We have skipped past the start of astrological autumn and the equinoctial balancing of night and day and danced into October. Everything has changed: light, sounds, smells, colours. And the heavens delighted us all recently with a mystic, blood-red, super-moon eclipse to mark the lengthening and darkening of the night skies. It almost felt personal. In the past, feeling disconsolate at autumn’s approach, I have, perhaps, tried to hold on to summer, feeling hopeful when summer has clung to me. But this year our new season has been auspiciously heralded at night by moonlit and star-filled heavens, and by days of thick, moisture laden airs pouring over the landscape like golden syrup, rich, slow and succulent.
A deep inkiness has been gradually seeping into the white milk of high summer nights. In the wild north darkness is not threatening or depressing nor does it smother or enshroud us: with so few artificial lights the dark becomes a thing of joy and vivid beauty. On cloudless nights the Milky Way curves overheard like a broad and braided river of light, the moon reveals all the details of its rugged mountains, seas and caverns of cheese, and the western post-sunset sky glows livid orange and turquoise, like neon strip-lighting in London’s Tate Modern. And the Northern Lights tease wickedly, flickering and shimmering like flags in a stiff breeze. They ought to be noisy, these coruscating energies, but they are as silent as the shooting stars which flash out their last seconds in streaking white fire. It is silent enough for me to hear bat’s wings and moths fluttering, and little scuttlings in the hedgerow bottoms. At night, and even during the day, there is much to love and look for in autumn’s approach, so I should not be melancholy.
Recently, strangely, our early autumn has been breezy and warm, warmer than in ‘high summer’. Such golden, heady days have been good for us: they have quickly dried out the croft fields turning them into egg-custard smoothness sprinkled with cinnamon as stubble has bleached slowly in the sunshine. In places the grasses and meadow flowers have not been cut: small patches here and there left to provide food for birds who are now moving south in ever growing numbers. Terracotta seed heads of sorrel, burnt-umber plantains, ground-ginger rushes, pale peach and ochre grasses have together painted the machair as a salad of Mediterranean hues, like shadows playing across an Italian palazzo in afternoon heat. Perhaps this works to remind the migrating birds of where they are going or what they should look out for on their long journeys south.
On the hills the heathers are gradually losing their bold purples and violets: flowers fade and turn soft peach, while tight furled green leaves begin to brown. Mountain swards are transforming too. Some patches have become bleached like the stubbled fields, others deepen in hue and tone. Deer grass tussocks are opening out and turning brown like the coat of a red deer hind, parted to reveal the speckled paleness of her under-fur. And tangled amongst the heathers, leaves of tormentil are turning red like delicate bracelets made of rubies and garnets dropped accidentally by the faerie. Plumped up by moisture Sphagnum moss glows in a panoply of green, ochre and claret. And hidden deeper in this moss-moor-world, like magic, tiny plum coloured berries of bog-rosemary rest.
Along the shore below the croft, autumn’s colourful onset is even more evident. Russet, orange and cream seaweed tagliatelle is served among the boulders while on the sands titian strings of mermaid’s tresses are combed and arrayed with auburn ‘feathers’ of dabberlocks and sugar kelp. It all looks so tasty. Above the strandline seed-heads of sorrel stand tall like flames, iron-rust red and horse-chestnut brown. Here, at the margins of the world, autumn is burning brightly.
And yet in the woodlands, only the silver birches are betraying summer. Splashes of yellow paint dapple their fine, shimmering greenery. Here and there, in colder hollows of wooded valleys, the long wavering larch tresses are beginning to change from deep green to orange and ochre, but oak and beech are keeping tight hold of their summer leaves, rather like me. There is still sun to be had, warmth even. Our summer months were so cold and wet that these recent weeks of golden, honeyed haze and gentle warm breezes have been like tonic added to our gin mix of heady scents: heather, bog myrtle, dried grasses, ozone-laden sea foams and ripening hedgerow fruits.
On the croft, across the fields and ditches, clouds of little birds rush about, settling as they feed, chattering and twittering. What jibber-jabber and news is to be had as new migrants come and go. Brightly spotted and shiny starlings arrive noisily, settling on wires and gossiping raucously before setting off again. Occasional gulps of swallows swoop and dive, feeding as quickly as the gyrating airs allow: are they long distance fliers from the ice-lands of the Northern Lights? They are late to the great journeying south. Our swallows left the byre two weeks ago. I can sympathise with them, however: I am always ‘last minute’ to any task.
In spite of their collective chitter-chatter, honking songs and cheerful whistling, the fields are much quieter than in high summer. The need for calories is driving activity now alongside the growing and urgent sense that the world is changing all about us.
Above the fields, like windborne squadrons of raiders from the north, geese honk and glide in wedges, landing in guffawing gaggles in the valley fields. Their calls are powerful and persuasive releasing in me a renewed surge of melancholy, but they won’t stay long. The croft fields are like a motorway service station stop on their journey south to smooth, glassy, food-filled estuarine winter holidays. They feed vigorously and rest. At some hidden, unseen signal, using a sense so alien and lost to humans that it is at once indescribable and formidable, they lift and rise slowly, slowly, over the hills to disappear from view.
Of course, who am I kidding with words about a lingering summer? Myself only? Autumn is rushing towards us, heralded at first by the jet stream in high, thin, white ripples of pearlescent clouds with rainbowed, iridescent edges. And within this golden late-September to early-October there have been sharp reminders of the wickedness to come: odd days when winds have blown hard and wet, smacking and flattening, when clouds have crossly dumped their contents and quickly filled ditches and burns. Then the Red River pulses and foams with dark red-brown autumnal waters and the river banks are drowned for a time, temporarily creating an underwater world.
But for now, the wildness is held at bay. Just as quickly, the surging waters settle, calm is restored, and the fields begin to dry again. Dragonflies flit across the glistening pools of water and along the ditches, birds swoop and catch insects on the wind, bees and wasps hum, and there is enough blue sky to make a sailor’s shirt. We have summer days for just a while longer. Each one greets us with water-colourist’s hazy hues in Indian yellow, scarlet and carmine and bids farewell in a riot of rich, thick oil paints: crimson, rose-madder and magenta.
But, eventually, as evening dusk slowly smooths out the day, the Red River becomes invisible, submerged in a rising mist, and as the neon glow sinks to the west, a bellyaching roar rips through the air. A stag. The rut has begun. I can no longer kid myself. Summer has flown away. Wild, glorious autumn is here.