As I look at the sky at the beginning of September I notice something special in its light, a clear blue freshness.There is a new clarity in the air, which is in tune with the turning of the season and the slight chill in the early morning and at twilight. At sunset it is almost as if the golden light has been captured by the trees and clings to them, radiating a warm, weird glory. A couple of days after Keats composed his ode To Autumn he wrote a letter to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds:
How beautiful the season is now-How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really without joking, chaste weather-Dian skies-I never lik’d stubble fields so much as now-better than the chilly green of spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm-in the same that some pictures look warm-This struck me so much in my sunday’s walk that I upon it. I hope you are better employed than in gaping after the weather.John Keats
21st September 1819
The impetuous richness of Keat’s imagination shines in this letter, no time to punctuate the inspirations, he just puts dashes. I read this letter every September as it captures what for me is the quintessence of Autumn and I never tire of its evocation of the ‘chaste weather.’
Schools have gone back now and there is a bitter-sweet paradox as children lament the end of their, extended, summer holiday, as well as feeling the excitements of new beginnings. C.S Lewis, who spent his entire life in academic institutions, was able to empathise with the child’s unhappiness at returning to boarding school:
The first part of the journey, when they were all together, always seemed to be part of the holidays; but now when they would be saying good-bye and going different ways so soon, everyone felt their term-time feelings beginning again, and they were all rather gloomy and no one could think of anything to say.C.S Lewis (Prince Caspian)
Walking in Ewhurst, with the light-hearted feeling of not returning to school or work (sorry all of you who have to put up with what Philip Larkin calls the ‘Toad work’) I have been noting the way in which the fruits and berries have been burgeoning. Last month we collected blackberries and these are still plentiful; this month there have been sloe berries, which we use to make sloe gin, hopefully ready for Christmas. It is interesting that two of the most popular forager’s berries are both closely guarded by sharp thorns.These though do not seem to act as a deterrent to berry collectors. We had seen sloes growing in the hedgerows near Bramblehurst Farm but had nothing to collect them in; returning a few days later we were dismayed that the bushes had been stripped. Luckily we found plenty off a nearby and less well frequented path. One point of interest is that sloe berries contain traces of hydro-cyanide in their stones; it is not a good idea to eat the berries, although small quantities are unlikely to harm humans and I presume that sloe gin does not retain the poison. Foraging does always come with a health warning and this particularly as we come into the mushroom and toadstool season.
I have seen lots of fungi, which rapidly appear at this time of year. The most familiar are field mushrooms, a tasty addition to any keen collector’s trug. Another common field mushroom that is edible before its black spores explode is the Shaggy Inkcap; a conicle shaped, cream coloured mushroom that is found in damp spots in many fields. It has a mild taste and can be fried or grilled; I remember collecting them avidly as a young boy but my own tastes have changed and I now find them a bit sickly.
As I now write we are nearing the end of September and, after what can only be described as an Indian Summer, the weather has changed. Yesterday new Covid measures were announced as the spread of the disease increases once again; we have avoided another lockdown but it still looms on the horizon. Many said it was not a coincidence that the fine weather ended at the same time. I did, however, see a remarkable wildlife drama which will remain memorable in a different way. A Red Kite flew lazily over the wood near Mapledrakes Road, drifting on the thermals, its russet feathers reflecting in the afternoon sunlight. They are big birds, majestic masters of the sky one would think and I feel glad that their population has recovered after years of persecution and that they are making their presence felt in our village. This, though, was not a sentiment shared by our local colony of Jackdaws, three of them started mobbing the kite mercilessly, chasing it across the sky for several minutes. I don’t think the three Jackdaws together would equal the size of the kite but this didn’t seem to matter to them and the bird of prey was sent packing. What also interested me was the way the rest of the jackdaw colony became excited, all uttering a scolding cry, and left their roost en mass; it was as if the birds were able to communicate the situation to each other from a distance. I remember writing about a similar incident earlier this year and I think there is much research to be done on the social interactions of corvids. The Jackdaws live in the great Oak trees that line the gardens of Mapledrakes Road; these trees formed the boundary of the glebe land in times when the church owned this area. This means that the oaks are many hundreds of years old and of the original trees only a few remain. It is also probable that the jackdaw colony goes back into history, although there are no records to prove this. In themselves the oaks provide habitat for myriad creatures both great and small; the interdependence of these species living in old trees has its roots in the biologically diverse environment that such habitats richly offer.
