I planted onion sets until the light was lost. Until the colours were lost and everything was as dark as the soil. Then a flutter in the air caught my eye.  I ran into the house and scooped up my daughter and took her out into the cold air of the night. Where we watched the bat and whispered about his home in the eaves of the house. We whispered about our day being his night, and our story time being his breakfast time. Off hunting on a night full of dark and full of moths.

There is a joy to the bounty that is the autumn harvest, especially apples. For weeks now I have been eating bread and cheese sandwiches every work day and fried apples on toast at the weekend. Nigel Slater has a wonderful recipe for the fried apples on toast that is much tastier that it sounds. I also place a bowl of sliced apples, tossed with a teaspoon of lemon juice, at the homework table. It does not stay full for long. However, there is a creepier side to autumn harvesting.

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Every evening, either the lovely Sharon or I have to venture out between the raspberry canes to fill a colander. A daily colander seems enough for, raspberries with porridge (with maple syrup), raspberries for our break time snacks and raspberries for the little lady’s breakfast. A head torch is required as well as bravery. Nature can be rewarding but sometimes requires a high price. As soon as I step between the plants, the spider webs begin to accumulate on my head and face. There is no point brushing them off, it is a waste of time. I must embrace an attitude of stoicism, and just get on with it. Daddy long legs are disturbed, harvestmen fall on me from the higher leaves and moths fly straight to the torch attached to my head. Then there are the spiders. Little white and yellow spiders that crawl all over me. They often seem to become passengers on me and are discovered a short time later after having come in from the garden. I am sure I have been bitten by them, or something, on my arm, back and hand. Yet the little lady must have her breakfast. There is one reassuring thought in my foraging mind.  At least I know none of the spiders in the dark are the super big Huntsman spiders. No, at this time of year they have all gone indoors away from the cold, only to be seen as they run across the floor. Then our brains quickly try to figure out what it is seeing, before we scream and reach for a very heavy book to defend ourselves with.

Friday evenings are a lesson in child logistics that parenting lessons do not prepare you for. Exhausted from a busy week I rendezvous with the lovely Sharon in a nearby town. The routine is that I take the little man and the littlest man to pick up the shopping, go home, pack it all away and then make everyone’s dinner. The lovely Sharon takes the little lady to a dance class and has to go to a coffee shop and sip an americano for an hour. This evening she claimed she was busy and had to use the time to do some Born-Haber cycles and other thermodynamic calculations. It sounded like more fun than shopping to be honest, but I have learnt that it is not constructive to share such observations.

 

Before getting the shopping the boys insisted that we had to go to the toilet. For the little man and the littlest man this is a weekly routine that takes too much time. This evening it turned into an impromptu science lesson on the importance of dietary fibre. The lesson stopped when my lesson objective got lost and the little man began counting all the bananas he would eat in a week, a month, a year.

 

Click and Collect is a wall of lockers outside. It is usually a fun game for the little people to  find the locker numbers. Today it asked me for age verification. There must be a bottle of wine behind one of the doors. Suddenly the game became fun for me as well. I typed in the lovely Sharon’s date of birth (as she completes the online order in her name).  INCORRECT – ONE TRY REMAINING. Confused, I typed it in again. INCORRECT – LOCKED OUT. I rang the lovely Sharon and explained. She was incredulous, “How can you not know my date of birth?” After some more explaining it transpired that I did indeed know my wife’s birthday. However, when completing the order on the previous evening she momentarily, or accidentally, did not. So what date did she put in? If the year is the same then there are 364 other possibilities and I had two tries before I got locked out again. Unless her birth year was a leap year. It did not seem the time for mental maths. I had to get into these lockers or I might go hungry tonight. Eh, I mean, my children might go hungry tonight.

 

I called the help line and completed the security questions as if I was the lovely sharon then explained the situation. I was asked if I had spoken to my wife. Immediately I knew the implication and again explained that contrary to all probability, I did indeed know my wife’s date of birth. Then I was advised to go into the store to see if someone could override the lockers.

 

After I explained to the little people that it was not Friday toilet time again, we found the staff at the helpdesk being kept busy by a long queue. Eventually it was our turn just as all four became free to help. This could have gone one of two ways. Either they were all simply work colleagues who stoically got on with their jobs or they got on well with each other with witty banter and it could be more embarrassing for me. One of them cracked a joke. They all laughed. I sighed. I began to explain before someone interjected, “…and you put in your own date of birth?  We get that a lot.” Gentle laughing and sympathetic nods from all four staff. Then I tried to explain that I had not put in my own date of birth and had not put in my wife’s date incorrectly. How I wished that the lovely Sharon was here to explain this herself. I would have enjoyed that much more. They had to track down someone with the ability to override the locks on the lockers. I took the boys to look at the toys as I waited and expected, “Man at reception doesn’t know his own wife’s date of birth,” to be blasted over the tannoy. Sense prevailed and it remained quiet.

