Autumn still

So many spiders have spun threads over the colossal manure heap in the field, it seems as though some aesthetically offended individual has tried to disguise it with a delicate tarpaulin of silk. The spider webs gently undulate in the air currents, catching the sun, making the whole mound shimmer. Sheep stand around, keeping to the sunny side. They look white and thin after their shearing, each sporting a smart, crisp, blue-paint number on their flanks. The embodiment of ‘sheepish’, they have an air of embarrassment, as if they are not quite sure what they should be doing or whether they should be there at all, as if they are trying to pull off nonchalance… and failing.

Peering over the wall into the wood, it’s clear the canopy has thinned; I can see through the trees quite a way. Our new nest boxes stand out, little sentry-boxes, unoccupied and lonely; the entrances look dark and empty. A thick leaf carpet covers the track, I can hear heavy drips hitting the woodland floor. The wood’s mood is definitely changing. But to cheer me there is bird song around, and little avian forms flit lower through the branches than they do in summer. It gives me the impression of being welcomed.

I am scattering wild flower seed along the track edges today. I take a single seed head and fluff it out. The down of each seed expands so that a single seed head, once less than a centimetre across, now fills my whole litre box with white fuzz, light as a feather. I pull out a few flimsy spheres at a time and blow them into the air. They drift on the breeze, in and out of light-shafts, falling gently to the floor where they bowl along before coming to rest in the fold of a fallen leaf, the rise of a root, a patch of uneven earth left by the badgers. This is nature’s method, dispersal by wind.

Hoping to see the deer, I walk on quietly. Leaves fall around me, landing with soft taps. Sometimes the leaves scrape other leaves as they fall, sometimes a heavier twig or acorn or crabapple hits the floor with a crack; the wood itself is loud today, sounding like the footsteps of small scampering creatures in pursuit – but each time I look up there is no one there.

Red hawthorn berries and yellow birch leaves are sparks of colour in a drab carpet of brown. The leaves are damp underfoot; as I tread, the noise is less of a crunch, more the sound of deflating mulch. Through the opening canopy I see blue sky and clouds; where the sun filters in there is warmth, but the air is cool. The smell is sharp, of cold leaves. There are some fungi about but not the abundance of earlier years; this season has been too dry then too cold for the wealth of mushrooms I have seen before. Any that have sprung up have been well slug-munched.

An ichneumon wasp passes at ankle height. It is elegant, thin and brightly patterned in orange and black. It pauses several times to land, disappearing beneath the leaf litter, reappearing to continue its flight. Then as I watch, it lands on a sun-bathed grass stalk. Seeming to revel in the warmth, the wasp lifts an orange leg high, catching the long antenna on the back of its head with its foot. Pulling its antenna through its toes, the wasp strokes its antenna clean again and again with the supple grace of an acrobat. Spruce up completed, it continues on its journey along the woodland floor.

There is a tapping sound coming from the trunk of a dead tree beside me. I look up. A nuthatch has an acorn in its beak. It must put the nut down somewhere out of sight because soon it is tapping away again with its empty bill, hopping from one side to the other of the place it is hammering, catching the sun, flashing a warm yellow from its pale chestnut chest. The nuthatch works away, for minutes, then picks up the acorn again. It places it where it’s been hammering and taps it hard, but after several good bashes, the nuthatch grabs the nut and flies off huffily. That acorn obviously wasn’t a good fit for that hole; perhaps this bird has another storage place in mind.

As the sun drops, so does the temperature. I can hear a faint insect hum in the high canopy where sunlight warms the leaves that remain. A few aphids drift in the less chilly clearings, and where the thinning canopy allows the sun access, silhouettes of leaves pattern the smooth thick trunks of the sycamores. The wood is still and tranquil. The cogs of the seasons turn smoothly, steadily, while the wood quietly prepares for the return of winter.

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