Unless you are looking in the right direction, you won’t see the first oak leaves fall. By the time they tap onto the woodland floor and you’ve turned your head to look, they have finished their silent descent and are nestled, motionless on the ground; then it is impossible to identify the particular leaf that was the origin of the sound. The leaves don’t fall often, but the more time you spend looking about you, the more likely it is that you will glimpse one in transit, that one will drop through your field of view.
And there’s lots to look at. From squirrel-cracked nutshells, to russet ferns trodden by deer, from delicate spider-silk, newly spun to immense yew trunks, ancient and gnarled. You are standing under dense, green, end-August leaf cover – this is the wood at its most enclosed, the closest it gets to a Robin Hood woodland. The wind rushing through the leaves above lifts the canopy; huge branches of foliage rise and fall like the swelling sea. The sound too is like waves on a beach, pulsing crescendos. High above you in the tumult, a small, grey and chestnut bird, a nuthatch, hammers a hazel nut. The tapping against the hollow deadwood rings out above the sound of the trees.
Twigs snap and the newly fallen leaves give a crisp crunch as you crush them underfoot. Looking down you will see feathers of the moulting season. There are newly emerged fungi too; if you stoop to examine the perfect domes you will detect the smell of mushrooms, earthy and thick. Bright red berries of the lords-and-ladies glow soft and ripe, dark green berries of the holly stand out, hard and full. A burst of bird song above cuts through the air. You look up, and it’s then you catch it, out of the corner of your eye; the sudden movement as the oak leaf detaches, falling straight, barely time to tumble. The first leaves of autumn.