Autumnal Yearnings

The sky is smudged with inky fingerprints. I know there is sunlight up there: it sparkles through the cracks in the cloud like a light behind broken misted glass.

Out across the hills, tweed colours are dabbed here and there with a sponge – russet, ochre, burnished bronze – lit up as if from within. Curling, gold-tinged leaves of the limes in the garden reach out as if to pull the clouds away. Speckled spiders hang in raindrop-bejewelled webs between twigs. The air smells fresh and clean.

There’s something in the wind. A feeling; a yearning. I am restless; unable to settle down to anything for long. The long-tailed tits and blue tits bustling about in the cherry seem in a hurry. The grey squirrel scolding the tail-twitching cat from a high perch holds handfuls of filberts. The spindle has sprays of red berries like paint spatters.

I can smell wood smoke; a warm blue comfort that both reassures and smothers. A flock of starlings bursts across a field.

I remember yesterday’s sunshine and the light glittering on the sea. Brent geese arrowed across the water with single-minded intent. They know what is calling them. They know how to answer the restless feeling that seeps through their bones, too.

It is Autumn. Time to go. I watch them until they vanish into memory. One day…

Photo by Ben Dearnley

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West Country WILD!!

Hurricane Katia makes her presence felt off Witch's Point, West Glamorgan, Wales. Photo of me by Ben Dearnley.

Waves crunching on huge boulders sound like dragons roaring.

It's getting wilder...! Spray, rain, gales and sun flare.

Surf's up!

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Hints of Autumn

Autumn’s leafy gold footprints are scattered over the garden after a day and night of wind and rain. Cloud smudges the sky like charcoal fingerprints.

In the hedgerows, sloes and rose hip gemstones stud the greenery, and the wet grass gleams. I am anxious; agitated about clinging on to summer. Not letting it go. Not wanting Autumn to stalk the land, despite her finery, for Winter’s dark shade peers over her shoulder.

Yet summer’s bounty is not fully given, for there are still gifts to find. Grass verges bordering quiet lanes are a riot of tumbled flowers and seedheads. Teasels and thistle-flowers, lichen and daisies. Birds gathering in twittering clusters pause from their travel planning to feast on the berries, and the insects run, buzz and hop with a few moments’ respite.

Tomorrow the sun may shine again and we can forget that the year is waning. After all, here in the West Country, Summer lasts just that little bit longer.

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Sunday sunshine, blue-sky spirit-lift. Leather jackets, excitement; roaring freedom.

Traffic, frustration; aggravation.

Houses, cars, smothering. Countryside fenced, parcelled. Forbidden.

Narrow lane, nettled footpath, trickling stream.

Dappled bank, fish bubble.

Blue spark.

A moment’s contentment.

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The cliffs fall away to clefts and crevices, filled with Jurassic secrets. And then to steel sea, where a tall ship waits for the tide. Salt wind stirs our senses.

We walk through a green channel, banked by lichen-wrapped elder and hawthorn; spiky gorse, teasels. Silence but for the hush of wave on rock, far below.

Then suddenly, a swish just over our heads that hurtles down the cliff-face; an arrow of air piercing time and space.

We look but can see nothing but rock. Our skin tingles. We feel blessed.

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Hot Sunday, Lulworth Cove

Silk-fine sea lays on a breeze, pinned in place by masts and their reflections. Round pebbles roll underfoot like peppercorns. Where white-edged wavelets dissipate, the water is clear as isinglass.Lulworth Cove, Dorset

Dog barking waggily; dribble and splash of a swimmer. Sea breathing.

Heat radiates from the cliffs holding the cove in cupped hands. Stripes and zigzags; glittery quartz and sandstone. A “knock” reverberates as someone tries to break open rocks for fossils.

It is a postcard; yet I am suffocating at the bottom of a cauldron.

But there… steps up to blue air and freedom. The cove shimmers.

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The Sound of Summer

Sunlight paints patterns on the curtains, leaving shadowy leaf shapes. Early traffic grumbles; great tits pipe. Then, above the murmurings of the starting day comes a shrill stream of sound like a fine line scratched in glass with a metal nib.

It is a “scream” of swifts, streaking down the street with exuberant shrieks; like children on a toboggan. In the quiet of the early morning it sounds as if they are right in-between the Bath Stone buildings, riding the winds blowing down the hill, then wheeling up and back to the top to do it again.

But “scream” does not have the right connotations: as Gilbert White, the great 18th century naturalist, remarked in The Natural History of Selborne,  the “one harsh screaming note” of the swift most often occurs in “the most lovely summer weather”.

How often have you heard that cry and looked up, shading your eyes against the glare of a bright sky, only to see distant flecks in the blue like commas? Who has not yearned to fly up there, living on the wind, breaking free of the bonds of earth, “touching the face of God”?

It seems inconceivable that the swift can fly so high and so fast; and it ascends yet higher at dusk, rising up to 10,000 feet, even then refusing to succumb to the pull of the ground and shutting down only half its brain so it can sleep on the wing. It remains always aware of danger while asleep and can correct for wind shift, keeping its long wings outstretched to glide more efficiently with fewer flaps than while fully awake.

During the daytime the swift is a Red Arrow. Last year, a Common Swift took the record for the fastest bird – 47mph in horizontal flight, whereas the Peregrine Falcon uses gravity to dive at 186mph.

It lives almost exclusively on the wing, even mating in flight, something Gilbert White recorded for perhaps the first time. The only time a swift lands is for nesting in buildings, and then only clings on to vertical surfaces with its claws – indeed, its Latin name, Apus apus, means “without a foot”, since it is barely able to walk at all.

According to the British Trust for Ornithology, which tracks migrating birds, a young swift may fly nearly 300,000 miles nonstop between fledging and building its own nest the following summer. That’s more than two million miles in a lifetime, or 100 times around the earth.

The swift used to be called the Devil Bird because of its cry and its habit of nesting in old buildings, and even though we are more in tune with conservation today, numbers have declined by a third in Britain in recent years, says the RSPB’s John Day, because of a lack of nooks and crannies in modern buildings, as well as falling numbers of their insect food, thanks to pesticides.

Eve Tigwell of the BTO says there are three really useful things that people can do to help swifts.  “Firstly, if there are existing gaps in their roof, don’t block them up, especially if swifts are already nesting there or are seen in the area.  Secondly, if a roof is replaced, or with newly built houses, make sure that swift boxes are included in the building specification.  Thirdly, if there are swifts in the area, put up some nest boxes.  All these are particularly important where people see screaming parties of swifts.”

Now it’s August and our skies are becoming quieter – most swifts have left Britain to fly down through France and Spain to south of the Sahara where they will spend the winter before returning next April to the same nests they left this year.

We will miss them. The voices of blackbird and herring gull evoke their own special feelings; but when you hear the high, free keen of the swift, you know that summer is finally here.

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