After I have eaten, I sit with a mug of tea looking across the river towards a snow pocket that is probably a couple of hundred meters higher than where I am.

Mud

The second of my ‘Poem a Day’ poems. Just getting this far is a bit of an achievement, I suppose, although I’m not particularly happy with either the meter or the rhythm. It feels as sloppy as the day itself was. But I think it has potential if I do a bit of work on it sometime later.

Mud

Today, the sun has been sent into exile,

Leaving just a weary daylight.

It has gone, and we shall never see its like again.

.

In the steady rain,

Climbing this hill is an act of defiance

A far more daunting prospect than usual.

It is like a resistance.

One step forwards and two steps back

I slide and slither upon the track,

Barely keeping my footing at times.

.

In places, mist curls beneath the trees

Where the birds voice their own defiance

Loud and clear.

.

Beneath the endless grey,

Still lower clouds like smoke from gunfire,

From shell bursts or industrial disaster

The earth torn up and churned

From countless toiling feet.

But other than the birds,

I have the world to myself.

Winter – 3

Winter would have brought a period of enforced leisure for our ancestors. Their days would have become shorter with the increasing hours of darkness, until in midwinter the daylight hours would make up only one third of the time.

All outdoor activities would effectively cease in the darkness, and even during the day the worsening weather would limit what could be achieved outdoors. But other than those tasks that could be carried out, what did they do in these times? how did they pass those long hours?

At times, no doubt, there would have been feasting and merry-making because they would have required some cheer and a sense of well-being to help them get through the winter. But they must also have been mindful of husbanding scarce food resources through those long barren months.

it may be that they played games. Although archaeology hasn’t furnished us with evidence of board games or dice or variations on these, it is still possible they would scratch, perhaps, some form of grid into the beaten soil of the floor and play games of skill or chance. It is not beyond possibility that some flat rocks with strange scorings and lines on them were used for that purpose.

With no TVs or books or computers, it might seem to us that time would have weighed heavily on their hands. But you are used to what you are used to, and they would have seen things differently. They may have looked forward to a period of relative inactivity; long hours of no talk, sitting or lying down, the mind slowing down until hours were passed in no thought. Did they then also pass unusually long hours in sleep? A kind of semi-hibernation as a way of conserving energy?

But long hours also, of talking. They must have talked: of daily life and plans and past disasters and glories, of gossip, and told stories both new and handed down from previous generations. These stories would have been incredibly powerful tools for the preservation of the tribe. With no written word, the spoken word becomes the only way knowledge is transmitted. And thus it has to be memorised, both for use and also to transmit in the future. As aids to memorising, powerful tools are repetition, rhyme and rhythm. We cannot know exactly how this was utilised, but it cannot have been long before poetry and song evolved.

It can be no coincidence, but in all the early societies we know of who had no written records, those of which we know about through records left by others – such as the Romans writing of the Britons – it is clear that poetry and song were important, and the bard a highly valued member of that society. Indeed, the writings left by Romans, who tended to denigrate anyone not Roman as barbarian and primitive, violent, and uncultured, still make it clear these ‘barbarian’ tribes valued poetry and song highly. Partly, this must have been for educational purposes, but they seem also to have been valued for themselves, for their beauty. It is taking things too far to suggest this proves the same would have applied in Neolithic times, but it is certainly possible. At some point, there would have been music. I imagine this developed out of ritual, perhaps through repetitive chanting and the beat of drums…

And so, I can imagine this at first being perhaps the preserve of the shaman, until becoming a specialised ‘post’ – that of the bard – and acquiring the value of entertainment, as well as instruction.

Winter – 2

Nature dies down in winter. Certainly, at those latitudes where the days become much shorter and the temperatures plummet. Both wind and rain seem to become more frequent. Snow. It is a period of rest and renewal after autumn has put on a final glorious display of colour. Animals adapt to this in one of three ways: some will eat and eat of the autumn bounty of, especially, fruit, putting on large fat reserves and surviving the winter in a state of hibernation, their heart-rates dropping to a scarcely believable one or two beats a minute, their bodies slowly using these fat reserves for the little energy required to maintain a flickering life through those months. Some migrate, seeking a warmer climate until spring returns. These animals are, due to the obvious logistics required to travel hundreds of miles to reach those more hospitable climes, the larger animals and many of the birds. Travel over those kinds of distances would be out of the question for the smaller ones. Others stay put and, in the case of the plant eaters, scratch out a meagre living on whatever leaves and grasses survive through the winter. The carnivores, of course, stay and try to catch them.

Our Neolithic ancestors’ life cycles would be attuned to this pattern too. Autumn must have been lived fast and furiously. In the same way our medieval ancestors worked long hours to bring in the harvests, Neolithic man and woman must have used all the dwindling daylight to bring in as much food and fuel and dry bedding as possible before the winter period. Then by the end of autumn gathering would have largely ceased and they would have moved into a winter rhythm of life.

