Autumn has an indelible patina loaded with meaning and memory – of old, sensory allusions, scents long forgotten and then suddenly revived, bringing you up short and unexpectedly sometimes. Every autumn of a life outdoors is a little like pulling on a favourite jumper that smells faintly of someone you love.
There are certain scents that are recognisable blindfold; sycamore leaves, ivy flowers, newly turned plough, woodsmoke. Everything is more tactile; I love picking up the deeply ribbed, fat cigars of spiral-curled whitebeam leaves, stroking the chestnut velvet of the inside of a beechnut husk, sleek as a thoroughbreds coat, or smoothing the hole made in a hazelnut with my thumb and trying to determine whether a dormouse or a wood mouse ate the nut within. Absent-mindedly, treasures are pocketed.
I come home with a fox skull in my pocket. The narrow forehead is crazed with the zigzag lines knitting boneplates together above the long muzzle. Elegant bones orbit the empty eye sockets like teacup handles. The skull is greenish and softened, crumbly at the nasal cavity like wet paper, from long lying on the ground – yet it smells strongly of the burnt, musky smell of fox. It must have lain close to an earth in use, marked recently as one of its own.
After Hurricane Gonzalo whipped its tail end through the woods, there was a pause, and then the almighty wrenching, screaming and then crashing noise of a big tree being rent asunder. The displacement of air and solid wood leaves me feeling winded somehow. In the calm the next day, there are small, intimate sounds; the contact calls of long-tailed tits and goldcrests, like squeaky wheelbarrow wheels and a favourite sound; the muffled, rhythmic clop of horse’s hooves over damp leaves and hollow, rooty earth.
At the foot of a wilding apple tree, nibbled fruits lie on ground pocked and poached with deer slots. I pick out the hoofprints of fallow and roe, overlaid with grey and brown hair. I roll it between my fingers. Hollow and brittle, deer hair snaps easily and bends like a drinking straw.
Along the hedgerow are berries less explored. The creamy white globes of non-native snowberries contrast with the black berries of wild privet, buckthorn and dogwood. A wayfaring tree along the track has both red and black berries – but it is the spindle which surprises and delights the eye. The bright pink pods, folded in like pasties over a quartet of bright orange seeds inside, pitted like tiny satsumas. Whoever said nature’s colours don’t clash? And who would put pink and orange together? I think I probably would, given half the chance, in honour of a favourite little tree.