Last week I flew south to Paris, chasing warmth on the tail feathers of a skein of geese. I have family there: my eldest child, his wife and baby boy. I was greeted by skitterish clouds and showers though I expected brightness. C’est la vie, n’est-ce pas? Expecting something and then not getting it! Instead I found greater treasure: a small boy, now 18 months old, chattering away like the geese who have been temporarily landing on the croft fields for their rest, roll-call and swift feed. No, more like the wind-blown, tumbling gangs of small birds blown from trees to hedges to fields all a-twittering and laughing, vibrant and colourful.
It is a strange, unsettling business this flying from one place to another. Yet the geese manage it, other long-distance feathered migrants manage it! I know cities, I enjoy them, and their 24 hour access to everything, but moving from wide expanses of relatively silent sky and sea to be dropped speedily into the centre of hustling, bustling gaggles of people, vehicles, lights and noise is dizzying. (Do the geese feel this deep sense of translocation and disorientation?) The sensations felt in the “almost-tunnels” between buildings whose architecture constantly makes you look up, walking through a soup of dusty air, bumping like skittles into people who know exactly, determinedly, where they are going, is nerve-tingling. More overwhelming than the sheer number of people, traffic, the taste of mineral grit or the speed of movement, are the soundscapes. Geese stopping on my fields have few other noises to contend with but their own. Stags at the rut maybe. But here, in Paris, noise thrusts deeply into the mind and body and it is exhausting.
Voilà. Late October found us in the company of family, surrounded by a lot of laughter and a panoply of autumn colours and sensations, yet wholly led by an almost random, directionless yet excitable, adventurous little mind as he chased along paths of discovery through leaves and between trees. For a small boy on his ‘Velo’ the adventure and freedom, after the confines of a city apartment, is more than palpable. And I feel the same way myself.
Autumn in the city is very different. The parks still glimmer with yellow, orange, russet and red; rooftops reflect the low, late afternoon sun; the crunching of leaves is de rigueur; nuts and fruit are bountiful and the varieties countless.
City parks, however, are transformed more by the people than trees, leaves and flowers. Ask “les Parisiens” what is this or that species of unusual tree and most cannot answer. Yet the pull of the park and its semi-natural, controlled environs is strong, no matter how small the area, no matter how small the boy. City dwellers love the parks; even within such a beautiful built environment, the call of the wild still resides deep within them. And the enjoyment of the stravaig is clear. An afternoon stroll weaving in between fellow residents, trees, tennis courts, little lakes and flower beds is clearly loved.
For a stranger, to aimlessly wander through a park you don’t know (or whole city for that matter) and enjoy, for the very first time, the unsettling and unravelling of your senses yet still recognising the deep urge for communing with the natural world, however brief, is simply joyful. To do so in the company of an exuberant small boy is exhilarating! (This is psycho-geography, right?)
While we have been away South Erradale has quickly been coated in Byzantine bronze, copper and gold, overlying the azurite, ultramarine and verdigris of our late Indian summer. On a dull day the oranges and deep russet reds glow with heat and warmth and make my eyes ache; on a bright day the reflectivity of gold and amber is dazzling. Slowly, steadily, leaves are beginning to fall: the trees have finally succumbed to the shortening daylight. Silver birch and aspen leaves descend in gentle cascades , blessings of confetti ,while horse chestnut, oak and beech leaves spin down crunchily.
On the hills heather has turned a deep burnt umber, while grasses of all kinds are waving in bright yellow ochre, like glistening crystal clusters of orpiment and spessartine. The slopes are bejewelled and extravagantly draped, and at sunset the whole landscape is bloodied, like flowing lavas seen at night, as if the very essence of the earth itself is being squeezed out to the surface. And each day a little more light is lost, so trees, shrubs, herbs and grasses seem to defiantly exude more colour to compensate us for the coming of the dark.
October’s ending comes with fire and crackle, and the death-crunch of brittle leaf and stem. But oh the colours. Autumn seems to generate such heat, yet we shudder at the thought of the cold to come! Rejoice then, while we can. The wonder of it all will disappear soon enough and we will have to put up our own lights in defiance of the darkening of winter.
At the month’s end , the sprinkling of Celt within my genome responds to Samhain with excitement and a spine-tingling sense of expanded spirit. I have always felt attuned to the ‘other’. Not in any clairvoyant sense. As a child I met a spectre at Speke Hall, Liverpool, watching him merge into a wall as if going through a door, when there was no door there. (I made a fuss, asking questions about who this queerly dressed person was. I was soundly reprimanded by my teachers for being difficult.) Now in the city-scapes there are phantoms everywhere: shop windows full of Halloween decorations and toys, ghost tours, castles, dungeons and bookshops filled with bloody stories of ghouls, zombies and mystery. It is an exciting, pumpkin-primed, skeleton-dancing, tricky-treating festival of commerce. No longer a time of myth and mystery, or remembering the dead, or that is how it seems.
But back home in this wild empty landscape, there are real ghosts everywhere. Turn over a rock or scamper along the edge of a loch and you see the roots of ancient trees, and peat-buried, lost ancient forests. Old walls are edges of nowhere, borders to nothing. Mounds of stones, lichen-crusted, ageless, once the bindings of hearth and home, dot the hillsides. Ancient ditches, field boundaries, now disused, are crossed by modern wire fences and wilder paths belonging only to the deer. Remnants of hut and byre, machinery and gates, the bits and pieces of business and busyness, of lost tradition and enterprise, lie scattered.
And all around us are the songs of loss and wistfulness whose snatches remain in the Gaelic names of little crags, lochans, tumbled boulders, tinkling burns and high, remote mountain tops. This landscape is a year round story of the lost, of Samhain, All Hallows, All Souls, and though it might suggest sadness and melancholy, even bathed in such autumnal riches which herald death and decay, it makes the soul soar. With utter joy.