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.

Wind And Wandering

We went down to Brighton for the weekend. Staying two nights there gave us a chance to watch the starling murmurations that regularly put on amazing displays around the old pier. It also gave us the chance to get up onto the South Downs for a good walk.

On the first evening we walked down to the seafront to await the starlings. It was a lovely sky, but with an extremely keen wind blowing in off the sea. After about half an hour our wait was rewarded with a brief but great display as the starlings whirled and dipped and soared in formation around the Old Pier. But guess who’s camera decided to stop working because of the cold? So, no murmuration photos, I’m afraid.

Next morning we caught the bus up to Ditchling Beacon. We were to walk from there to Devil’s Dyke, then catch another bus back down to Brighton. It was very cold and windy in Brighton, and all the way up gusts of wind buffeted the bus. Not a good omen. Anyway, the bus arrived at the top of the Downs and stopped. We got off the bus.

My God, it was bloody cold!

It was extremely tempting to turn around and get straight back on the bus again, but we (just) resisted it.

No, really, it’s lovely. Quite refreshing. Why do you ask?’

When we last passed this dew pond four or five years ago, the weather was deteriorating and a few wavelets wrinkled the surface, while the sky was largely blue but with a few clouds rolling in. Today the sky was greyer and waves were careering wildly across the water. Does it look cold? It was bloody cold! I may have mentioned that already.

After an hour or so, we dropped down to the village of Pyecombe and had a quick look around the lovely old church. Then the long, slow walk back up onto the Downs on the other side of the valley. At this point on our previous walk the rain had been pouring down and the clouds getting lower and lower. This time, despite the cold (I have mentioned that, haven’t I?) it was clear and sunny. And by this time, thankfully, we had warmed up somewhat.

Our route took us down a lovely sheltered holloway to another valley, where we began the final walk up to Devil’s Dyke.

By now it was sunny and despite the wind it was lovely. We felt we could have stood there and just looked at it all day. However, we had a pub with hot soup and cold beer to get to before our bus trip back down to Brighton, so we hurried on.

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.

January 24th 2021

We usually hear the jackdaws some ten minutes or so before sunrise: jack, jack, jack, jack, and then the great silence descends for a while. The rooks chuck the odd aark into the mix, but it tends to get lost amid the jackdaw vocals. Once they have completed their flypast, it is a while before you notice any other birdsong. Gradually it seems to return, and then you realise it was there all along, but it was lost beneath the chorus of cacophonous corvids and still sounds muted once they are gone.

Jackdaws and rooks commonly form mixed flocks. Small groups of them tend to flit through here throughout the day, although never so vocally as at sunrise or sunset. At times, I have watched them heading towards the open countryside away to the east a little before sunset – small groups coming from different directions to the area where they tend to congregate, and from where they will then all fly off in a single flock to their roost together in an area of woodland at dusk.

It was another thick frost this morning, and then a red, red sky as though it was all afire, the clouds like volcanic effusions drifting across, by which time the rooks and jackdaws had scattered to their trees and roofs. Then the sky yellowed with the promise of snow, or did it only look that way because I was aware that was the forecast? When I go out into the back garden to scatter the coffee grounds, the chill of the air in my nostrils makes me think I can smell snow.

On time, the snow arrives, although it has barely reached the ground before melting, and quickly turns to sleet. While it is snowing, there is a brightness outside, even under the dark clouds, but once it turns to sleet, it somehow darkens and just becomes a little more miserable. As I look out of the window now, I see the wind picking up, a little thin sleet falling, and a uniformly grey sky.

Isn’t it time for spring yet?

Sunday Supplement – 3

Last year I wrote a post about how the Christmas season made sense to me when I thought of it as the old festival of Yule and all that entails. About nature, renewal and hope. Of course, I also wrote about my own hopes for the coming year, and the less said about that, the better! But I also wrote a post a couple of weeks ago – Winter 4 – the last in a series, discussing how I thought the Solstice might have been marked in prehistoric times. Although here in the UK we are now in yet another Lockdown, the solstice is tomorrow – marking the turning of the year – and I cannot help but see that as a reason for hope; the days begin to lengthen, the darkness slowly retreats, and whether you view that as merely symbolic, or connect that with longer, warmer, days and the pleasure they bring, as well as conditions less covid-friendly, yes, it is a reason for hope.

