A car shushes down the lane and breaks the short-lived romance of silence. As I glance out of the bedroom window at the disappearing evening, the sky has suddenly switched from a mellow dusk into instant night – it is that time of year, I suppose. The evening no longer stretches out in the leisurely disposal of Summer, but simply ends. It is September. It is unequivocally Autumn. Soon, on the 21st it will be the Autumn equinox, when day and night are of equal lengths. But the weight of the charcoal cloud pressing down upon the lingering red traces of sunset suggests an imposed quietness which is pleasing. No birdsong, not even the robin’s newly melancholy notes. The sky, at least, is soundless.

Now there is plush dark. All traces of the day erased. A plane light blinks out its trail in red across the sky. In the near distance there is the Beckley transmitter, a telecommunications and broadcasting mast to the north east of Oxford, a tower of lights like a pin of red diamante against a background of deep velvet. I only ever notice the mast in the later part of the year. Because then I notice the dark, too.

I think of the mast like a sort of inland lighthouse, guiding me ‘home’ in the months of the year when the darkness can feel overwhelming. I look out of this window or the kitchen window on the shortest of afternoons and instantly I am enlivened by a mere glimpse of its glimmering structure. I feel like a ship pulled towards port. 

I read about the mast, courtesy of Wikipaedia. Its history is judiciously detailed and only adds to the peculiar sense of tenderness I experience when I witness it in its nocturnal radiance. It stands on a hill just a few miles from the city in a rural district dominated by farmland and woodland and the large wetland reserve of Otmoor, which lays around 400 feet below the base of the mast which itself rises over 500 feet into the night sky. I have never noticed it in daylight, though I do not look for it then.

The mast has stood on that hill since 1962, and has been transmitting radio and television programming in various and complex-seeming modes of advancing technology ever since. Into my home the mast brings the World, various, colourful, an ineluctable part of my modern life. Without those voices and pictures – and wifi and mobile services more recently – what would my Winter be, what would my existence be? Quieter, yet graver too. This knowledge, these things, lift me.

It has been another hot, bright day. But now an owl calls through the dark – a tawny – just once and faintly, but unmistakeably. The owl calls it’s soft, cool, hooting woodwind.

It is raining now, in moments, but the mast never stops glowing. The mast may be the antithesis of nature, and nature is as much a part of me as I am it, yet I understand that the culture that the mast brings me is ineffably ‘me’ too.

I listen to the rain beginning and ending and beginning again and I stare at the mast, and I thank it. Then I close the curtains on the night and go downstairs to see my husband, my daughter, and a screen filled with the coloured-in time of television. The mast is more than just the sum of its parts. The mast brings me the World, and the mast brings me home, too.

A Living Landscape

The scene is so peaceful it is like standing in a painting brought to life, animated by the fresh swish-swoosh wash of the winds. Early Autumn winds, still gentle, as if only in training for later on. The winds cast patterns of organised wrinkles across the lacquered surface of the river, which is swollen with rain from a previous incarnation. 

The water’s glossiness offers hints of reflectivity. Roughly rendered branch-shapes of drooping Crack willow sacrifice a slender, lanceolate leaf every now and again, to be carried away like cargo on the currents. Impressionistic daubs of thick, neat clusters of still-upstanding rushes and sedges at the river’s margins. A small bird fidgeting between stems within a mass of rushes, its same repeated shape visible and then invisible, like something hidden inside this composition which only certain eyes can see.  It is a question mark. An incongruity, in this very English-seeming late-year scene. Perhaps one of the summer’s warblers? A reed warbler, maybe – a migrant bird which forms its tiny bowl-like nest using the plant’s stems as support struts – and which, travelling from as far inland as here – should surely be making its way by now towards its wintering grounds? Its gargantuan return journey spanning the distances of far vaster canvases than this miniscule scene. Over Southern Europe’s shifting, dustier hues, across a wash of desert, and eventually to Africa, with its cliched ochres and reds.

The sky, above this pond-sized meander-bend, grading from a foreground of water and grazing land punctuated distantly by sheep, on into stands of woodland, eventually backed by the series of whale-like humps which make up the long spinal scarp of the Chiltern hills on the far horizon, is cornflower-blue on this rinsed-clean day. In the upper part of the background, dozens of classic cumulus are caught mid-drift.

I stand on the ‘third’ bank at this broad juncture where the river splits into two channels. My eyes move automatically towards a willow tree close by which flickers with varied birdlife.  Inside, I feel as excited as the birds appear to be, yet must remain as still as if I was just a drawing of myself, in my desire to observe the tree’s goings-on yet not disturb a single bird from its activities.

