On September 1st, the start of meteorological autumn, many of us have turned our thoughts to the approaching mellow fruitful bounty and changing colours and we have begun to contemplate the cold, misty days to come. I am always sad at this time of year. I know I should love it like others seem to do but in this intermediate stage between summer’s ending and autumn’s fullest glory, all I feel is a sense of impending bereavement, feeling the loss before it happens. I will be fine once this twilight summertime is over and Autumn has truly begun.
We have not had summer in the wild Highlands, or at least not a ‘proper’ summer with more than one or two consecutive days of sunny heat, sunglasses and sun cream. During this first September week the north winds blew hard and cold. Our weather over the last few months has been exceptionally wet and unforgiving; the flowering of grasses and herbs has been delayed and hay growth has been poor. The worst summer for 45 years some say. And so the likelihood of a tough Autumn is all the greater but I am prepared; I have new storm pegs for my washing. They are as hard and tough as the weather and as colourful as the new season!
Yet maybe buying new pegs worked magic in some way; like the times you forget an umbrella and it rains, or you remember sun cream and storm clouds appear. As soon as I’d opened this new packet of pegs the winds dropped, rain clouds vanished and blue skies arrived. Most wonderfully, over the last few days we have been visited by the sun… a hot, bright, resplendent, “Indian Summer” sun.
Everywhere has been shimmering in a golden glow. I seem to have been looking at the world through spectacles whose lenses were made of precious gemstones. The landscape has been transformed, made of gold and amber and beyond price. Each day this past week was calm, with air as thick as honey, dripping and seeping over, and into, everything.
There is something altogether different about September light even on days of wind and rain, but this little reprise has been exceptionally bright and warm. It made me drowsy and seemed to slow the heartbeat of the landscape around us, all of us moving as if half asleep. And at times it was hard to breathe. Heather is in full bloom though the flowering has been much later than usual. The hillsides began to bruise just as August ended. Greens began to give way to the purple, violet, bronze and umber of the heathers, rushes and grasses, crimson tinged leaves of tormentil and other herbs, the dying dryness of flower petals, bobbing of seed heads, and the copper and rust of bracken.
In this golden interval the croft fields have been full and busy though strangely hushed. Armies of small birds, songless and single minded, have been feeding intently on seeds and insects, driven by deep instinct to gather, collect. A harvest if you like. Yet though avian voices have been quiet, and missed, the whole place has been thrumming. In hedges, vegetable plots, ditches and river banks an insistent humming of lazy tunes and slow dances has been heard in the windless, treacle thick air. It is almost all that can be perceived, this fizzing and droning of bees, flies and other insects. And through the flaxen stillness morning fogs have merged with diaphanous wings, thickening the airs still further, as dragonflies have danced, bees have bounced and midges have swished and swayed.
Each morning in this calm spell I have woken to a dew drenched world. Mists slowly rising from the fields have slurped up the mountain sides to eventually disappear for the day. Left behind, forgotten perhaps, millions and millions of tiny water droplets stuck onto everything like sequins on a ballroom dancer’s frock.
On gorse bushes, heather, in the grasses and rushes, across the flowers and seed heads spider’s webs appeared: gem-studded, diamond encrusted and matching the star studded nights for bejewelled splendour. Some were upright, spiralled like gateways, others festooned like fishermen’s nets or fairy hammocks, others like tiny handcrafted doilies.
They were everywhere, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them; with each step I wrought havoc, destroying the finest filigree and most delicate lacework. Immediately I passed by, the spiders set to work again. Even later in the day the strands were everywhere, some flying about in the gently wafting warmth, set loose by careless feet or sailing by with spidery captain, rainbow coloured, shimmering and catching on faces, hair and eyelashes like ghostly caresses, trailing gold like the sugar work of a skillful chef.
In the little croft woodland the noise of buzzing and humming was loudest, though even here in the late afternoon heat all fell quiet. Almost hidden, but given away by their reflective bodies and wings, glinting blue and green and shiny black, were flies. Completely still, as if napping, they seemed to be bathing in the near-red light and soaking up the sun and the heat which radiated out from the bark of the pine trees. I have never seen flies like this, so completely still and utterly quiet. And for just a short moment I almost liked them for their restfulness and their capacity for enjoying the sun, heat and golden day just as we do.
On that same red afternoon, across the field, perched on the fence post sat a raptor, also immersed in the quiet and tranquility, all needs put aside as his feathers warmed, glowing like fire. What was he thinking?
Higher than the languorous humming in fields and woods the sky has still been busy. Our swallows have been preparing for their grand expeditions to southern lands. The martins, wheatears, stonechats and many other summer visitors left us some time ago, yet the swallows have remained. The wicked summer months have been very hard on all young birds and while last year most raised two broods, this time the swallow’s nests in the byre have been much quieter. I do not know what the total loss of young has been, but each nest has ended up with only one or two youngsters. Food supplies have been very poor. Late summer growth in fields and woodland, on the hills and along the river banks, the lack of warmth, the continued cold rains have disturbed the ‘normal’ supplies of insect food and disrupted their timeliness. But during this last week, a sudden bounty of seeds and insects have enabled a restocking and rebuilding of strength in swallow’s hearts and bodies. There has been a frenzy of feeding on the wing; a joyous chattering, babbling and chortling in swooping, cavorting adamantine displays of lapis lazuli, sapphire, obsidian and flashes of pale cream and azurite. The preparations are nearly complete, they will leave us soon.
I am at a loss to explain why a sadness takes over me. Perhaps that is just it: I am at a loss or rather, I am ‘at the losses’, the many leavings, the south-flyings. I know there is more to come; the dying, the subsidence, the decay. Even the beloved summer dawn chorus is no more. Now there are songs of melancholy, separation and loss in quiet laments of farewell and longing, or so they seem to me. I know these songs; the robins are singing of territorial boundaries and ownership, but they are filled with sadness, as if they, too, are feeling the absences.
But higher still, as these northern Indian summer skies have darkened, the cloudless nights have, for just a few days this week, been illuminated by different gifts from the sun. Not the amber warmth, but cold greens of jade and malachite, wavering in intensity, curtained, flowing and utterly silent. Our summer, white nights have gone. The Northern Lights are here. The Autumn equinox approaches.