 

During the drive home I was indignant. How could my own wife really assume I did not know her date of birth. The cliche! It’s just a simple number. It’s not like not knowing your own children’s ages. That one I have to think about, but in fairness, all three of them keep changing it so I think I can be forgiven.

I kept reading about taking a micro adventure and had little chance to do it. The chance arrived. After a long day in the hills I looked at the tent in the boot of the car, then at the rain-less sky, then at the tent, then at the sky. I closed the boot. With rucksack hefted on my back and my walking stick in hand, I headed away from the campsite and away from the tent. As I left, an unknown camper spotted me heading off at a strange hour and waved, “Have a good adventure.”

Down the road, past the river. Through the hazel coppice, into the forest. I paused at the usual spot; the three thousand five hundred year old burial mound. Could I share the forest tonight? I sometimes imagine what this man’s life must have been like. In my mind he begins as a warrior hero figure reinforced by movie tropes. Then I settled upon the reality that he was probably just like everybody else. The same desires, fears and anxieties. The same need to find purpose and shepherd our children; prepare them in any way we can and hope that they are the best of us. I have visited this mound often and sometimes imagine the ghost of this man coming back for a chat. Think of the wonders I could tell him; what we have created and achieved. Although, if he asked how we have looked after the earth since he left it a few thousand years ago I might have to change the subject as quickly and subtly as possible.

Earlier I had chosen a spot to sleep. The land rose away from the path and into the dark forest before dropping a little, plateauing for a few meters, and then plunging down steeply into the river below. I found a flat area and made a mental note of a characteristic tree on the path, one that I could find again when I returned in the evening.

When I did return and find the characteristic tree I walked into the forest and found something I did not spot on my initial recce. A plastic spike with an insect trap and a pit-fall trap below it. Someone must be sampling insects and wanted it not to be found. Yet they wrestled with the dilemma of not being able to find it themselves. So, they placed it on the plateau just beyond the high point in line with the characteristic tree! We all think the same way; me, the mystery naturalist and all of us. We all follow the patterns of thought in our heads.

The gas stove was fired up while I cleared a patch of forest floor for my sleeping bag and bivvy bag. A bivvy bag is essentially a rain coat for a sleeping bag. Not a complete waterproof barrier, but enough to survive a little rain if it arrived. Once the cup of tea was ready I settled down with a good book.

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Quite a while later the darkness was slowly pouring in and I decided to try and let the tide of sleep take me into the night. Midge flies bit as I texted the lovely Sharon my eight figure grid reference just in case I was devoured by earwigs and millipedes and she had to try and find my body. Days later I found only one small deer tick feeding from my arm; a small price to pay for a micro adventure.

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I woke up a few times. I woke to note that the farmer across the small valley had finally stopped lifting the hay at 1 A.M. On one occasion I woke to fight the irrational urge to flick on my head torch and look behind me and check if nothing sinister was in the forest. The logic in my head was that there could be nothing worse than a fox or a badger who was more afraid of me than I was of them. The other logical path was that if it was a scary man-eating forest monster from the depths of hell, it was not going to be put off by my head torch, so I should just stay still and try to go to sleep anyway.

The rain began at 6 A.M. If I had been in a tent, the sound of rain would have forced me deeper into my sleeping bag and further from embracing the reality of the world outside. The opposite was true in a bivvy bag so close to the morning. Get up, get a pot of coffee on the gas cooker, get warmed up and get on with the day and next adventure.

After the service we headed into the hall for biscuits and juice. The little people rushed for the biscuits.  As it was so close to lunchtime only two biscuits each were permitted. And, the little man has a ritual of getting a biscuit for him, and a biscuit for me. Then he returns for his second biscuit later. Today I had to take a detour to talk to someone and told them to head on in. I was gone for only a few minutes and it was obvious that something major had happened. The little man was in floods of tears and inconsolable. The lovely Sharon explained; he had accidentally eaten my biscuit. My heart fell apart. Do I need to point out that it was not because my biscuit was gone? He was standing there waiting and simply got lost in the moment. One biscuit gone. Oh look, there is biscuit number two. The lovely Sharon and I tried to calm him down and reassure him that there are plenty of biscuits. He began to breathe more smoothly again and seemed placated by the idea of a biscuit mission. The lovely Sharon walked him across the hall with purpose, then they walked back with him in pieces, sobbing and inconsolable. Apparently there were no chocolate biscuits left and the original one he chose for me was a chocolate biscuit. This was a roller-coaster of emotions for the both of us.

 

I sat down with him on the floor at the edge of the hall and held him as we watched his siblings running and screaming, oblivious to the biscuit saga.

 

Calmer now, he said he was thirsty.  We walked back across the hall and got a cup of orange juice each. While there, he was presented with a plate and asked if he wanted a biscuit. He looked at me with a question in his eyes. He had done the maths; his biscuit and mine so close to lunch. I nodded, of course he could have another biscuit. Then, with one swift motion lacking any hint of thought or hesitation, he grabbed a biscuit and snapped it in two. He handed me half and  my heart fell apart again.