A chiffchaff is singing its sweet two-note confection. Chifchaff chifchaff. As I hear it doing every March, when the birds usually arrive locally. Some may already be here – over-wintering, as chiffchaffs increasingly do now, in our milder Winter climates. Nonetheless, this feels like an oddly vivacious moment, a little pause within this long slow decay-time that stretches out between late Summer and late Autumn, a moment reminiscent of Spring. Perhaps this bird too will overwinter in England, perhaps it will remain close by. Perhaps it will leave yet. And even though I know most birds will sing at times throughout the year, in differing modes and when opportunity allows, the chiffchaff seems to have some special and particular power over my sense of seasonal compass.

The willow leaves, still mostly green, are lent a soft gleam by sunlight falling over the canopy. But clutches of leaves here and there are yellow and rusted with brown, like over-ripe banana skins. 

Even in my statue-like composure, my mind is still working, and I guess at the birds’ interest in the tree: insects, or maybe tiny mites. These are invisible to my eyes, at least without some form of magnification, these scraps of chitin and wing and antennae whose habitats are leaf and bark and which only acute avian vision seems capable of seeing. Another hidden element.

Blue tits call and here’s a troupe of long-tailed tits engaged in their collective of call and answer like tiny silver bells being rung, and there’s a robin’s wistful melodrama and perhaps even another, even more unexpected bird. Another summer warbler. It is a willow warbler, perhaps, which is vocalizing.

Or perhaps not. It could, instead, be another chiffchaff – their songs are distinctive but their calls barely so. The willow warbler’s name fits the tree though not only this tree.

If this is a painting it is now fully alive. The leaf warblers in their drabber tree-shades and the blue tits with their plumages like old-fashioned tea-china, all searching busily through the canopy with needle-fine skills.

In each one’s miniature elegance the tree is not just an English riparian willow but something more Japanese and ‘just so’. Cherry-blossom delicate.

Though across the water, jackdaws pass overhead in a flinty-voiced, exuberant rabble.

Spring seems to haunt Autumn in almost-equinoctial days and sudden conspicuous bursts of life on warm blue days and suggestions, hints of what’s to come, later, in another season, another picture. I dream of Spring all year. Even when it’s finally here. There is no season quite as special nor as fleeting.

On the water, seven willow leaves in a gradient of sizes move off in alternative directions, shifted out by frazzling surface-currents like family members dividing themselves off into different lives. To the back of the river, where riverbank shades out into floodplain meadow, there are thickets of grass and nettle, and teasel and hogweed represented in tall, sculptural forms – physically imposing seed-heads which also act as perfect feeding stations for finches in Winter.  

I could stay here all day, the one human being in this composition, observing all these images of natural life. No, not images. This may look like a set but is real, lives being lived, precisely, specifically. Like the patterns on the water driven by the movements of the wind. It would be easy to stay here. I’m so still I’ve just become part of the scene. No threat to anything.

But I can’t, of course. However beautiful that would be, it would not be as good as going home now, and remembering this short episode, this brief composition of time and activity and stillness, whenever I want to. Summoning it to mind like a picture, like a photograph. Only I’ll remember it was more than that.


brown field and blue sky

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What you notice, as you step alongside the stubbles, after the grass-healed old railway bridge and the muddy slide of the bridleway and the lack of clear signage which seems to have brought you here – instead of somewhere else – is a wash of colour.   

The stubbles spread across more than one field, and seem to shimmer like some fragment of Africa with an impression which is subdued though striking. Amongst the paler, bleached-out tones of the stubbles – the stumps left behind after summer harvesting of the crop – inumerable grasses have wintered into an overall glow of warm golds, pinky-reds, yellows and greeny-yellows. What the crop was is impossible to know now, unless you are a farmer or some other expert, but what is not in doubt is the extent of the stubbles, their stretch.  Extending laterally into a sweeping acreage and out ahead until a far-off feathery edge of trees beyond which the road divides more farmland. A stubbled breadth.

Before you found the bridleway, you had crossed another road. This is a zone of farmland in the midst of two A-roads, hardly likely to be peaceful.  But this place does possess a strange feeling of peace,  though perhaps less Africa and more a small uninhabited island in the midst of busy shipping lanes. It is likely the farm was here before the roads, and you are the only soul here this afternoon, and you do not seem to hear the traffic. Perhaps because your attention is elsewhere. Or perhaps because this is just one of those places with some inexplicable power to surpass ordinary expectations. Or maybe it is because it is Spring and the sky is blue and the sun feels warm and beneficent and positively clarifying. Perhaps it is all of those things.