I finished reading H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. I’ve been very poor at writing reviews this last year, and I must make a start again. This would be a great one to begin with; so much to write about it, and a definite five star recommendation. Superb.

I then read The Girl Who Forgets How To Walk, a poetry collection by Kate Davis, published by Penned in the Margins.

As the site describes it: ‘In this remarkable first collection, tarns, limekilns and abandoned pits become portals into a dark, interior world. A woman levitates above a building site; earth slips and fault-lines open up beneath the town; the sea hides ‘a gob of virus’. The moving title sequence tells the story of a young girl with polio who struggles to find her feet — and her voice — in an unforgiving landscape where ‘the ground cannot be trusted’.’ Again, thoroughly recommended and enjoyable. I finished it last night and am wavering between a couple of books, deciding what to read next. But, at the same time, I am working my way through a couple of excellent magazines:

An Antidote To Indifference is the perfect title for a magazine that showcases the best of the writing published on the Caught by the River website. It describes itself as: ‘an arts/nature/culture clash… It began as an idea, a vision and a daydream shared between friends one languid bankside spring afternoon. Conceived as an online meeting place for pursuits of a distinctly non-digital variety — walking, fishing, looking, thinking, birdsong and beer, adventure and poetry; life’s small pleasures, in all their many flavours — it was, and still is, about stepping out of daily routines to re-engage with nature. Finding new rhythms. Being.’ The website is updated daily and the magazine is published, on average, twice a year. I bought a couple of back issues as a bit of an experiment and, again, I highly recommend them to anyone who enjoys nature in any form.

My writing has taken a bit of a hit, though, this past week. I’ve felt utterly uninspired and fed up with the novel I’ve been editing, so I’ve tossed them aside for the moment and have been doing a little work on a short story – a folk horror / ghost story – and a little artwork. Amongst my daubings was this derivative painting which I intended to do for practice, but then thought would make a good birthday card for Sabina’s birthday last week. So that’s how it ended up.

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.

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.

A Yearning For Wilderness

Inhospitable deserts. High mountain passes. Hills or moorland in thick, blanketing fog or sudden treacherous snowfall.

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A situation in which I test my skills and resilience to the limit, aware of the consequences of a miscalculation or of taking my eye off the ball for too long. Certainly not a case of me fighting against the desert, or the mountain, because it’s not a battle. I have no need to ‘conquer’ anything, merely to respectfully request safe passage.

deserty-desert

At the moment I have to accept second best, walking in woodlands near my home. At least there are fewer people around while it is raining, although those who are include a posse of shrieking children – honestly, where are the wolves and bears when you need them? Two hundred years ago in Britain children would either have avoided all but the lightest of woodland, or passed through as silently as possible. Although the bears and wolves were long gone by then, the children would have been raised on a diet of nursery stories that taught them the dangers of venturing into wild places, the remnants of very necessary advice from those earlier times when careless children frequently got eaten.

Happy days!

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Don’t misunderstand me, I love these woodlands, and am very grateful I can get to them easily. Within them, for example, is this wonderful grove of oak trees. The oaks are not particularly old, probably around two hundred years I would imagine, but are stunningly beautiful. Some have branches thick with moss, all have wonderfully sculpted bark and all are home to huge numbers of creatures.

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Already one or two have a limb dropping to the ground for extra stability. And the grove as an ecosystem within the wider woodland is perfect – each tree is around twenty five meters from its neighbours, which appears perfect when I look at the size of the canopy of each tree: its branches just about meet the branches of its neighbours, but there is no sense of their growth being restricted. I wonder whether this is chance, the result of long centuries of naturally evolving woodland – when one tree dies and eventually falls, that newly-opened space exploited by another seedling, or perhaps intelligent planting by a long-forgotten landowner?

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Where the woods are managed, especially the cutting in those areas where the holly is spreading in dense swathes crowding out all other growth, there are stacks of cut logs and branches exploited by children (shrieking or otherwise) to make dens. None of them would keep out the weather, but that’s not really their point. What I particularly like about them, other than it’s good to find children who want to play in this environment, rather than just sit in front of a screen, is most of these dens end up resembling the skeleton of some fantastic monster. And although that hardly turns these woods into a wilderness, it does give them just the faintest frisson of excitement, especially in the gloom.

And reminds me I want to be in the wilderness…

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As is basic human nature, of course, the longer the restrictions (either imposed or of my own choosing) go on, the more I yearn for that wilderness.

Patience!