I suppose it widens our experiences if we try something new.  With this character building in mind I decided to try something old; tree tapping. Collecting the sap of particular trees at Spring time is apparently something that humans have been doing for quite a while.

There was a time, not so long ago, when I did not know the names of the trees.  Then I  made a determined effort to try and be able to identify trees and plants.  It was a long process and I feel like I have only just begun with respect to plants. The trees seemed easier to commit to memory. Then one tree started to stand out as a favourite.  Not the Oak or the Beech; the Birch won my heart.  Its shape, its bark, and even the sound as the wind blows through the leaves. I think it was in an interview that Ray Mears once said that he could identify many of the Native trees just by the sound of the wind through them.  I adore the birch so much that I cut down a fair sized horse chestnut as it was too close to a younger birch. It was bullying the birch and adding the chestnut to the wood pile gave the tree space to simply be itself; be a beautiful birch.

Tapping a birch tree is something that I have been tempted to do for a while.  The window of time for tapping is narrow; only about two weeks.  I have sometimes wistfully looked at birch trees well outside from this critical time. Strangely, the thought of tree tapping never enters my head at the appropriate moment.  Until now.

I stabbed the tree with my knife and drops of clear birch tears formed on the blade.  I collected my equipment; hose, bottle, string and drill.  Three feet from the ground, and at an upward angle, I drilled a one and a half inch hole into my favourite birch tree.  Straight away the sap began to drip out and I plugged the hole with the hose.  That’s it. It seemed comically ridiculous to make a hole in a tree and get a drink out of it.  I collected a small amount  and proudly presented it to the lovely Sharon to share the first tasting. She looked at me quizzically. No, suspiciously. It was clear she had a lack of trust in me and my botanical identification skills. I tasted it myself, this rejuvenating tonic from nature and fortified with forest spring, life itself unfolding.  And it tasted…..of water with a hint of something strange.  No sweetness at all. Was it really a birch?  Had I drunk the poisonous sap of some strange tree?  Doubt dripped into my mind. No, my favourite tree cannot be a lie, it would never do that to me.

Later research revealed that some foragers do admit that the sap tastes pretty much like water with a hint of “earthiness”. The plan, if I collect enough, is to boil it down to make a syrup for pancakes.  I may have to cheat a little by adding sugar. It’s a bit of effort, and it may end up re-purposed on the compost heap, but I think it’s important to try new things.

The bad news; the doctor says I have, most likely, broken a rib (or ribs). He did say there is a possibility that it might just be bruised and I would know for sure in about a week. If it is bruised then it will be better in a week. If broken; four weeks.

It was all because of the lack of sensible shoes. Snow was blanketed over solid ice. Flat leather shoes did a cartoon run on the ice, moving nowhere, before giving up.

The good news; now that a doctor has given his professional diagnosis I might get some sympathy from the lovely Sharon. It’s not real for her if I self diagnose. A doctor once told me that I have an overactive hypochondrial gland. He said it was not dangerous and not to google it as I would just be upset.

So, a broken rib/ribs it is. I can’t really complain as it is only painful if I laugh, sneeze or breathe.

The bread maker stopped working. Making bread has become a habit here now. Three or four times a week the machine would be loaded with flour, water, salt and yeast. By using the machine I am not fully cheating; it’s only used to knead the dough and heat it a little as it does its first rise.  I shape it by hand, let it rise again, and then use the regular oven to cook it (turned up to ‘can’t go any further’ on the temperature scale). The oven has been customised with a baking stone. To use a baking stone sounds a bit fancy, but it is actually a thick paving stone I cut down to size with an angle grinder and placed on the bottom shelf of the oven.  It is a permanent feature now as it is too heavy to move.

Of course, the bread machine  was a luxury item. It decided to stop kneading just before the third batch of dough needed for a family pizza night. The little people’s cousins were due to pour into the cottage that evening with laughter and noise. So much noise.

The loss has not been missed.  Kneading by hand has made me go back to a bread book for advice on the correct kneading techniques. I prefer the french kneading method. And inevitably, a few interesting bread ideas were only a few pages away.  An added bonus has been the enthusiasm of the little lady helping me make the dough. Anything that gets the little people involved in growing or making food seems wonderful. Although, the last time she helped me, involved keeping her eyes on the TV and occasionally punching the dough. Then with eyes still unwavering from the TV, the little lady added that the bread would be alright as she was helping

Then there is the silver lining of the aesthetics. The sight of the earthenware bowl sitting on the mantelpiece over the wood stove.  The living room seems to be the warmest place to encourage the yeast. And the smell of the dough after a sponge has been fermenting overnight. A sponge is all the water and yeast mixed with only a third of the flour and none of the salt. Made the evening before, it bubbles away and adds flavour to the bread. Kneading this by hand releases all kinds of sweet and strange smells.

