• S.A.D. or in the Pink?

A lonesome foxglove still pining for the summer we never had.  It’s seasonally disordered, but today’s a good day.


• Turning Trees

I’m never quite sure what to make of autumn.  Part of my spirit sinks, but another part is captivated by its combination of desolation and beauty.  This afternoon, I went for a walk in the wood, brushing against bracken that is now a dirty brown.  It’s a plant which my neighbours sometimes cut back during the summer or spray to kill it off.  I don’t like it much either, but even in its current state – flattened by the wind, broken-backed, fawning over the paths – it has its own qualities.  In sunlight, after rain, it can glow like amber.  Not today though.

Here are a few photos.  First – the chestnuts have lost most of their foliage, leaving a mix of green and orange to dapple the skyline.

On one edge of the wood there’s this multi-stemmed sallow, its feet planted firmly in a pond that disappears from time to time.  The rocks around are always covered in moss.  Mysterious…

The ash trees are the last to leaf in the late Spring, and the last to turn in the autumn.  Not yet, though.

The paths are unkempt.  The wind-driven yet stalwart hawthorn on the right has lost its leaves, its few remaining berries an important food source for the birds.  It is clothed in a variety of lichens, testament to the clear air.

Here’s more or less the same shot (but zoomed), taken at the end of May.

But close up, there is still colour now.  This dogwood clump is a riot of white berries with leaves which range from vivid green to a deep burgundy.  This year, four years after it was planted, I must cut it down almost to ground level so that when it regrows next year its stems will shine an even brighter red.

There are a few ornamental crab apples, but the crop of fruit here as elsewhere has been very poor.  The birds will need extra help this winter.

And, finally, this beech tree still glows, even against the grey sky.  All is not yet lost.  I can return indoors with my spirit refreshed.

• The Colour of Bracken

Bracken seems to have very little to commend itself.  It’s invasive and takes over where there is no animal grazing.  I used to think that it was a useless plant.  It’s certainly dangerous to many animals, as well as potentially harbouring deer and sheep ticks that can cause Lyme disease.  But it’s a food plant for the caterpillars of quite a few species of moth and butterfly, so it’s not all bad.

It appears in May, after the bluebells.  First there’s a little hoop in the grass, then – pwhang – it uncoils, straightens its back, and shoots up faster than you can say ho-ho-hum.  Before you know where you are, its jungles can tower above you.

However, autumn and winter present a different story.  I’ve been surprised how short-lived bracken is.  Here on the moor it starts turning in August and the decay accelerates through October.  Suddenly vistas open up, grassy paths become clearer.  Initially, this decay seems featureless, but I’ve learned to look out for something extraordinary. Between now and next April the bracken will provide the most beautiful array of colours and shapes.

At the moment, the stalks have turned pale lemon-yellow.  Later they’ll become dark, burnt orange to purple-black, often broken over mid-stem by the wind, creating a dramatic canvas of criss-crossing diagonals and verticals.  Some of the fronds have already gone a mid-brown, matt-dull, while others cling on to vestiges of their summer colour, freckled with age spots and yellows as the sap drains out.  But in the sunlight they glow as they die.  Best of all is the effect of a heavy shower of rain, which restores lifeless colours to a point of magnificent saturation.  At such moments one can almost forget, but not forgive, the pest that will spring forth and claim more territory next year.

• Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

Two Saturdays ago, I watched in awe as dozens and dozens of swallows and martins swooped and dived around and up and over the house in what looked like a last-minute feeding frenzy before migration.  Sure enough, they were gone the next day.  And walking on the moor to get the Sunday paper in the morning, there was a distinctly autumnal chill in the air and that smell of dank, decaying leaves in the lanes.  Then the winds hurried, the rain drove, the mists enveloped, thunder thudded and summer disappeared.

It’s been a pretty miserable year for butterflies here.  I’ve seen just one Common Blue, the occasional Comma and Small Tortoiseshell, and only a handful of Peacocks and Red Admirals at any one time (above, a ‘Red Ad’ feeding on late-flowering buddleia in the garden, the week before last).  One thrill was seeing a Silver-Washed Fritillary on the buddleia that same day.

The birds have been thriving in this wet weather.  Why they should descend on this particular patch after and during rain is a mystery, but blackbirds and thrushes drill in droves for worms and other underground morsels.  New visitors this year have been adult and juvenile Green Woodpeckers (above, photographed yesterday) and Great Spotted Woodpeckers.  The GWs are diligent diggers, while the GSWs are also curious about the hanging and window bird-feeders, which as usual are thronged with tits, finches, nuthatches, even robins, sparrows and dunnocks.  The occasional blue tit pops in through an open window to say hallo and there are sudden rushes of goldfinches, which are almost invisible when feeding on the grassy gravel.  The young male bullfinches are moulting now, revealing their fantastic orange-pink chests, while their father is going bald on top and ever whiter.  I haven’t seen the marauding sparrow hawk for several weeks.

Other visitors have included fallow deer, for the time being beyond the 4’ stock fences.  In the New Year, no doubt they’ll effortlessly hop over to eat the tasty buds of the witch hazels, azaleas and laurel like they did this February.  Highland cows and their calves are regular visitors to the village, waddling idly through, looking fierce but actually quite timid.  Some escaped recently while being herded down a nearby lane and left evidence of their heavy-hoofed adventure all the way up and down both sides of the drive.  Several bags of topsoil later …

The greatest excitement was the other day, when I went out foraging for blackberries two tors away.  I heard a rustling at my feet and, with a scramble up the bramble, there was a dormouse right in front of my eyes (not my picture).  It rested 18” away, facing across my line of vision, heart pumping, feathered tail twitching.  I did not dare move, nor did the dormouse.  It was my first ever sighting of the creature, and probably its of a human.  The stand-off lasted for over a minute, then it turned its back on me and ambled away along the thorny stems.

Back home, and a second forage later, I’d collected over 5kg of berries.  With the help of a few lemons, a strainer, 3kg of sugar and a boiling pan, they produced over a dozen jars of bramble jelly for the winter larder.  I would never have thought that I’d become interested in such harvesting.  In just over a month, it’ll be the turn of the rock-hard quinces in the garden, which are already putting out their sweet aroma as the mowing season begins (hopefully!) to draw to a close around them.

%d bloggers like this: