Mid-way through August we had rain, torrential rain and the persecuting temperatures fell dramatically. This was good news for wildlife and it is always fascinating to observe how quickly nature recovers itself. Within hours the streams were filled with water again and the grass was showing a verdant, fresh green. It is true that most of the wild flowers were over by now and the drought and heat had finished all but the most hardy of the late summer species. Survivors include various members of the thistle family, knapweed, mallow, common fleabane, mayweed and plantain. These plants can endure dry field conditions and tend to live in relatively poor, infertile soils. Plants like the Rayless Mayweed (commonly named the Pineapple Weed ) or the Plantain could be described as the down-trodden flowers of the countryside, overlooked because of their dowdy appearance, they grow on waste ground, the edges of fields and footpaths and people take them for granted. Yet these plants form part of the ecological fabric in otherwise inhospitable habitats and serve insects, for example, when other flowers are not available.
I always think that one of the first signs of the end of summer is the disappearance of Swifts from the sky. It always takes me by surprise, the absence of their shrill evening calls and scything aerobatics. They, like the other bird we associate with the coming of summer, the Cuckoo, leave early, sometimes even by late July. Ornithologists have distinguished different types of migration, firstly obligate migration, where the timing is under genetic control and may be governed by factors such as day length changes or breeding patterns. In the case of Swifts and Cuckoos the breeding is over and although food reserves may still be high they fly south. Interestingly, it has been estimated that often adult cuckoos may already be in southern Europe before off-spring are fledged from their foster parents. Adult Cuckoos will stop off in Europe before continuing to Africa. Swifts will also depart long before the food supply, mainly insects, runs short. This distinguishes them from facultative migrants, birds who will respond to prevailing conditions, typically they will begin migration if there is a shortage of food or a change in weather conditions. For example, we may see an increase in the number of Chaffinches in our gardens during a harsh winter, as continental birds join native flocks, seeking milder, temperate conditions with a more plentiful food supply. Fluctuations in population sizes at different times of the year can be attributed to these migrants and many species respond in this way. Generally, obligate migrants travel longer distances and there is a sense that they have to prepare more, particularly building up their body weight before setting off. Whatever the drivers of migration are, I always feel a slight feeling of loss when I realise the swifts have gone.
The wonderful compensations of this time of year, however, come in the form of the forager’s delight. Fruit on the trees and plants this year seems to have come very early, I saw blackberries ready for picking in July. There is a tradition that you should not pick the first berries, as they are bitter and so it is best to wait until mid-August at the earliest. Foraging puts us in connection with our roots, I think. It is an ancient activity and we know from archeological sites that people collected blackberries in prehistory; it is a way to feel kinship with our ancestors and picking fruit can also immerse us in nature, reminding us of our dependence on it. Seamus Heaney was a poet who was brought up in the Irish countryside, his family had been farmers for generations and his work is infused with a deep affinity for the ordinary rhythms of the natural world. His poem Blackberry Picking claims both the joi de vivre of childhood foraging and the darker menace that lies beneath the surface of nature. Here are the opening lines of the poem:
Late August, given heavy rain and sunSeamus Heaney
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen,
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
There is an ominous note in the words, ‘summer’s blood’ and the word ‘lust’ points to a loss of innocence. The delicious taste of the blackberry is summoned by the American poet Mary Oliver in her poem August, when she writes of:
the black honey of summer
into my mouth.
We took to the local hedgerows to pick our cache of blackberries and really there is hardly anywhere in Ewhurst that does not have enough brambles to supply us all. Foraging is compulsive, once you start picking it is impossible to pass a hedge without looking for more. Our best spot was the footpath leading back to Ewhurst from Lukyns Farm, the berries were plump but firm here and our hands soon became sticky with the black juice; Seamus Heaney, disturbingly, refers to ‘our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s’ in his poem and the congealing juice does feel like blood. Jackie used the berries to make sweet jam and an American dish called Blackberry and Elderflower Dump Cake. This was delicious, a cross between a crumble and a cookie, with fruit filling.
The time for comfort food draws nearer as there are many signs of Autumn coming, the nights are drawing in and September is just round the corner: we will see more migration soon and will begin to see winter arrivals. There is an earthy smell in the air, as warmth and cold vie with each other and suddenly there is a lot more avian activity, as the birds come out of their quiet season and the winter chatter begins.