So the failure of the old bread maker has forced me back to joys of proper bread making and brought it to the forefront of life here instead of whirring away in the corner of the kitchen. The mixer has been with us for so long that it was a little bit sad to decide to throw it out.  It sat forlorn for weeks until I made the move to unplug it and add it to the ‘take to the rubbish dump’ pile building in the garage. Just before I did, I futilely flicked the switch and hit start just in case. It sprang into life! What do I do now?

Darkness will fall quickly and there is much to be done.

Storm Ali brought down half a tree in my sister’s garden.  Soon after I appeared with a chainsaw and a trailer.  Now I must chop it all up and stack it to season.  It sounds like a chore, and it is, and it is not.  It is a delight to cut and chop in cool air and under a setting crescent moon.  Tonight I fitted a new chain to my saw.  The old chain had its teeth sharpened down to bits so small that they nearly crumbled away.  The new chain  tore through the wood effortlessly, and scarily. The chainsaw is dangerous.  Even more dangerous is the moment when I am cutting and I sense a grin on my face.  This should not be fun.  I quickly regain a sensible attitude and remind myself to be safe.

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After cutting and nailing a roof onto my makeshift pallet wood shelter; I begin chopping with the axe as the darkness falls.  Head torch on.  I keep chopping.

A while later the littlest man arrives to help with his own head torch illuminating his little window in the dark.  Chopping stops and the tidying begins.  We tidy up under a barrage of questions about every tool and what it does. After a while we wander into the garden and sit on the bench switching off our head torches.

“Can you see the stars?”

“Yes, and I see the moon.  There”

I quickly point out a moving star overhead. “Look, that’s a satellite way up in space.”

“Is it a shooting star?”

No.  I try to explain that we don’t see shooting stars very often. It fails to placate his disappointment and then I draw his attention to the stars of Cygnus.

“Those stars are in the shape of a giant swan flying across the whole sky.”

“Is there a Giraffe in the stars?”

I would love that to be the case.  More disappointment. We look at the stars and try to make out the colours.  Yellow, Orange, Red, Blue. His attention keeps being drawn to the bright ‘stars’ near the horizon close to the moon.  I really want to point out that they are both planets, but he is three years old and there is really no need to be pedantic.  Then with excitement he spots…

“Look at that blue star there!”

I’m sorry, I had to draw the line here;

“No, that’s a light at the end of the neighbour’s gate.”

“Is it bedtime now?”

“No, it’s just dark time.”

“No, daddy, it’s Autumn time. That’s why it is dark.”

I stand corrected.

 

 

 

 

 

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Picking apples is a difficult game to play.  Too early and they can be inedible.  Too late and they are left bruised on the ground with the wind laughing around you.  For weeks now I have been gently twisting them on their stalks to see how much they are stubbornly holding on, knowing that they can just decide to give up in the time of only a few days.  The other problem is that different trees are ripe at different times.  One tree, who’s name we do not know, drops its apples in late August.  I deliberately let the wind tell me when these are ready as it gives such a heavy crop.  Once I see a mess of windfalls on the ground I decide that in one week I will strip the tree. These are the apples of crumbles, chutneys and frozen puree cubes to be dropped into cooking porridge on cold winter mornings.  Some of these apples are simmering away in the cottage tonight in a tomato chutney.  I could say that the place smells of spiced vinegar, but that is not quite the truth; it screams of vinegar.  Monty Don’s book  tells me that it must simmer for an hour.  Our experience of getting a decent consistency with chutneys is to take whatever it says with a pinch of salt (or a tablespoon of salt).  Double the time in the book, then add another hour.

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Fork to Fork – By Monty and Sarah Don

It is to be windy soon.  Tonight, after homework was completed, I passed out colanders*  to the little people and we ventured out for the annual apple harvest.  The little man inevitably gravitated to the bold red apples of the ‘Discovery’ tree looking like it was straight out of a child’s drawing.  I headed for my favourite, the ‘Katy’ tree, with its small explosions of autumnal flavour.

*bugs fall through the holes.

The harvest from the Discovery was good, and this is a crucial tree.  The apples are sweet and red with a white flesh that is marbled with red anthocyanins that have migrated from the skin.  They look strange and taste fantastic if sliced thin with a drop of lemon juice  placed on each slice.  Hungry from a long day of school, the little man and the little lady will quickly disappear a plate of these slices if it is placed in front of them.  Sometimes I have to take my hand away quick if I am to keep my fingers.  Unfortunately the third hungry person, the littlest man, just looks at me and shakes his head; not a fan of apples.

It was hard to say no when she wanted a bunny rabbit. She wanted it for so long.  I carefully explained that having a pet is a big responsibility and a bit of work is involved.  Yes, yes, she knew. She still wanted a bunny.  Eventually she realised that I needed a bit of convincing and recruited the whole family to keep on at me that we really should get a bunny. I tried again to explain that it would need looked after; the nice jobs like feeding and brushing, and the less nice jobs like cleaning out the hutch and picking up little rabbit poos.  Once she got everyone pleading along with her, I gave in. We now have a rabbit.

His name is Thumper.  I wanted to call him stew and sometimes I remind him of this with a whisper from the other side of the room. I know his comically oversized ears can hear me.

