Peak Autumn

The leaves are turning, but in some cases, such as these oaks, still very slowly.

On Sunday, I was wandering around under the oak trees in the woods for a while. It was a gloriously sunny morning and I found myself stuffing my pockets with acorns and oak leaves. For no particular reason – they just looked interesting.

Maybe I was channelling my inner squirrel. Back indoors, I thought I might try to arrange them a little bit artistically, but I’m not sure it has really worked. Never mind. I love the way that both the leaves and the acorns turn from green to brown, passing through many different pastel colours on the way, many of them ochres – the earth colours.

‘From tiny acorns mighty oaks do grow’ as the saying goes. This one has a little way to go yet, but as long as it doesn’t get broken or knocked down, its chances are good. There is a lot of light where it is growing, and currently little competition for light or space.

I felt a little menaced by a fallen branch, but all was well.

And despite it being mid-October, as I said at the beginning, there are still plenty of summery green leaves to be found.

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.

Not a Water Buffalo Day Today

A rather nicer day today, although very cold. A day for double socks, a duvet jacket and hands thrust deep into pockets. The birds are into their winter silence, flitting low down between bushes and clumps of trees, although a blackbird does set up an aggrieved alarm call as I approach.

This holly tree keeled over some years ago, but life finds a way to hang in there. Now it throws out lateral branches that act like new trunks.

This holly nearby is laden with berries, which folklore claims is a sign of a harsh winter to come. It’s not, of course, it’s merely the result of the weather patterns we have had earlier this year. It may still be a harsh winter, but the berries are not a portent.

But it’s a very Novembery day, almost a Decembery day. The leaves have fallen and the sun is very low.

But where the sun strikes the trees the light is still glorious.

What To Do?

What can you do when you lose all confidence in your own writing?

Write a post about my inability to write anything, I suppose.

It has been a real struggle for the last six months or so. It would be easy to blame Covid and lockdowns, and they might have played their part, but it goes deeper than that. I could blame some health issues I have, but that’s not the whole story. Every time I sit down to write, I feel stale and uninspired. Even when I have a day that seems to go well, when I read back what I have written later it seems contrived or forced. Uninteresting. I feel I have nothing worth saying; nothing anyone else would want to read.

I try to paint. I have ideas I want to try out, but it just won’t come. No sooner do I pick up a brush or a pencil than I feel I can’t be bothered with it all.

I know what part of the problem is: I want to go travelling. Travelling has always given me the opportunity to press the reset. I travel light. I write. Whether I go on a long walk or a trek, or just visit a place, it gives me the chance to reconnect with the world around me.

I was out for a walk this morning. Autumn has been here for a good six weeks or more, but it isn’t progressing very rapidly yet. Clearly, it is in no hurry. Although there are plenty of berries on the trees, the leaves seem reluctant to turn or to fall. On the other side of the wood I could see the hills towards the south, bluey-green in the distance. I always find this view really evocative, and it makes me want to grab my rucksack and disappear off for a few weeks. And that immediately makes me think of mountains. In The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo says to Gandalf: ‘I want to see mountains again, Gandalf – mountains‘. He feels stale and tired of the familiar environment where he lives. (There’s more to it than just that in Bilbo’s case, of course.)

Well, that’s me.

Somewhere like this, perhaps!

Perhaps I’ll have a go at writing a few travel posts again. It has been quite a while since the last one. And before that I might re-post one or two of my earlier ones. Just to set the scene, as it were.

This way!

The Thick Month

June is the Thick Month. Trees and bushes and stands of wildflowers have acquired a lush density by now, branches and stems encased in full-sized leaves, rich and vividly green. Leaves massed and packed in swaying light-blocking swathes. Nothing has yet faded, although there is a gradual falling away of birdsong now mating is over and broods are being raised, although this is compensated for by what seems to be an increase in insect noise, especially bee hum – certainly in our garden. The flowers are beset by mason, carder and bumblebees, and large numbers of solitary bees which provide a delightful oxymoron for this recorder, at least.

Going out and about through the woods a mile from my home, I feel I could almost be walking indoors, such is the density of the tree canopy above me, and when it begins to rain I do indeed remain dry, other than from the occasional drip finding its way through. But it is muddy underfoot in places, the sheltering swathes also keeping the sun from drying out the ground. The thick wet dark humus-rich soil smells sweet and clean, reminding me of a ‘plum-pudding smell,’ as Kenneth Grahame described the river-bank in The Wind in the Willows.

The fields, too, are thick with wildflowers and grass, as are roadside borders where councils have refrained from scalping them. As much as I rejoice to find the occasional rarer species amongst them, I think my greatest pleasure is just to see masses of the commoner species; buttercups or ox eye daisies, vetches or speedwells.

I generally see nothing rare when I am walking my patch, but I could never think of any of this as ‘ordinary’.

Tree Lurve

About two miles away from our house I came across these two oak trees. The smaller one looks as though it is embracing the larger one.

I wanted to know their stories. Had the smaller one grown from an acorn produced by the larger one? Or from a different tree? Most oaks in Britain grow from acorns that have been gathered and buried by squirrels or jays, and they’d probably not bury them right at the foot of the tree, or would they? Could it be a secondary growth thrown up from a root of the larger tree? And the smaller one has developed in an unusual way – long and straggly as though it aspires to be ivy, or some such climbing plant. Very difficult to assess its age for that reason, although I would guess the larger one to be between a hundred and a hundred and fifty years old. Both are still alive, although it was difficult to spot leaves on the smaller one, as they are mostly high up.

My immediate instinct, or at least idle musing, was to begin to impose various anthropocentric motives to the situation: The larger tree was supporting the smaller for some reason – perhaps it was weak, or diseased. The smaller one was supplying the larger with nutrition of some sort. They were living in a symbiotic relationship and sharing resources…all nonsense, of course. They had grown that way purely by chance.

Surely?

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.

R. I. P. Winter

It’s beginning to feel both as though autumn has been with us forever, and that it is especially reluctant to leave us, this year.

This year has been a mast year; the trees and bushes have been laden with prodigious quantities of nuts and berries. The hawthorns, especially, seem to be weighed down with berries, and we have gathered large quantities of nuts from the hazel in our garden. There are so many acorns beneath the oaks nearby that there is a thick, continuous, crunchy, carpet of them underfoot. Traditionally, this has been said to indicate a harsh winter ahead, although how the trees and bushes are meant to work this out when we have no idea what the weather will be then, heaven only knows.

What it really indicates, of course, is that the climatic conditions have been such throughout the year that these trees and bushes have successfully produced their large crops. Nothing to do with what will come along later.

On the other hand, the leaves have held onto their greens for longer than usual and only turned late, and still seem most reluctant to fall. It has taken the determined efforts of a few strong winds just to remove about half of them. Certainly, around my part of Britain, anyway.

It is not cold. There are no signs of a proper winter chill approaching, with the long-range weather forecast contenting itself with predictions of the occasional cold spell in the next month, which takes us through to mid-December. In the garden the grass and many of our other plants are still engaged in that crazy autumn growth spurt.

Of course, it was never unusual for November to be wet and mild, and we may yet have a biting cold winter, although I wouldn’t bet on it. It is a long, long time since we have had a winter like that in these parts. In my lifetime, only the winters of 1963 and 1978/79 really stand out as being extremely harsh, although a few others have had shorter periods of cold and snow. The expectation for winter around here now is that it will just be chilly and wet. I think only once in the last six or seven years have we had more than just the odd flurry of snow; that was from the so-called ‘Beast from the East’ a couple of years ago, and even that only lasted a few days.

We seem to have lost winter somewhere along the way, which sounds very careless of us.

In fact, that is quite a good way of describing it.

You don’t need me to tell you we have been careless in the way we have interacted with nature, the result being our world is heating up dangerously. And in our part of the world, this has led to hotter, drier, summers and milder, wetter, winters. There has been a notable increase in destructive flooding events. Downpours are frequently very heavy and long-lasting. Rather than being spread out through the month, we may get an entire month’s worth of rain in less than a day. Summers, conversely, have become very dry.

This is absolutely nothing to the extreme climate conditions suffered by millions of others in other parts of the world, but it helps to bring it home to us that the Climate Emergency is real, and it is happening. With everything else happening in the world at the moment, this seems to have been conveniently ignored by the mainstream media for the last six months.

R. I. P. Winter.

At Last!

Well, that’s it. I’ve done it. It’s finished. Somewhere around mid-morning yesterday, probably just before eleven o’clock. And in the end it wasn’t too difficult; not too painful, anyway. I thought I was going to have more problems than I did, actually. Fortunately, though, it all went quite smoothly in the end. In fact, I’m not sure what all the fuss was about.

Oh, I do beg your pardon. I was quite forgetting.

I’m referring to the book I’ve been working on for the last three or four years: A Good Place. Having thought I’d finished it around a year ago, I ended up binning the last third of the book and re-writing it. And although I’ve ended up with what I feel is a stronger narrative, and with more believable characters, there was one chapter towards the end that was just refusing to play ball.

Until yesterday.

So hopefully, I’ve now completed the final draft. I’ve sent it to my beta reader to go through, and as long as she thinks the story works I’ll put it to one side for six months and then begin what I hope will be the final edit. And if I’m still happy with it then, I’ll look to pass it to three more beta readers for their comments. If they think it worthwhile, I might then have a go at interesting a publisher in it.

Although I’ll probably just think Oh, to hell with it all and self-publish it, anyway.

And if she thinks it’s no good, I’ll hide it somewhere and sulk.

What’s it about? It is set in an Indian hill station in 1988. An English visitor arrives, bringing with him a mystery concerning his childhood, the key to which he suspects may lie with the remaining English inhabitants of the town. And like many expatriate communities around the world, these inhabitants have a complicated and, at times, difficult relationship with the other members of their community. As the visitor gets drawn further into the life of this community, he finds his own relationships with them becoming unexpectedly complicated and difficult, with tragic and unanticipated consequences for several of them.

Anyway, after all that palaver, I decided to go for a walk in the woods nearby. Up until that point, it had been a dry, if overcast, day. But as soon as I reached the woods, the rain began pelting down.

It was dark and gloomy beneath the trees, and the rain was soon drawing out the peculiarly woodland scents of autumn. There was a rich, thick, puddingy smell, as rich and thick as the deep and increasingly wet humus soil I was walking on. Soon my feet were squishing and squelching through the mud and dead leaves, the fungi and conker husks, the rotting wood and the mildewed berries.

The rain burst through the branches and leaves of the trees, hammering on my head and shoulders, running into my pockets, and down my legs. Although it was mid-afternoon, the light had the quality of a premature dusk, and the few other people I saw seemed to slip between the trees like unhappy ghosts.

It was a bloody good walk, I must say.