But how did they get through winter? What of the food they had gathered? Presumably, they had no way of storing fruit – could any of it be dried? Was it fermented for drink? Or was it all eaten as soon as it was gathered, as though they were all so many dormice seeking to build up their reserves? And could this, in fact, have been a part of their strategy to get through those months? To eat and eat until the perishable foods were all gone, and then to stop all but the most essential activities. To expend as little energy as possible and stay as warm as they could. Spending as much time as possible asleep.

And yet, they would still need to eat, and so with dwindling food reserves they would slaughter any beasts kept for that purpose, possibly smoking the meat to enable it to keep for as long as possible. Hunting would continue and might, in some ways, become a little easier. With less vegetation around, there would be less cover for their prey, and in snow there would be clear tracks to follow. But presumably this prey would still need to be pursued, and this would use precious energy, unless they relied more upon pits and snares.

Winter – 1

The long-range weather forecast is predicting generally mild, wet weather in the run-up to Christmas. So still no sign of ‘winter’ yet.

Although there is a lot to be said for mild weather, we need the cold of winter to help to break up the soil for the following year and kill off many pests. But our climate is changing.

There are some swallows still around, apparently. Presumably because there are still plenty of insects for them to eat. They should have left ages ago. What does this mean for them in the coming months? If the weather remains mild and the insects persist, will they be able to survive the winter here? And will they still be able to successfully migrate if the expected colder weather kills off these insects, or will they have left it too late? I suspect it will not end well for them.

There have always been a few of these days at the turn of the seasons, although probably nowhere near as many as now, and I wonder how our ancestors would deal with these days; the days I am sometimes tempted to call the Nothing Days. Those days which are grey and cold, but not severely so. The leaves are continuing to fall but seem in no hurry to complete the job. Nothing seems to be contributing to the change of the seasons. If any plants or animals are responding to anything, it can only be to the shortening of the daylight hours. There are still plenty of nuts and berries for the wildlife to forage – the birds are largely ignoring our bird feeders at the moment – although little for the human forager; the blackberries have finished, the chestnuts and hazelnuts all gone.

I suspect our ancestors would have moved into their own winter routines anyway, and got on with the jobs in hand, largely mending and making. With the onset of rains and wind and snow, rooves and walls would be repaired and strengthened, leaks caulked, trenches dug out to drain water away from dwellings. Tools and weapons would be fashioned and repaired. Measures taken for comfort and warmth – perhaps grasses and rushes and bracken collected and heaped up inside, likewise firewood, and fodder for animals.

Although I’m only guessing, but a fire in the middle of a hut filled with heaps of dried grasses might have required a Neolithic risk assessment following a visit by a fire and safety officer.

Green Christmas

Yesterday was beautiful.

I went out for a walk in the morning as the overnight mist was lifting, and the air was cool but not cold, under a sunny, clear sky filled with birdsong. I felt a powerful sense of renewal in the world.

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There is little new growth yet, but the trees were covered in buds. Although we are not long past the shortest day of the year, the ridiculously mild temperature and the sun which felt warm on my face, reminded me that there is one more minute of daylight today than there was yesterday, and tomorrow there will be one more than that. And it will not be long before each day gains an extra two minutes, then three, then four…

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The air smelt clearer and cleaner than it had for months, and I felt like beginning a long journey. I yearned to be walking on the Downs, or heading through fields and woods with my destination nothing more elaborate than a bed in a basic bunkhouse or hostel, and somewhere to get a meal, preferably in a tiny village surrounded by hills and streams and woods. This is a feeling I get every Spring, that it is a time to explore more of the world.

Everything seems to be fresh. I need to do something new, something positive. To plant some trees, perhaps (always a good idea).

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I thought of Christmas. This year, we had a string of lights in one room, with handfuls of greenery as the only other decorations. This, for me, is a way to make sense of the season. It has nothing to do with religion, unless it be the ancient religions that worshipped the sun and the moon and celebrated the turn of the year at the Winter Solstice when the seasons begin their long, slow journey back towards the promise of Spring and the harvests of Autumn. A simple wisdom, in tune with the natural world.

I do not, I cannot – I will not – associate it with any other form of mythical gods. For me, it is all about the natural cycle of the seasons, simple and uncomplicated.

And I particularly like the period when Christmas is definitely over, and we’re only just getting into the new year. Everything seems to have this feeling of renewal, which was the whole point of the Yule festival. A time to look forward and plan for the coming year. This will be where the tradition of New Year Resolutions comes from, no doubt.

This year, I shall resolve to try and simplify my life further, and to live more in tune with the natural world.