For most of the time it has all been joy and everyone has helped look after Thumper.  It is a lot of fun for us all to have him as a new member of the household.  So, has she embraced looking after a pet?  Yes, but yesterday I had to sit her down and remind her about the responsibilities.  Remind her that it is not all joy and sometimes there can be frustrations with pets and the pets cannot be blamed.  This all came out when Thumper bit through her laptop cable that she uses for work. I reminded my wife that she really wanted a bunny and promised to look after it. I explained that we have to keep things out of his way and he is only following his instincts. I also pointed out that we should be grateful that he chewed through the low voltage and not the other, high voltage, end of the cable.

Here is a picture of Thumper the laptop slayer.

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I believe him to be a breed called the Dutch.  A few days ago I told him this in case he didn’t know.  I told him he was gentle and easy going and that I read it on the internet, including, “To sum up, the Dutch is a very versatile breed that is used for showing, pets, and even meat.”  Later that evening he hopped over to me in the living room, sniffed me on the leg, then bit me.  He then calmly hopped away as if he had much more important things to do.  After I yelped, I laughed.  I  like his style and I think me and Thumper are going to get along just fine.

A long time ago I was alone in the mountains, at least I thought I was. I strolled down and around a slope and stopped in my tracks. Perched on a rock was a Raven. A massive Raven so black it seemed like a hole in the world. It turned and looked at me unsurprised. The Raven knew I was coming and knew we would meet even if I didn’t know it. The look it gave me was that of irritation, and if I could hear its thoughts I imagine it muttered and sighed, “human” while rolling its eyes. Can ravens roll their eyes? Then it decided to unfold its three foot wingspan and lift off so gracefully it looked like it was swimming into the air.

I miss the mountains. I haven’t been there in a while. I also miss the calls of the ravens. The coarse language that fills the air and echoes against granite. Part of the joy of the wild places is to see the wild blackness that is a Raven. A very long time ago they were once common and then got pushed to the edges of the land, living in the places humans rarely went. Then, some years ago, they began to return. A bird that fills a similar ecological niche, the Red Kite, was in a worse position. The Red Kite got pushed to the edges then over into extinction in the UK. The Red Kite is back, with a little help from humans. The Ravens have been slowly returning on their own.

We took a short glamping (camping in a glamping pod) trip to Rathin island with the sea at our doorstep. It was not long after setting foot on the island that I was thinking about Red Kites as a huge raptor flew around our heads. For a brief moment I did think it was a Red Kite due to its size and careless attitude it took flying so close to humans. I was wrong, it was a buzzard and we would see it a few more times during our stay. It turns out that wildlife lives more obviously on Rathlin. We saw birds, lots of birds, and seals. We even saw a hare. Although, the hare was in the grim situation of being eaten by a gull after falling off a sea cliff.

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Returning home we found more wildlife. I walked over to the hens and I knew straight away that something was wrong. They were making their alarm calls and all bunched up in a corner with the rooster on the front line, standing proud, standing guard. Over the edge of a beech tree root a dark head, with a liquid black intelligent eye, looked directly at me and then ducked down out of sight. There was an injured crow in the chicken run, but what kind of crow?

I caught the crow and knew straight away that it was not a rook. Rooks are the most common crow we usually see, and make up most of the crows that sometimes fly in huge flocks returning to rookeries at dusk. It was too big for a rook and did not have the bit on its beak that looks like bone not covered by skin nor feather. It was a big bird. It could be a carrion crow or……… a Raven.

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My opinion kept oscillating between these options until I settled on a Raven. Too big for a Carrion and smaller than the Raven I encountered up close in the Mourne Mountains. A young Raven? It was black. Heavy black beak with deep black eyes. Black claws with black nails. Reinforcing my opinion that it was a young Raven; it had the beginnings of the rainbow sheen of oil on water. Then it would move in the light and return to inky black.

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The Raven?

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An image from ‘The Raven: A Natural History in Britain and Ireland’ by Derek Ratcliffe

I fed it wet cat food then took it to the vet. They don’t seem to get a lot of Ravens. It’s size and strangeness caused a bit of excitement amongst the veterinary staff; lots of Game of Thrones references. The vet diagnosed a broken wing and thought it had a reasonable chance of recovery. After treatment it would be handed over to a wildlife rehabilitation charity, then back to the wild.

Was it a really a Raven? In flight the Raven has large diamond shaped pointed tail feather and a Carrion crow has a tail feather with a straighter edge. Of course I never got to see it in flight. After leaving the vet I kept a more open mind and an open eye looking for crows. The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon kicked in swiftly. Only a mile from our home I spotted a overly large crow gliding down to some tree tops. As it closed in it flattened out and pulled out all its air breaks, its silhouette terminating in a large diamond shaped tail.

There is something in the woodshed; alive and mysterious.