The stubble fields are not that common. In this fairly conventional lowland agricultural landscape stubble fields occur relatively infrequently so each time they do it appears to be something almost rare and special. Autumn-sown crops have become conversely more ubiquitous in modern farming systems, replacing many stubble fields with early sowing of ‘Winter’ wheat, or other crops.  There are arguments on both sides, though I am not here to debate that.

That odd, magnetizing quietness – yes, it is still present. There’s a feeling of containment, composure. Descending from higher ground, you passed through a rolling, tussocky, rabbit-holed area of rough grazing, empty of livestock today. Naturalized garden daffodils grew up a hedgebank on the other side, amongst primroses and celandines and rambling vegetation in the fresh green shades of salad leaves.

Right here, there are small birds singing from nearby scrub – a scruffy margin where uncharismatic yet functional, vigorous nature is busy with its own brand of ‘rewilding’ amongst abandoned farm equipment and a defunct lorry trailer still claiming to be the bearer of ‘fresh St Michael foods..’ But otherwise, apart from the birds, and the knowledge that plants are busy growing, the feeling here is of calm, and settlement, of a fallow plot, for now anyway. The world outside carries on whirling. You just stand and stare.

In a moment, though, you will become aware that brief though this experience has been, the moment has suddenly come to leave, turn back. Before you were drawn towards the stubbles you had only intended to go for a short walk. To walk ‘down the road’ a bit, and then home again.  A bit of fresh air, that was all – but instead you just kept on walking. And now you have been walking for more than an hour, now. And there will be more than an hour to walk back again too.

But first – perhaps – there might be more to see. Lifting your binoculars, as you always do ‘just in case’, a loping, light brown animal the size of a small dog, with tall upstanding ears and a tail which hangs down and hugs its bottom with a smudge of black over a flattened swatch of white, enters the sight of your lenses at a run. The hare runs towards the road. And then it switches back, tearing through the stubble at even greater speed. The vision of the hare moving between the grasses, back and forth, is bewitching but is also a rebuke to you and the road for the presence of both. In entering the hare’s territory, you have brought it only fear, whilst you have felt surprise and delight at seeing it.

You should leave now. It really is not fair to linger. You walk slowly, aiming not to frighten anything else.  The hare also makes its way back, its pace more measured than before, to an area near the start of this field, where it is joined by another. The two hares move towards each other and then, a few feet apart, they cross together and not far in front of you until they have disappeared into some sunstruck distance. There are partridges too. Ground birds. You hear the soft chuckling calls of the red-legged partridges first and then their cryptic yet obvious forms – there are three of them – scattering closely amongst the stalks and grasses. The plumage of these partridges is well-defined, grey and chestnut and black and white, and barred, with a black ‘gorget’ like a extravagant jet-choker arranged around the front of the neck. And of course, the red legs. The grey partridges are subtler in their own varieties of greys and browns – but their vocalisations – which is all that makes you aware of them this afternoon – is unequivocal. It has been described as ‘tern like’ and perhaps it is, sharing some of the springy, scratchy, wheezy qualities of the calls of the Common tern. But it is distinct from that agile bird of the air and water because its sound seems entirely of the earth, the soil and the sward where both species of partridges prefer to remain as often as possible. They are reluctant fliers.

Your attention has been distracted, again. But the partridges and the hares have perhaps confirmed something else about these stubble fields, making your lingering seem more worthwhile for the gaining of this knowledge, and that is in seeing some evidence of their value for wildlife. In particular for the hares and partridges and skylarks and yellowhammers and other species typically associated with arable farmland. Stubble fields like these can provide both cover and food, in spilt grains and weed seeds and grasses  during Winter and early Spring, when that support is needed most.  

But before you go – actually go – you loiter just a minute or three longer and stare out one last time at the stubbles in their carpets of apple-skin tints. Ridiculous really to be so enraptured by a few crop fields left over the winter months to do what they might naturally do once the combine had done its work and literally taken its cut.  Whilst some plants still grow, others are dormant or dying or dead. It is an individual, plant-specific thing – the shifting, varying pigmentation-patterns of chlorophyll, anthocyanin and carotenoid, alterations in the processes of photosynthesis according to light-levels, environment, species. Fungal infection, even. Ironically, what might explain the ‘warmth’ of these hues you find so attractive and intriguing is to do with coldness, stasis, decay – winter phenomena.  But perhaps that’s what feels good about this place.  It’s a sigh of relief. It is a place, at least for now, which just is.

Being here for a little while was  like stepping into a pause in time – walking through this liminal, wintered space, this island between roads, where you have enjoyed a short though unexpected period of solitude, and something which felt like peacefulness. An honest kind of peacefulness,  existing, somehow, between places ripped by rushing traffic.     

You walk home and feel the stillness all the way back, stopping on the way to notice the tiny white Sweet violets which have flowered at the edge of a spinney.