It is unfortunate that Cobbler’s Brook has experienced serious contamination this month. The problem appears to originate near The Avenue and Thames Water and The Environment Agency have been trying to establish the source. There have been reports of dead fish in the stream and clearly whatever is happening is a hazard to both humans and wildlife. This kind of pollution has a profound influence on the delicate ecosystems in water courses and has potentially harmful ramifications on wildlife in the immediate vicinity of the stream. Last month the water level in Cobbler’s Brook was extremely low, which meant that fish and other species were marooned and lacking in oxygen. There was a respite as we had a period of heavy rain and the water level was, to some extent, restored. Since there has been low precipitation and the stream has dried up in places; furthermore, if there is a pollutant in the water it will be more concentrated and less easily flushed away. In August I observed Crayfish in abundance: today I went to several spots along the stream and saw none.
The pollution of the brook will have a knock-on effect as the food chain extends beyond the banks of the water and contaminants are passed from one animal to another as they predate on each other. It is salutary to remark that this happens on a wider scale in many rivers throughout the country. For example, in areas where rivers flow through arable farmland pesticides and insecticides leach out of the soil, entering the water course. In this way chemicals kill aquatic life, as well as insects and other creatures on the land. Our spillage into rivers still has devastating results, although we have been learning lessons since major pollution began in the early nineteenth century, turning rivers like the Thames into open cess-pits. William Blake was one of many visionary poets who wrote warnings for us to heed; his poem London portrays a city of misery, a misery of man’s own making:
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice; in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear
How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls
But most thro’ midnight streets I hearWilliam Blake
How the youthful harlot’s curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the marriage-hearse.
Our midnight streets may be equally dangerous as the poison today is often invisible.
To happier notes. My daughters are no lover of spiders and prepare for Autumn with some dread, as this is the time when these harmless creatures make a major appearance on the Sellwood family stage. They have heard myths about the efficacy of using conkers as a tool of arachnid dissuasion and so gather handfuls from under horse chestnut trees and place them liberally near every entry hole in the house. Result: the same number of spiders creep past the barrier and cause the same degree of consternation, with the cry ‘Dad!’ sounding down the corridors. The House Spider is the big brute that usually lurks in corners, scuttling out to surprise us just as we are going to bed. He is not, however, in the house to scare us humans but on much more exciting amorous business. Spiders mate in the autumn and the males, which are more nomadic, are on the search for suitable females. A roving lover looking for the glad eye of a bonny lass. Houses provide a comfortable refuge for the mating creatures and it seems a bit unfair that we try to spoil their fun; I will forbear making any analogies at this point! Incidently the idea that conkers give off chemicals that spiders find noxious, in some accounts causing mortality within a day, has never been scientifically proved but if my children find it consoling I’m not about to disabuse them of this belief.
Crane flies, more often known as Daddy long legs, also make an appearance in the early autumn. I was walking up Hilly Field near Yard Farm and noticed that the grass was teeming with these insects. Like the spiders they are intent on mating in the ten to fifteen days of life they have and so there is a desperate scramble to find a mate and then lay eggs. Their life is so sex-oriented that they do not eat during this time, relying on the energy they have stored as larvae. The larvae are called leather jackets, a rather maggoty looking creature which are deemed a garden pest as they chew the roots of grass, vegetables and other plants. As with everything, these same bugs provide many birds with an important part of their diet. They are aptly named creatures, their tough, black external skins make it easy to imagine them on tiny, high-powered motor bikes, racing through the countryside, reminding me bizarrely of Thom Gunn’s poem, On the Move:
On motorcycles, up the road, they come:Thom Gunn
Small, black, as flies hanging in heat, the Boys,
Until the distance throws them forth, their hum
Bulges to thunder held by calf and thigh.
Maybe it is the flies in the simile or maybe I just like the way Gunn always melds the contemporary world and nature but the jackets have got my mind buzzing.
More territorial behaviour in our garden today. Three Wrens on the front lawn, each trying to assert its authority and establish dominance. Two things are strange; firstly, why would this be happening at this time of year, when breeding has well and truly finished? My guess is that the birds are establishing feeding rights, as they are focused on building up reserves of fat to keep them going through the winter. There is still plenty of food available, although the shorter days, colder nights and end of the growing season will all be exerting pressures on the species that depend upon seeds, insects and worms. The second unusual point is that wrens are generally solitary and seeing three together is unusual. I did ,however, discover from Mike Toms’ recent, excellent book on garden birds that wrens will roost together in groups during the winter months and this is probably a way of conserving heat and preserving energy levels. Mortality rates for small birds, due to food shortage, are very high and so any way to keep warm is beneficial.