I decided that this heatwave was an appropriate time to chop firewood. As I spent days living with the drone of the chainsaw, chopsaw, and the sweet smell of freshly cut wood, I had time to meditate on the extremes of things. The heat was just barely tolerable with regular breaks to drink pints of dilutable lemon juice and yet, as I stacked the wood I could see the frozen winter in my mind’s eye.

Every time the cutting tools were turned off and my ear protectors removed, the silence was shocking. Except for the drone of a housefly……and that wasp……that’s not a wasp…the penny is in the air.…it moves like a wasp…...penny in the air…..it sounds like a wasp…….but it’s too dark to be a wasp…the penny dropped. It was a honeybee. It’s been a couple of years since we had bees here. We do see them about in the spring on the apple blossom and this means that there must be hives within three kilometres. This would have surprised me prior to actually becoming a beekeeper before discovering, through beekeeping associations, how many beekeepers live and keep hives in the area. Yet this bee was not in the garden, it was in the woodshed. Then I saw another, and another, and another. About twenty bees were buzzing about in a confused way distributed all over the woodshed. All this was happening just after I realised I needed to stop cutting and go and get washed before heading out to dinner with the lovely Sharon. It was our annual date night in celebration of our wedding anniversary. I left the woodshed scanning every corner and wooden beam for a cluster of bees. Then outside I continued to look everywhere; nothing. Completely confused I washed and dressed into something more presentable than saw-dusted old clothes and ear defenders. Then I remembered where to look, the most obvious place, the old hive I left out as a bait hive in the garden. And there they were; bees. I glanced at the hive and then was off; we were late for dinner.

Later that night we returned home and the lovely Sharon and I found ourselves leaning down over the hive with our stethoscope. There are two easy ways to establish if a bee hive is occupied. The first option is to use a stethoscope pressed against the side of the hive to hear the air conditioning hum of the bees. The second way is to give the hive a good thump while loudly inquiring if anybody is home and holding an ‘about to sprint’ stance. I tried the stethoscope first; silence. I tentatively tapped the hive and whispered, “Anybody there?”. Nothing.

Were they just shy? Were they scouts for a swarm bivouacked on a tree half a mile away?

The next morning the hive was, well, a……hive of activity. Are they a big swarm? Small swarm? Are they friendly or nasty? Are they here to stay? All of these are mysteries at the moment. All I can say is that they are here. We have bees.

 

Things have begun at last. Buds are unfolding, colours are revealing and for a few hours today queen bumble bees zoomed about instead of sleeping.

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Seed potatoes have been watching the chilly spring from the window ledge for weeks now.  I enlisted the three little people in the process of planting them out.  This worked well as long as everybody got to do exactly the same thing.  If someone had a big potato in their pot, then everyone had to have one.  If someone had a tiny potato in their pot, then everyone had to have one. It even happened when one of them discovered a worm in their pot.  Everyone had to have a worm.  And it had to be exactly the same size.  All planting had to stop to go on a worm hunt.  After returning to the potatoes and thinking everything was going well, all hell broke loose when we discovered the new experimental purple potatoes had ten in the bag; not a multiple of three.  After the tears were dried and I delivered what I believe to have been an encouraging lesson on how life is never really fair, we carried on.  Twenty three pots and sixty seven potatoes later the little people decided the trampoline was a necessary compliment to gardening.

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When I was digging out compost for the potatoes I noticed some shoots trying to escape from deep down in the compost heap.  Had I accidentally thrown  in some bulbs from a pot? I carefully kept digging without finding them until I got to the bottom.  Daffodils! I must have built the compost heap right on top of a clump of them without realising. To be fair, this is an easy mistake.  The previous gardener here planted loads of daffodils. Lots of them!  Every spring they pop up all over the place and I wonder at the amount of time he spent planting daffodil bulbs. Where did he even get them all from? The bulbs under the compost heap had gone to so much trouble trying to grow up through the three foot of soil that I decided to try and give them a chance.  I delicately lifted them out and planted them somewhere with much more light.  Being long, weak and yellow, I tied them up to raspberry canes.  They might not make it, but I thought I would give them a bit of support.  Come on daffodils, you can do it.

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First thing in the morning it sometimes feels like I am tech support for the little people. During the holiday season we allow half an hour of screen time. It usually involves minecraft, but it all has to work first.  The devices are temperamental. One of them is old and requires the occasional reboot, or its certificate refreshed with the router (by turning it off and on again of course).  The other device behaves most of the time.  Although sometimes it refuses to see the shared minecraft worlds.  I don’t know why. All I do know is that when it doesn’t work the little lady throws a mini tantrum declaring, “Just give me the world! That’s all I want!”

 

Today I decided to try and fix two very annoying noises.  One was a bad belt in my car.  For weeks now a little high pitched whine has developed while idling the engine.  A dodgy alternator? A dying pulley bearing?  I hoped it was simply the belt.  Tightening it helped a bit, which is a good sign. I could call it a fan belt, however in most engines it is not connected to the fan at all. Calling it a fan belt is engineering nostalgia, a bit like windmills that no longer mill anything but electrons. The other annoying noise was something I did not want to face fixing.  So, I started by replacing the belt and the first noise went away.  Unfortunately this did not take very long, which meant I had to move on to the other noise.

