Autumn is in full swing everywhere with a rich basket of berries, nuts, fungi and assorted swatches of vibrant colours painted haphazardly across everything.
I am home in the Highlands after a short visit to Paris, via London. Both cities basked in sunny autumnal haze and were dazzling with reflections from water, windows, concrete and steel. Trees in streets and parks flickered as their leaves shimmered and rustled in cool breezes. There was still a strong sense of autumn wildness in both places despite the efforts of millions of people, underground transport systems, over-ground hullabaloo and the strange sense of being utterly still while all the currents of flowing life and business swept swiftly by. Wildness came to me in small, cold draughts of wind from deep within the shadows carrying the scent of soil and leaf mould, and I thought of my Highland home.
I walked; and was told that I was a flâneuse in London, a marcheuse in Paris, though in the latter I did more trotting and running after a small boy and his vélo.
Cityscapes are gilded, romantic places in autumn’s low-angled, thick light. Gold and silver seep between trees conveying a sense of calm and order; deep purple shadows hide the unsavoury and when you step from one to the other the temporary blindness is stinging and sharp. Every street corner effervesces in yellow, sulphurous geysers of sunlight shearing along walls and roof tops. The sudden changes from dark to light and the serial loss of vision pricks at other senses; in shadowy shaded park paths the smell of damp earthy ripeness slips into a pocket alongside conkers and beech nuts; in blinding warmth, dust and scents of old, crisp flowers rise up, drying skin and causing me to sneeze. Pavements washed in sunlight are pale, dun and ochre; shaded, they are cold, brittle-blue and violet.
Paris parks were effused with heat: from bodies running or sunning themselves, from bright beams of sun and long, lean shadows, from weekend voices filling the voids left by falling leaves, and from trees burning up their last energies in violent displays of red, orange and yellow. And I was warmed by the high, happy voice of a small boy calling out “Hérisson!” (hedgehog) as he picked up a conker in a prickly shell for the very first time.
Back home I marvel at the horse chestnut tree grown from a conker planted many years ago and now filling my eyes with radiant colour, and memories. Then I am woken from reverie by a new sound: a stag on the hill beyond the croft is roaring and his voice echoes along the river valley.
The rut is fully underway. As October has burgeoned, dawn and dusk have glowed with refulgent rainbow colours, a painterly accompaniment to the songs of stags.
There are two rival rutting grounds this year one on each side of the river. Nights, mornings and evenings rumble with the wild fury of bellowing. These spectral, almost-alien voices drag the wild down from mountain tops and drape it across the fields. Unseen air currents waft with hormones and ululations and sneak into every nook and crannie, and every now and then the otherworldly rawness makes me shudder.
All summer long the sea has brought wildness to our local shore. This narrow strip of territory, where creatures live or die at the whim of natural forces, is ruled by elementals in communion with one another. Such is the feeling of wildness here that many of the high peaks and woodlands feel less feral to me because of it. Highland landscapes, climbed, walked and photographed all year round, are the product of thousands of years of human management. I celebrate and love their wild beauty as much as the next person, but take me down to our ‘wee’ shore and all the gut-wrenching, heart pumping emotion that accompanies an encounter with the wild rushes to the surface; my skin tingles, my eyes water and my breath quickens. Meeting an otter, or watching a sea eagle, following the deer down to the shore, or even finding spraint, feathers and footprints, kindles the wild within me. But now, for a few short weeks, the rutting stags bring the wild into our valley and onto the croft.
Outside our front door the bogland has turned into a blanket of rich red and burnt umber. Here and there are pale cream and coffee coloured patches of dried flowers.
As I turn to look about me I see the wider landscape has changed while I have been away and even the surrounding hills have taken on the hues, tones and colours of red deer herds, and I see that the whole place has transformed into a stag’s coat, shining and glowing with the rut. Feral voices are thrown at us, hurled down onto roof tops and at window panes, knocking at doors and gates and waking us from our dreams. The stags roar at the moon and the stars; the heavens have no jurisdiction over them.
Wrapped by these yawing, see-sawing sounds the wild is thrust at us and into us. And for a short while we become wilder too.