autumn


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.

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.

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.

As I poured in the sugar syrup and put the mouse guards on the hives tonight, I remembered the strange case of the mad mouse. It all began as I sat looking out the kitchen window and spotted something small running about on the roof of the wood shed. It was one of those strange moments when it is absurd enough to take a few seconds to sink in; a mouse running about on the roof in broad daylight.  Soon The little man and I were perched at the window with binoculars watching this mouse and its nonsense.  It ran over the roof as if looking for something, then ran to the apex and slipped under a bit of bent corrugated iron.  It might disappear for a few seconds only to reappear and carry on with its quest.  What this was, we were never sure. It never went into the gutter or near any moss, it just seemed to run about the roof.  The three seemingly overfed cats never put in an appearance as it ran about for a very long time. The little man asked mouse themed questions.  One of these was, “what do mouse bones look like? Are they like our bones?”  This might just prompt me to do a little experiment that I read about a long time ago.  Catch a mouse, kill it, then place it in a wire cage.  This can be left at the bottom of the garden.  As long as it is left long enough, and as long as the holes in the wire are small enough, no larger animals should steal the bones.  So, after a while the bones will be left and it ends up as a little mouse jigsaw puzzle of sorts. Is it bad that I think this is a fine father and son activity? At the very least we will have reduced the pest population by one.

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