Vivid Glories of Autumn

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
The glorious colours of Autumn and the wild-life in the countryside.

Submitted: October 05, 2014

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Submitted: October 05, 2014

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Vivid Glories of Autumn

 

The risen sun has yet to sweep the dew of dawn from the grass, and a slight chill stabs the air. Deep shadows mar the lanes where sunbeams fail to penetrate the dense canopy of elms and sycamores, which now show the tints of autumn. 

Blackberries and sprays of glistening fruit hang from every thorny bough, to pierce with their pricks of light the shadowed pockets of vegetation. Just as the blackberry colonises the ground, so it is itself colonised by a wide range of insect and bird life, most of which are to be seen now during the fruiting season.  

Blackbirds feast upon the berries and then wipe their bills upon the leaves to rid themselves of the seeds. Those that swallow the pips, eventually discard them in their droppings. Once established, the bramble spreads vigorously.  

The blackbird is Britain’s most common bird (challenged numerically only by the chaffinch). This bird of hedgerow, shrubbery and thicket, is black of hue with an orange-tawny bill.  The male is handsome, with glossy-black plumage, crocus-yellow eye-ring and beak, which is in marked contrast with the hen’s umber-brown colouring.

As if torn between the seasons, within the dark angles of the bramble bush, pale yellow honeysuckle twines forever upwards, spilling its fragrance upon the air. Batches of round, bright-red berries are displayed upon the shrub in autumn and, although attractive to birds, are unpalatable to humans and should never be eaten.  These fruits were once crushed and applied to bee stings, or made into wreaths with the leaves of spurge-laurel, yew and elder, and hung about the house to keep away the maddening flies.

Ox-eye daisies are bathed in the light of any early autumn sun and glisten against the shade of blackened foliage.  When seen flowering together on some sunny bank, or in rough, grassy meadows, they form white sheets of gently nodding bloom. The flower holds its simple, yet beautiful white and golden head at the tip of a wiry stem.  Its blooms abound in the countryside, appearing from early June and lasting well into late September.  At night, or during bad weather, the flowers close.  Pulling off the petals of an ox-eye, whilst reciting the words - he loves me, he loves me not - is still a familiar charm. 

Come late October, small groups of departing Swallows tell more plainly than fading leaves that autumn is with us.  Shortening days and colder nights, together with a lack of insects, apprise these tiny travellers they must go. It is not without feelings of regret when I watch them, for their presence recalls the happy days of summer not long past. Most of the Warblers will have already gone, their sweet songs but sunny memories.

Like many writers before me, I wish I had thought of the words penned by John Keats: “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, close bosom friend of the maturing sun,” for they so exactly describe October and November- the crown princes of autumn. No other collection of words so aptly describes the feeling I get when watching the leaves changing colour.

Looking at the beautiful hues of red, burnished gold and rusty brown, it is hard to imagine how the trees could bear to part with such finery, but part they must as the supply of life-giving sap is withdrawn and the leaves drift down to provide nourishment for a whole world of tiny creatures below.

The trees, however, still retain much of their beauty, and the varying tints serve to reflect the brightness of that season now dead. One finds it difficult to know which to admire most; for variety of colouring, the beech is, to my mind, unsurpassed, those standing on the outskirts of the woods being first to fire the conflagration.

Elms assume a yellowish tint in their upper branches, which quickly spreads over the whole tree, and when viewed in the mellow autumn sunshine, are certainly very beautiful. The birch, too, calls for special admiration; likewise the oak, though many of the latter, at present, are only just showing signs of autumn’s touch.

As the leaves fall, so the ground below becomes strewn with these fragments of summer, each in its way individually fascinating; every day, in fact, sees a fresh crop gathered to the great barn of the earth. Within the woods, a still deeper tint of russet lies beneath the beeches, and even the very air is made aromatic by the decaying vegetation all around.

In places, a smoky mistiness appears to hang about many of the hedgerows. Closer inspection reveals this to be the feathery seed-heads of the wild clematis or traveller’s joy as it’s more commonly known; these delicate plumes have a gloss upon them, and seen in the low rays of the setting sun, reflect varied golden-amber tints.

In the hedge bottoms there is an air of bustle and excitement as the inhabitants prepare for the unknown trials of the coming winter. Fat insects help to make fat hedgehogs, and fat hedgehogs survive hibernation, to emerge in the spring thin but alive. So there is grim competition. It is nature’s law that only the fittest shall survive; she is constantly searching for perfection and so the quadrille of natural selection dances on. I am rather fond of hedgehogs! I love to watch them shuffle and sniff along the hedge bottoms.

