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Autumn – a feast in four acts

Countryman Richard Hollingum considers autumn…

Prologue

The thing about Autumn is that it is easy to recognise when it starts. There is a sort of prelude that accompanies the rapid shortening of the days, when the mornings are a bit sharper and you can start to watch the sunrise without having to get up with the sparrows. The movement from winter to spring and spring to summer never seems to be so clear but Autumn rarely creeps upon us: it jumps in with lower temperatures and an invitation to join the feast.

Act 1 – Bounty

The fields have been harvested. The produce is now entering the food chain, though nothing as basic as the wheat to the local miller, to the bread oven, to the table. Nonetheless, the seeds and vegetables and fruit in the fields are making their way and harvest hampers are being filled. Even if we don’t share the Christian Harvest Festival, we are still extremely grateful to all those people involved that have brought the food to our table.
That food might also have come out of the garden. The last of the beans have been frozen, the apples have been stored and the potatoes are being dug. Our Autumn raspberries are about the last to give up and we have been known to pick a few on Christmas Day. All is safely gathered in and then we can discuss whether to leave what’s left in the garden as cover for the birds and small mammals or cut down it to look tidy.

Act 2 – Death and Renewal

For the farmer, the need for aesthetics is over-ridden by the need to keep the year going. As AG Street pointed out, the farmer’s year begins in October, obeying Nature’s calendar. One crop out, another one in, even if it is just to cover the field until the Spring crop comes along. Fields of stubble have been tilled and drilled, others have been ploughed and will be seeded soon.
In the hedgerows 
The glossy berry picturesquely cleaves 
Their swarthy bunches mid the yellow leaves
The fruits are ripening, stores for the birds and animals for the coming months. The seeds ensure that the blackberry, the blackthorn, the rose-hip can increase their hold and be picked again next year. In some cases this ambition is cut down, literally, as the hedges are shaved, partly to make the place look tidy but – importantly – to keep the hedges thick and productive. Such actions are quick and decisive, the art and craft of the hedge-layer having long given way to the flail mower.
The fields offer little cover at this stage so the kestrel sits on the tree in the hedge or hovers above the land, picking her way through the mice and shrews. Sharing the same fields, the red kite circles round and round whilst the buzzard sits on the earth, both waiting. Sometimes they may follow the plough. The kite glides overhead, the buzzard is behind the tractor, at a distance, not like those noisy boisterous gulls, who spend more time barging each other out of the way than picking up the turnings on offer.
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Act 3 – In the Skies

The female kestrel is focussed on the ground, watching a mouse scurry through the bits of stubble that still protrude through the tilled earth. She does not see the approaching rook until a squawk breaks her mindful reverie and together both windhover and crow tumble several feet towards the ground before recovering. The kestrel turns quickly and heads up and off towards the hidden, pale sun. The rook, thinking the kestrel has some tasty morsel that he could steal, or perhaps just wanting her out of the way, gives chase. For several moments they spiral around each other, then two more rooks join the fray and the kestrel, deciding that it is time to move on, flies away to the next field. Half-heartedly in pursuit, the corvids shout abuse at her and eventually descend, to gather in a loose group to clamour and cackle about the sport.
It has been many months since we have seen all three raptors in the area at once. The red kite appear to have moved a couple of miles north of these fields and only make a rare appearance now and again. Seven have been seen in one tree, but that was last winter. The owner of the big estate says that he counted nine kites overhead one day. Theirs is a splendid success story.

Act 4 – A Feast for the Eyes

A feast of food for all. Yet Autumn provides another feast, a feast of visual glory. The golden hour may be earlier and shorter but the intensity of the last of the evening sun can be breathtaking. And the early morning mists across the shallow valleys create imagined islands in the middle distance, a church spire the only indication of settlement. On other occasions mountains burst through the clouds, the altitude and the chill in the air catching the breath.
But the highlight of this season is the magical show of leaves in reds and yellows as they prepare to fall. There is a row of small trees – cherries and maples – along a hedge that when viewed from one of the fields presents itself as the skyline. In the Autumn these trees may be vermillion, claret and scarlet whilst others are the colour of sunshine, saffron and gold. The best time to see them is when the sun is shining on them but the sky behind is leaden grey. I know that the rain is coming and there is a bit of a wind but that doesn’t matter. I stand there and watch, for in a moment the scene will be gone. The sun disappears, the rain falls and the leaves start their inevitable journey down to eventual assimilation in the soil. Momentary but beautiful – or perhaps beautiful only because it is fleeting?
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