The smell of rotting vegetation, the heavy still mists and the hues of yellow, rust-red and beige inspires melancholic emotions; even the garden robin adopts a gentle song, heart-breaking in its sweet sadness. But autumn for me is also a season of rousing splendour and reflective tranquillity, a fresh October morning, dense with dew, has a gentleness that belies the deceptively frantic activities of our wildlife. Jays and squirrels work tirelessly attempting to hide a store of acorns, the hedgehogs, bats and brimstone butterflies search for safe places to hibernate and fungi force up strange looking spore laden bodies. Autumn is also the time of migration, with millions of birds heading south, some arrive with us from colder climes, others departing on an increasingly perilous journey to Africa. The spectacle of migration is both beautiful and awe-inspiring with thousands of birds using Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserves such at Cley, Holme and Hickling Broad as important staging posts to re-fuel. Wild places for large migrating flocks to rest and feed, free from disturbance, are dwindling and need our constant protection.
A bitter-sweet fondness of autumn is deep in our sub-conscious primeval self, a time when our link to the natural world was stronger and our reliance on it close and personal. Nature’s sudden bountiful provision gives us a sense of well-being, but an ancient trepidation at the pending winter’s struggle is never far away. It is no wonder that Northern European cultures have festivals in October, most revolving around ‘food and thanks’. In times past anything that could not be pickled, salted or stored was consumed in copious amounts, fruits and vegetables were cooked and converted into any number of jams and chutneys.
October is the month of blustery storms, with cold fronts doing battle for superiority with warm air. Our shoreline is often battered by immense bowling waves, having been drawn up by low pressure then excited by high winds, and silt brown rivers swollen with heavy rain course at speed to the coast to meet them. Trees, still sailed with leaves, fight to stay rooted with many an over stretched silver birch losing the battle, the veteran oaks will shrug disdainfully and discard a limb or two. An unimaginable trillion seeds are scattered far and wide, beneficiaries of the tempest’s anger.
As the weather settles ‘twitchers’ will search out stray migrant birds, flung off passage and far from their intended home. In contradiction, autumn can quickly calm into periods of mild weather. Our rain soaked woods become thick with moist still air, absorbing sounds and making them unusually silent and empty. Often the only noise is the ‘sirrits’ and ‘tsees’ of a mixed flock of titmice passing through, bounding from branch to branch, there for a moment then gone. If you are lucky, one may find a goldcrest or late to leave warbler among them, and the earlier storm always bringing the possibility of something rarer.
It is the first cold morning that sets autumn apart, a season of subtle understated beauty, far from the garish colours of summer or stark magnificence of winter. One can see the modesty of autumn in a frosty meadow covered in a ghostly sea of gossamer. Spun by a multitude of rappelling ‘money’ spiders, the threads creating the appearance of a shimmering silver net draped across the field. It is also the season that shows off the brilliance of the orb spider’s engineering skills, the familiar form of their webs are barely perceptible in summer. Yet in autumn, on a cool damp day, hundreds can be visible and it is then that they exhibit their artistry, particularly when spangled by necklaces of tiny icy droplets.
Autumn is nature’s reset button, with winter being a period of recovery for some and a battle for survival for others, but our wildlife is finding it increasingly difficult to survive or recover. Demands for land and resources, continuing pollution and climate change are all having a dramatic effect on our natural world. However, just as the seasons change so can we, more and more people are coming together to protect and improve our environment so future generations can feel nature’s generous embrace.
Header image by Ross Hoddinott/2020VISION