This summer has been a bright one, full of sequinned gleaming and glistening, of turquoise, emerald, ruby and incomparable tourmaline, while light has been opalescent, translucent. Even on days with warm rains, sunlight teased and tricked the eye, bringing mountains at once nearer, to command, or further, veiled in ambiguity. And on those days in June and July even when cloud descended, light found a way to pierce the eye, necessitating sunglasses or shady hats.
Wildlife has flourished in this benign summer. The clamour of birdsong ceased for only a few short hours each day in June. How can such small hearts and lungs create such richness of sound? Many birds appear to have raised two clutches and hedge, meadow, hill and shore have been as busy as any London street. The ultimate sumptuousness, heralding summer’s ending and autumn’s advent, has been the royal purple as heather burst into flower in late August decanting heavy scent, yielding it to the warm, light breezes, intoxicating and inducing somnolence in us all.
But the heather’s blooming did not last long, flowers quickly turned from purple to dusty gold, and soon the first inklings of autumn appeared. Firstly the swallows gathered on wire to chatter and gossip, and on wing, chasing insect sustenance and calorific armour for the long voyage ahead. I watched them tidy summer’s nests, dip and flash across the river, swerve over the fields in aerobatic display and then, one morning, they had gone. And they are missed. The air is all the quieter for their departure, but the songs of remaining birds now fill the spaces, atmospheric and acoustic, that have materialised.
The most iconic and easily identified song in the garden and hedges belongs to the robin. Robins have had a good summer; all the feathered jousting has resulted in an abundance of young. And now their song is the first to be heard on these early, quiet days of autumn. For me, the robin’s song is heraldic; the jibber-jabber and hectic musicality of the summer visitors has subsided, and the early mornings are introduced by Sir Robin(s) with vim and vigour, and they do not disappoint. Yet that song, which at times is measured and wary, is telling us that the earth, air and waters are cooling down and that plant and insect are readying themselves for stasis or slumber. For me, the song evokes sadness, and I want autumn to hurry past.
Coinciding with hints of copper and gold and swallow’s fleeings, there was another early warning of autumn this August; an intense and powerful storm brewed out in the Atlantic and brought with it strong winds but worse, an unprecedented amount of rain in a short space of time. It resulted in flash flooding, landslides and river bursts across Wester Ross, including our own River Erradale. A positive effect was the deposition of fresh sediments over the top of the river banks along the lower fields, refreshing nutrient supply in some parts and flattening gorse in others. But overall, it was a shock and a reminder of the potential for weather to ‘upset the apple-cart’ of our complacency about nature and environmental change.
Blink in autumn and the colours of nature’s cloak transform. Around us the grasses turn to gold, bronze, burnt umber, red and purple, some becoming bleached of all colour and form as their empty flower and seed stalks crumble, others almost taking on new identities as greens are repainted. Purple moor grass becomes bleached blonde, and deer grass takes on the appearance of hidden fawns, beige and brown-tipped. Patches of bracken glow in russet finery. Hedges are stippled with blackberry and rosehip and woodlands with berry and nut. Surprisingly of all the trees, it is the delicate leaf tips of the birches that take on an autumnal tint, before oaks or beeches, even though they will not be the first to lose all their leaves. And hither and thither mushrooms and toadstools of varying size, shape and colour surprise us with their sudden appearances, sprouting here, opening there, often tucked alongside old logs, branches and fence posts.
Another Atlantic low over the last few days has brought strong winds, but no shocks, to coincide with equinoctial high tides and along the shore, sediments were moved and re-positioned. Any semblance of a ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ here in the remote north relies on a relatively quiet North Atlantic and strong Eurasian high pressure systems; we are in the midst of an atmospheric battle ground between warm, wet air and the colder, more settled continental masses, so fruits are hardy, mists take flight and even Autumn herself does not linger in the Highlands.