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