autumn


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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My old friend autumn has returned to me.  I felt it a few weeks ago as the air began to cool and the horse chestnuts began to put on their yellow and rust.  There are many things that mark out this season here. The tomatoes are harvested from the greenhouse as often as we can, before the exhausted golden plants drop them wearily.  Tomato soup, beetroot soup, tomato and beetroot soup. Then the bees need fed again, and some of their honey sits in the corner still to be extracted and destined for porridge on dark mornings.

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There are many things that add to the feeling of autumn, but tonight it felt closer than ever.  The darkening evenings and the ritualistic closing of the gate are two things that synchronized tonight.  As I walked down the lane the quarter moon hung low in the south west.  Earlier that evening we added the ‘see the moon’ game to the little people’s night time routine.  Bath time, milk, clean the teeth, hang out the window in the roof and find the moon, stories, prayers, then bed…..then IT’S TOO DARK!…then THAT WARDROBE LOOKS SCARY…..then the torrent of random questions that flow from a five year old mind unfolding: “Why do flies die in winter?”  “Is it possible to go to sleep and still count all the stars?”  “Who will look after all the baby flies in winter?”  Tonight the little man found the moon quickly and declared that he could see the hare in the moon; “just the beginning of it”.
With the little people filled with stories, I rumbled a bin down the lane and closed the gate.  The clouds left big holes for the moon and hints of autumn constellations to shine through. Sygnus migrating. The air was cool and the fields were filling with the thin fog that clings to everything gently and begins to make the moon and stars really feel like they are up there and you are down here; grounded.  The sights and smells of the night filled me and I could not shake the autumnal feeling and the thought of halloween not being far away.  To be honest that was probably because the lane runs beside a few acres of turnips.

I wonder if the most efficient gardening is done in the rain.  Under a steal grey autumn sky I put my head down and dug out the weeds of the raised beds.  I don’t remember ever doing this kind of digging at this time of year.  I would usually dig out the weeds sometime in the middle of winter.  This year I am trying the experiment of Hungarian Rye Grass.  In the main vegetable patch it was sown a week or two ago and seems to be getting itself settled in.


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The sowing for this kind of grass ends in a few days, hence the weeding in the rain.  A couple of espressos and the colour of the beech trees keeps me warm in the drizzle. Being in the garden lets me see all the jobs that need done.  I classify many of the jobs as just dreams and I try and add them to my blind areas.  Then there are jobs that I need to create time for; the crab apples need transformed into jelly with cloves and rose hips.

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One of the hives needs its block of winter insulation under the roof.  Both the hives need mouse guards fitted; too late in many beekeeper’s eyes.

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Books.  We guiltily took the little people to their nursery school and had a day for ourselves.  Over the course of the day I watched the lovely Sharon relax a little and un-knot her neck and shoulders.  She is a mother, a full time teacher, and a carrier, incubator, of a little soul.  As part of our day off we visited the big city and were drawn like magnets to the old second hand book shop.  We spent ages in the narrow passages with books pilled at awkward angles feet above our heads. We browsed shelves of books two books deep.  We filled a couple of bags with our foraging.  I carried the bags.  The lovely Sharon is quite independent with such things and protested on several occasions.  I stood my ground.  I would love to think that chivalry is not dead, but in truth, it is not out of chivalry that I carried the bags.  It was just so I could say, “you have enough to carry.”  Those were heavy bags and it was a long day but it was worth it to deliver a cheesy line and see her roll her eyes and hold back a smile.

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Fifteen minutes of digging here, twenty minutes of weeding there.  A wee bit done on one day, then the next, then the next. All this time builds up and seems to get some sort of a job done.  The main vegetable patch has been cleared and a compost bin squeezed to capacity with buttercup, chickweed and nettles.  Sometimes my hands were stung all over from the nettles. Sometimes flurries of yellow and gold leaves would burst from the old beech tree.  Sometimes my back would ache and burn.  Sometimes hundreds of rooks would spiral and twist on the wind over my head.

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The postman brought a little bag of manure in the mail today.  This manure will take time to prepare itself and the soil it will live in.  This was Monty Don’s idea, not mine.  I cast the seeds according to the instructions.  It said that protection from mice and birds may be required.  I looked the cats and gave them a stern look; earn your keep.

