The Coun­try­side in Oc­to­ber

Sarah Ryan is feel­ing a change in the air as she scours the woods for the new sea­son’s riches

Landscape (UK) - - Contents -

One morn­ing in Oc­to­ber, I feel the first nip of a chill breeze against my fin­gers and face. I zip my jacket up to my chin and snug­gle into the prickly warmth of my jumper. This wind must have come from the north, and I take a deep breath of its cold­ness. The coun­try­side has turned away from sum­mer for now, and au­tumn is truly here. At the start of the month, the hours of day­light and dark­ness are very close to equal in length, but by the end we will have only nine and a half hours of light. The evening is slowly draw­ing over the day. I am al­ways ready for this change as the trees sur­ren­der their leaves and hi­ber­nat­ing crea­tures search out a place of sleep. Sum­mer’s ex­u­ber­ance is past, and it is time to pre­pare for rest. It is also the sea­son of sun­rise in reach. Dur­ing the sum­mer, the glo­ri­ous panorama un­folds un­seen, while I am still wrapped up un­der the sheets. But in Oc­to­ber, the break of day can be wit­nessed eas­ily while tak­ing a morn­ing walk. I pass a shaggy inkcap fun­gus on my way to the lake. It sprouted as an off-white egg shape, its skin del­i­cately flak­ing and fins tucked safely within. The cap soon bal­looned, the flakes turn­ing pale brown and curl­ing up­ward; the mo­ment in its life­span which gives it its other com­mon name, Lawyer’s wig. I pause when I see it and crouch down for a closer look. It is at its most beau­ti­ful, brief stage. The stalk has ex­tended and the cap be­gun to flare. The gills, ini­tially white, have now turned back and be­gun to liq­uefy at the edges where they turn up. It fades from syrupy black at the base to grey, then creamy-white at the crown. In a few hours, the edges of the cap will have rolled up and dis­solved en­tirely, leaving a white pil­lar with a messy, raggedy dark lid. The mush­room is ed­i­ble if it is picked early, be­fore flar­ing, and cooked straight away. I see them so rarely, though, that I have left this one, pre­fer­ring to watch the rapid changes of its mo­men­tary pres­ence.

Fa­mil­iar changes

The path passes along­side the glim­mer­ing lake. The le­mon-yel­low leaves of the sil­ver birches flicker in the breeze, and a weep­ing wil­low drops yel­low­ing leaves onto the wa­ter, where they drift amid the reeds. My favourite is an old oak, whose branches al­most reach the ground. In sum­mer, I can stand

“O wild West Wind, thou breath of Au­tumn’s be­ing, Thou, from whose un­seen pres­ence the leaves dead Are driven, like ghosts from an en­chanter flee­ing” Percy Bysshe Shel­ley, ‘Ode to the West Wind’

“The flaunt­ing leaves and flit­ting birds withal-A sunny phantom in­ter­laced with shade; ‘Thanks be to Heaven,’ in happy mood I said, ‘What sweeter aid my matins could be­fall Than this fair glory from the east hath made?” Charles Ten­nyson Turner, ‘Sun­rise’

be­side the trunk and feel hid­den, but now I kick up its brown leaves from the grass as I pass by. I keep an eye and an ear out for new birds. Last year, hawfinch, bullfinch and bram­bling were spot­ted, along with red­poll and many red­wings. Var­i­ous waders, gulls and terns flock over the lake, some re­main­ing to roost, oth­ers mov­ing on within the day. A mer­lin has been noted here, and I am keen to see one. It is Bri­tain’s small­est bird of prey, pur­su­ing its tar­get with rapid flaps of its pointed wings, rest­ing for pe­ri­ods in a long glide or quick drop. Win­ter visi­tors, es­cap­ing the bite of the far north­ern win­ter, can be seen in my area from now on­wards, and I turn my eyes to the pinken­ing sky, scan­ning it for a quick-mov­ing sil­hou­ette.

Peace is bro­ken

I pause by the shore, where the edge of a meadow gives way to the lake. The wa­ter is low, and I step down from the bank, silt ooz­ing over the toes of my boots. The opales­cent lake spans out around me in three di­rec­tions. I take a mo­ment to ap­pre­ci­ate the still­ness, un­til the quiet is filled with sud­den rau­cous quack­ing. Some­thing has dis­turbed the ducks, and they skim and splash nois­ily be­fore com­ing to rest again. On my way back, I find a maple leaf the colour of a blaz­ing sun­rise, struck through with vivid pink veins. I roll the tough stem be­tween fin­ger and thumb, admiring the turn­ing colours and small im­per­fec­tions. It will come home with me, to light up a cor­ner of the house.

Left to right: A walker is greeted by the ar­rival of au­tumn in the woods; the shaggy inkcap fun­gus; a flock of pink-footed geese at dusk; fallen acorns and brit­tle leaves of the oak tree.

The com­pact, dash­ing mer­lin, Falco colum­bar­ius, among au­tumn fo­liage.

Left to right: Wad­ing at the edge of a lake; yel­low-tinged wil­low leaves frame a mal­lard duck swim­ming lazily by; a stun­ning bur­gundy maple leaf, with veins of gold.

Sarah Ryan grew up in the Scot­tish Borders, climb­ing trees and por­ing over wildlife books. Those habits have lit­tle changed and she still makes time daily to get out into the woods nearby, or at week­ends to ven­ture fur­ther afield. In­spi­ra­tion comes from Roger Deakin, Nan Shep­herd, Kathleen Raine, wildlife recordist Chris Wat­son, and out­side the window.

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