November marks the Celtic ‘Samain’, a month long associated with the cult of the dead.  In pagan times, massive bonfires were lit to ensure the sun’s safe return after winter’s death.  It was believed that, as the flames licked into the sky, the sun-god grew stronger.  It was a month when all natural laws were suspended, and spirits, ghosts and demons roamed.  Echoes of these ancient beliefs may still be sensed in the quiet depths of a damp, deserted November lane, its death-like hush being broken only by the occasional sound of a startled bird.

The reluctant sun rises like a feeble lantern over a grey landscape, illuminating the countless drops of moisture, which hang poised from every leaf and twig. The sweet chestnut tree, once resplendent in golden foliage, thrusts its dripping, bare-branched skeleton towards the frosty sky. The arrival of a squirrel jolts the beads of water and send them pattering like a shower of rain on to the carpet of amber, yellow and umber-brown leaves below.  

This common, yet stately tree may grow to a height of 120 feet and lives for a long time, sometimes achieving a life-span of five hundred years. As the chestnut ages, its bark becomes deeply furrowed and twists in a characteristic spiral movement around the trunk.  The low November sun casts heavy shadows over the bark, illuminating every ridge and furrow, bringing out the full glory of the design, a pattern that rises forever upwards like the intricate tracery of some medieval Gothic cathedral.  The Romans introduced the tree into England two thousand years ago. 

As chestnuts drop softly to the ground, the squirrel, who thrives among the tree’s upper crown of twisting branches, busily gathers the nut harvest, nibbling at some, yet burying the majority for winter use.  The diurnal habits of this mischievous little rodent make it well known to all who roam the countryside. The creature’s erratic, nervous movements reflect the unease with which it leaves the safety of branches.  Any slightest disturbance whilst it is on the ground is enough to send it scurrying up the nearest tree-trunk.  The rodent’s name is derived from the Old French word escurel, meaning shadow-tail.

The dew, which appears to have fallen mysteriously from the skies, yet vanishes so quickly, was once supposed to have magical significance, and symbolized man’s earthly existence - precious and soon gone.Its presence refreshes the early morning, highlighting delicate lacy webs with its myriad points of light. Craneflies flounder into these jewelled traps and then struggle violently, attempting to regain freedom. The spider’s snare is constructed of silk, produced from spinnerets at the rear of its abdomen.

The doubting November light, which is to herald autumn’s dying, illuminates the last of her glories – the flash of a pheasant’s iridescent plumage glimpsed across waterlogged plough-land, or the handful of wild flowers: yarrow and scarlet pimpernel, which dare to risk their blooms against the cruel savagery of this frosty month.  

The male pheasant has a mottled chestnut plumage shot with orange, and flecked with black. Its metallic green neck is handsomely marked with a white collar, and holds proud a distinctive head, displaying two ear tufts which, during courtship of the dun-coloured hen, become rigid and stand upright like horns.  The chicks are mottled in colour, a disguise which helps conceal them from the ever-watchful eyes of their enemies - chiefly foxes and weasels.

A few trees keep their covering until the end of the month, the ash and the noble oak, plants so native to these islands that without their presence England simply would not be England.

The large spreading crown of the ash shows up best in winter. Melancholy groups of seeds, known as ash keys (because they were thought to resemble medieval lock-keys) can be seen on the tree’s bare branches, hanging limply downwards like silhouetted bats.  They remain with the ash tree until scattered by the March winds.  Ash saplings readily grow on barren ground and are commonly found within hedgerows and along the sheltered margins of old stone walls. Ash wood is both supple and closely grained, resisting shock without splintering.

It is fitting that England’s traditional tree is also her most numerous.  The noble oak that takes pride of place among our native trees, and has long been the object of special veneration. The great strength and natural durability of the oak’s timber was utilised in the keel, frame and ribs of all ships, from the foundation of Alfred’s first English Navy to the massive men of war of Nelson’s fleet. 

The old saying: two hundred years growing, two hundred years staying, and two hundred years dying, reflects the fine age which oaks can achieve.  However, the average life-span is usually about two hundred and fifty years. As the oak grows taller and stouter, it may become host to ivy or mistletoe.  Older trees eventually fall victim to fungal attack that slowly eat into the oak’s heartwood, creating a zone of rot, which finally cripples the upper branches and brings the crown crashing down under its own weight.

The oak is also the corner-stone of the wildlife of this country, for in its dense foliage live more forms of insect life than in any other native tree, and on this abundance of creepy-crawlies lives a host of animals and birds.

For me, just as a delicate pencil sketch can give as much pleasure as a magnificent oil-painting, so it is with the November scene; the vivid scarlet of wayside rose hips, the glinting sparkle of those spider webs and the crunch of frosty ground are comparable with any of Nature’s past glories.


 


© Copyright 2019 Margaret Snowdon. All rights reserved.

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