 

For a very long time now our shower has been problematic.  It got stuck at a particular temperature; quite hot.  Not scalding hot, just bearable hot as long as I kept the thermostat low on the boiler that heats the water. I even tried to fix it once, a long time ago.  The direct cut off valves to the shower were nowhere to be found in the crawl spaces around the cottage.  Instead, I let the water tank drain and then tried to remove the “thermostat cartridge” from the shower.  It did not move.  I threw everything I had into it but it did not budge. I gave up, retreated to give the problem time and thought. That was many months ago. Then it began to call to me.  Drip. Drip. Drip.

 

The drips were slow at first, a small reminder that the problem would not go away.  Fix me……………………………….Fix me……………………………….Fix me ……………………………… Then, Fix me……….Fix me……….Fix me………. And for the last few weeks; FIX ME FIX ME FIX ME FIX ME FIX ME FIX ME.

 

The system was drained and I faced the stubborn shower. It was a showdown of brass and steel meets determination.  I gave it an ultimatum; today I will not give up.  You will be fixed, and if that fails, I might call a plumber. In the end it was all about having the wrong tools for the wrong job. I might have drawn some blood, maybe crushed a finger tip, but it did get fixed.  Instead of a spanner for the stuck cartridge I used a strange device I found at the bottom of my toolbox.  It looks like a handle attached to a bicycle chain and is used for removing oil filters from cars.  It is just the device I might use for a stuck filter out of futile politeness, right before I resort to stabbing a screwdriver into the filter and then unscrewing it with the screwdriver acting as a sort of chisel.  So, the cartridge unscrewed with this bicycle chain device, and a hammer.  I always find a hammer useful in plumbing jobs.

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The cartridge was stripped down and all the relevant washers were replaced.  Now there is silence.  To be fair, there was silence a few hours ago and no hot shower, only stone cold freezing water.  After draining the system, removing the cartridge again and a little tinkering, there is now a hot shower with controllable temperature, and silence.  No dripping water torture, just the delightful quiet of a house full of children running and yelling and generally behaving like children do.

The air outside feels damp but not yet cold. I can see my breath in the air if I choose to look for it. Heading out to get some more fire wood the sound of Amazon’s Disney station blasts out the door before it is shut and the sound is muffled and contained. Only one of the little people can read, yet two of them can interact with the A. I. connected to the cottage. “Alexa, how can I stop the little lady repeatedly playing Frozen songs?” “Sorry, I can’t help with that.” 

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the moon tonight

I walk away trying to shake the song out of my head, but I can’t let it go….let it go…..ahhhhhh.  Then the moon is in the corner of my eye and I take a step back for a better look. It snags me? No. That would imply it might unravel me. Catches me? No, I am not as ensnared as the tide. It is more like correcting a picture on the wall that you spot is not quite straight. I am the picture, corrected, realigned by the image of the beginning moon. I simply stop and see the movement of the sun, earth and months, yet I cannot see anything actually moving. Slow time. I take a deep breath. The wood stove has only just been lit. As the air is still and October cool, the smoke falls around the cottage and fills my lungs with the sweet smell of Hawthorn. Seasoned Hawthorn I cut in the spring over a year ago. Many moons ago.

I needed to be home before I lost the light.  A chimney needed repaired after Ophelia ripped off the cowling.  The actual repair did not take that long, the preparation did.  A small scaffold platform had to be dragged out of the corner of the woodshed, behind the bikes, the toy trucks and the empty beehives.  The beehives had been brought in from the garden a few days before.  They had sat out in the weather looking forlorn for two winters.  It was a disgraceful thing to leave them out. Bringing them in was a job I had kept putting off due to the sadness of not having the bees and the time it would take to strip all the frames from the old wax and mess. The thing that finally made me sort them out was the approaching hurricane.  I suspected Ophelia had her eye on the beehives.

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Ophelia

The chimney job was done in time for the little people arriving home.  They were well into homework when I slipped my welly boots back on intending to head outside for more work.  This was spotted by the littlest man who declared that he would help, then they all suddenly wanted to be helpful.  I sighed, very little work would get achieved now and it would be achieved at a much slower pace. The little man, little lady, littlest man and I hammered in a wooden stake and tied up an apple tree that Ophelia had tried to take for a short walk.  We picked up twigs and fallen branches.  We played tip around the house.  I pointed out that it was called tig when I was a boy.  Nobody listened, nobody cared.  We ran, we laughed. The littlest man and little lady tripped over a couple of times. I used this as an opportunity to encourage; “Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” There are not many Batman quotes that are useful in parenting, but this is my favourite.  I spotted lots of jobs that needed done when I had the time, yet I didn’t really care at that moment. Playing in the low golden autumn light seemed more mindful.  Maybe this is what the little people meant when they said they wanted to be helpful.