The rain, wind, seeds, soil and cat were all left to sort themselves out.  All but the raised beds; they are thick with green weeds and another packet of seeds is waiting.

The beech nuts cracked under my feet and I walked on.  I tried the radio again, “calling all radios.” Silence, but for rain on falling leaves, birds, and beechnuts.  I carried on, spying the path ahead rising slightly to marginally higher ground.  Maybe up there I will make contact. More silence.  I continued on through the coppice and marvelled at the amount of hazel nuts fallen everywhere.  I cut a walking stick here once; a full staff now snapped to a normal length.  In my hand on this day was a light rowan stick.  They say the rowan can keep away witches.  I don’t know any witches.  Maybe it works.

I gave up on radio contact and reverted to a single bar of signal on the phone.  I walked back past a waterfall and pool carpeted with autumn leaves, yellow, red, brown and washed out green.  Back through the coppice pondering how I want to walk here at night, or sleep here.  I want to see this place bathed in silver moonlight and dark shadows.  I stopped at an ancient burial mound to take off my rucksack and eat my lunch, take in the air, sounds, and the rain.  I thought about the three thousand year old bones beneath my feet and wondered what they wondered when they walked here.

A blackthorn was returned to on the way back.  Spied on the walk out and thick with sloes as big and plump as ripe grapes, deep purple and glaucous with wax bloom.  They say that making sloe gin is slow but not laborious.  One year at least, seven is better for complex almond flavours.  I don’t drink gin, so seven years of waiting does not seem so unattainable.  I might have some seven year old fig and vanilla gin in the corner of some cupboard somewhere.  A damp hat was filled, then a lunch bag.  This made me feel better, less guilty, for leaving all the hazelnuts behind.

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I held the little lady up to see the nearly full moon rising.  I taught her the name of the moon.  She made a close approximation of the word and seemed pleased with herself.  The voice of the little man broke through the cold autumn air, “the moon is very far away.”  The little lady echoed a reply, “muun, muun, muun.”

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In class we encourage our students to make word lists as science seems like another language.  Find the words you don’t know, list them, then find out their meaning.  I feel ashamed that I don’t do this often enough myself and decide to sit down with a poem after the little people are filled with stories and tucked up in bed.

vellum

ceresin

chrism

codling

fetor

hallooing

purblind

dolt

sumac

blear

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One more TV then we all play outside.  Welly boots are put on, we are wrapped up in fleeces.  The lovely Sharon has taken to wearing my fleece now.  The shoulders hang over her slim frame.  Apparently it is more comfortable as it is big enough to keep her warm, her and the new soul unfolding itself inside her.

Above a clear sky the air cools and tightens in the gloaming light. It is still and locks itself around us changing the sound.  The little people laugh and scream and play.  The sound they make in this air is an echo of memories, winter, autumn, playing, laughing, childhood.

The  wood-smoke pours off the roof of the cottage and smells rich and scented.  Old piano smoke.  We were given that piano years ago, rescued from a trip to the dump.  It was a semi-tone out when the piano tuner eventually fought with it to be in tune with itself.  The lovely Sharon played for years until it was time for it to move on.  The lovely Sharon’s sister said no, to keep it for her.  We would keep it until it she was ready to take it.  It filled a corner of the cottage.  We would often look at that piano and think how much space it took up and how we wished she would take it.  We wished it for four years until we gave up.  I cut it up and ripped out the old iron harp, taking it for scrap.  A piano makes such strange sad sounds when it is being taken apart.  The lovely Sharon’s sister visited the other day and remarked at how much space had been freed up by getting rid of it. Now it warms our feet and mixes in the air with shouts and laughter. 

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We collected apples from the apple trees and stacked the tubs in the utility room.  The little people keep stealing them and feeding them to the donkey in the back field.  They grab them and run as I shout, “No more apples to the donkey! No more apples to the donkey!”   They run and giggle and laugh with disobedience.

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The billhook is sharpened until it is as how I imagine a samurai blade should be.  The field in front of the cottage  has been cleared of sheep so I take the opportunity to climb over the fence and trim the hawthorn hedge, the bits too high for the sheep.  Speed is what is needed with the billhook.  The moon rises slowly with its waning edge just showing, red in the blue sky.  After the trimming I take the little lady away from her toys by the woodstove.  I wrap her up in fleece and welly boots.  In the autumn air she turns and notices as I hoped she would, “muun, muun muun!”