Whilst we are on the subject of bird populations I will add an observation; in watching garden birds I have noticed that the dull coloured birds like wrens or dunnocks, for example, tend to be solitary and are often found in the undergrowth, rather than in the open, whilst the birds with bright plumage, chaffinches, blue and great tits, goldfinches for example, are gregarious and feed in groups, sometimes in considerable numbers. The solitary birds camouflage themselves as protection against predators and the dull colours blend in with background. Birds that flock rely on their numbers to protect them and it has been shown that several species post sentinel birds who warn the others of danger. Weaker, less dominant birds will often be relegated to the margins where they are more vulnerable; survival of the species is harsh and it does speak well for humanity that we tend to favour looking after the weak and vulnerable, rather than sacrificing them. There are exceptions to this, of course, such as house sparrows, which are brown and live in colonies but there might be a pattern which some PhD hungry student could follow up, that is assuming that such a study is not already gathering dust in the basement of the Bodleian.
We took a walk on Michaelmas Day, *(29th September) through Canfold Wood, where there has been a lot of felling in the upper wood, much of it because of Ash dieback (chalara) which has ravaged Ash trees in this country since 2006. It is caused by the fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, which releases thousands of spores into the air, which stick to the leaves of the tree, eventually entering the rest of its system. The leaves wilt and go a black-brown colour and then the water carrying xylem become blocked, which starves the tree of water and nutrients. It is expected that we will lose 80% of our Ash trees, which will have a profound effect on our landscape, comparable to the impact of Dutch Elm disease. There is some good news, some of our ash trees appear resistant to the fungus and it is likely the survivors will be able to regenerate the population, although this will take many years. Upper Canfold Wood looks bare today but open spaces between the remaining trees will give opportunites for new flora and fauna to come in and it will be interesting to see how species adapt to the changes. It is really a case of watching this space.
On the other side of Bookhurst Road the Lower Canfold Wood does not have the same number of Ash trees and in fact in part is managed conifer plantation. The main threat to this unique area of woodland seems to be plans to sell it to developers, although I have not heard whether the planned auction of the land went ahead. Clearly this would constitute a disastrous habitat loss and would change the environmental ecology of the area forever.
The path returning to Ewhurst passes through delightful mixed woodland and there was a “feel” of autumn in the air, as some of the trees are changing colour and falling in the breeze. As I said earlier this is a time of the year to look for fungi, the combination of wetter and still warm weather giving the optimum conditions for the spores to germinate. Woodlands are often excellent habitats because many fungi live off the rotting wood and I was keeping a look-out when I came across a clump of Sulphur tuft mushrooms, with the scientific name Hypholoma fasciculare. As you can guess the fungi are a bright sulphur yellow in colour and grow in clumps. They can be seen in woods at almost any time of the year but are most abundant between June and November. They grow on rotting wood and are not edible, having a bitter taste which has been known to cause serious stomach pain and very occasionally death. I will be looking out for an even greater variety of fungi in October.
On the last day of September it is wet and windy. I like walking in the rain and find the sound of wind in trees exhilarating, so I decided to walk down to the Cobbler’s Brook wood late in the afternoon. It was what poets describe as the gloaming, when the half light plays tricks on your vision and you can easily imagine spirits in the wood darting from trunk to trunk. I met no fairies but the atmosphere created by rain pattering on the leaves and the wind stirring the branches is unique.
Cobbler’s Brook is now a babbling stream but I have not been able to determine whether the pollution source has been sorted out. On the one hand, the greater flow of water should dilute any toxins, whilst on the other, this greater flow can mean pollutants travel more quickly and efficiently downstream. As with Canfold Wood the turning of the trees is very evident, with leaves like Silver Birch changing to a pale lemon and oaks to a tawny orange. It is a prelude to the full glory of autumn, which will unfold in October.
*Michaelmas Day is often passed unnoticed these days. My diary notes all the significant dates of the year but makes no mention of it. Robert McFarlane has gathered “country words” which are slipping out of use in his book Lost Words. He was shocked when he noticed a child’s dictionary had omitted common words like, acorn or bramble placing technological words in their place. Seeing this as part of our disjunction from the natural world he set about rehabilitating old words threatened with going out of usage and created his charming book as a result. Michaelmas Day celebrates St Michael, not surprisingly, who is the archangel who cast the devil or Lucifer as he was then, out of Heaven after he led a rebellion against God. Milton’s Paradise Lost vividly describes the fallen angels and the creation of hell. Folklore also picks up on this, adding that Satan landed on a blackberry bush, cursing, he spat on the berries, which is why you are not supposed to eat blackberries after 29th September.