Nature Notes

Fires in the Fall.

Writing in my hut, I am distracted by a small, determined scraping. I suspect I know IMG_2427what it is, but I can’t be sure until I go outside and look: there, late on in the season, a magnificent hornet is methodically scraping the wood from the window, leaving tiny blonde stripes on the dark wood. The strength of her mandibles (I can hear this inside with the door closed and cannot replicate it with my own fingernail) is quite astonishing.  I wonder why she is still building? Still chewing the wood to a papery pulp for the nest, which should have broken up and been disbanded, surely, last month?

It is mild, but perhaps she is merely going through the motions. There are other hornets, hoverflies and insects around the remaining sprays of flowering ivy, with its warm scent of hay, honey and lemons. But this is the last of the ivy and the last days of the hornets. All except the new queens who will find a crevice to crawl into and hibernate, folding their sweet wrapper wings away, their bodies producing glycerol as anti-freeze. The hornets buzz loudly, marmalade and toffee-striped against ivy growing up a field maple in the same rich, buttery, caramelised colours.

And then autumn really arrives and we are held in the hug of a cold, white fog, all of us short-sighted now. The horses spook, shying at shapes looming out of the fog that turnIMG_2428 out to be familiar landmarks, ever the prey animal. Even the badger tracks from the laneside sett that slews chalkily out onto the road are white on the grey tarmac.

Kites are forced to roost all day in the tall ash trees, forked tails pointed down, grounded like planes (as it were, several feet above the earth). Their high whinnying, mournful calls pierce the fog that muffles other birdsong: they sound like a ghostly shepherd, calling his dogs from that direction, then this.

At Titcomb, an unflayed hedge burns in firecracker colours through the fog; against the butter brightness of field maple are hawthorn, sloe, guelder rose, and spindle’s  shocking pink capsules and tangerine seeds.

Then after the fog, days of driving rain soaks through all my clothes. But I see my first IMG_2450woodcock of the year, lifting from the leaf litter as if part of it were floating up, its long bill pointed at the soil.

The first real holes are blown through the wood’s canopy and I can see the hill through it and the first storm casualty: a tall, 100 year-old ash tree has snapped like a pencil, its core emptied by rot, its broken crown supported in the arms of a neighbouring oak.

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