The final job was closing the gates before returning to the homework. We said hello to the donkey who seemed happy about the company and we promised him some apples from the fridge tomorrow.  As we closed the gates the little man looked at them and told me that I needed to paint them, “maybe some waterproof paint.”  Helpfully reminding me of the jobs that need to be done seems to be something he got from his mother. We said goodbye to the donkey who was not as happy at this and bayed as loud as he could.  The little lady and the littlest man lost it at this; screaming and running with fear for their lives.  The donkey needs to work on making friends and saying goodbyes.

We spoke to some tired looking parents this morning. It seems that some little people are not very good at going to bed, and going to sleep. Our own little people have settled into an acceptable routine now; toilet, teeth and then two stories. It wasn’t too long ago that the littlest man would not go to sleep easily.  Every night there was an extra part of the routine.   I would lie on the floor and my hand would be held in the bars of his cot by my wrist.  I would hold his hand and gently sing a lullaby.  Eventually the lullaby would turn into a hum, and then silence. If I moved my hand slowly away and his did not grasp mine more tightly, then I would know he was asleep. Now he chuckles and giggles at his older brother, the little man, at the other side of the room. Then both of them usually drift off to sleep in silence. I thought this was a good thing; progress.  Until tonight, when I thought differently after reading some Rilke. They grow up so fast.

To Say Before Going To Sleep

by Rainer Maria Rilke

I would like to sing someone to sleep,

have someone to sit by and be with.

I would like to cradle you and softly sing,

be your companion while you sleep or wake.

I would like to be the only person

in the house who knew: the night outside was cold.

And would like to listen to you

and outside to the world and to the woods.

The clocks are striking, calling to each other,

and one can see right to the edge of time.

Outside the house a strange man is afoot

and a strange dog barks, wakened from his sleep.

Beyond that there is silence.

My eyes rest upon your face wide-open;

and they hold you gently, letting you go

when something in the dark begins to move.

It has changed. The day length has changed; the darkness is winning.  It’s the fastest rate of daylight change. The air has changed, the leaves are changing. Autumn has arrived.  Even the word “Autumn” is believed to come from the Etruscan word “autu”, meaning change of season.  I used to think that I enjoyed all seasons equally; no favourites as a policy. I was wrong, this is it; a winner by a mile.

Now I feed and water the chickens with a head torch on and the air around the cottage has the faint smell of wood smoke.  With the darkness the evening sky is now my seasonal clock as I walk down the lane.  Cygnus, the swan, is beginning its annual migration across the night and, if its dark enough, marks the arc of the milky way. The swan reminds me to keep an eye out for the skeins of birds in the sky. I usually spot the during the commute to school.  Sitting in the static traffic gives me a chance to look up.

It’s strange to have an autumn without bees.  No syrup feed, no honey harvest. The hives were left empty in the hope that maybe a stray swarm might move in; no joy.  To add insult to injury I found a wasp nest in one of the old spare hives.

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Then there is the apples. The trees are older and the pruning, feeding and weeding is beginning to bear some fruit. James Grieves, McIntosh Red, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Katy, Russet and some other unknown varieties. Although the Russet is not really a Russet. We bought it five years ago and planted it as a thin sapling.  Five years latter and we discover that it had been mislabelled. Should I have kept the receipt?  This is the consequence of growing trees, proper slow food.  The taste and textures of the apples are quite different and we eat apple and cheese sandwiches, baked apples, fried apples on toast (which is quite nice; thank you Nigel Slater), apple crumble and simply eat the apples. We have even filled a couple of boxes with apples individually wrapped in newspaper and hidden away in a cool dark place.  Yet, a little while a go I went looking for apples to buy at the market.  I wanted Russet apples as they add to the flavour of autumn for me.  I intended to buy them for my A Level class to try and convince them to branch out (sorry) and try other varieties that the supermarket keep hidden from them.  The market didn’t have any.  Later that day there was a knock on my classroom door in the middle of my A Level lesson.  It was a past pupil with a bag of twenty five russet apples. She works part-time in a fruit shop and when they arrived in, she knew I would like them; a thoughtful and wonderful gift. After they were distributed there was still one or two left to set on my desk.  Although it is nowhere near as neat as the clichéd teacher’s desk.

It’s hard to describe the busy nature of life with three little people to look after.  After a long day at school I arrived home just after the lovely Sharon; also just home from a long day at school.  We hit the ground running; the dinner needed made, the little man’s homework needed to be supervised, the little lady demanded that I listened to the debrief of her nursery school day, and the littlest man simply demanded my attention with duplo. The lovely Sharon and I juggled these tasks with no time to ask each other how our days had been.  As if to demonstrate how our priorities and perspective on life has shifted; it was only about half an hour later that the lovely Sharon remembered to mention, “Oh, yeah, I forgot to say that our school was on fire today.  We were evacuated and the fire brigade had to put it out.” At that point somebody screamed.  It might have been a duplo block that wouldn’t fit, a spelling written back to front, or someone needing to go to the toilet.  I can’t recall the details, but that was the end of the small talk.