autumn

Fossils, myths and new shoes

Last day of the summer holidays and Chesil Beach is empty. It lies like a bleached bone along the Jurassic Coast. The sky is a pale and distant blue. Autumn term is dawning and six year old Jago is moving up from the ‘Mary Anning’ class. He has his new school shoes and is noticing everything today – a lit-up moment between past and future.

We walk down the path to Cogden beach among clouds of Common blue butterflies and floating thistledown. Three-year-old Finley is singing to himself and jumping dramatically over piles of rabbit droppings. Jago can’t wait to find a fossil. On the beach he lifts a huge stone, shouting he’s found a dinosaur bone. Every stone seems marked with the traces of past life, spirals which could be ammonites, ridges that hide belemnites, curves of ancient shells and fish. I point out the seed pods of the Sea kale to Finley and he immediately starts picking off the dense black balls and planting them in the shingle.

Along the strandline is a silvery line of hundreds of dead whitebait, looking like twists of silver paper. A huge pipe, about thirty feet long, has been washed up on the beach. It is covered, inside and out, in Goose barnacles, stranded high and dry. The legend was that these goose-shaped shellfish with their long necks, eventually open their white wings and fly away as Barnacle geese.

This theory of spontaneous regeneration was put forward in the Twelfth Century by Bishop Giraldus Cambrensis who said that Irish Churchmen would eat the Barnacle goose during fasts because ‘these birds are not flesh nor being born of the flesh for they are born at first like pieces of gum on logs of timber washed by the waves. Then enclosed in shells of a free form they hang by their beaks as if from the moss clinging to the wood and so at length in process of time obtaining a sure covering of feathers, they either dive off into the waters or fly away into free air.’ This myth became widespread.

At the edge of the shingle the yellow flowers of the Horned poppy are glowing like the autumn sun, contrasting with clumps of silvery-grey Sea Kale. Today summer ended. The sky is shimmering in the puddles on the path. Jago jumps in, forgetting his new shoes, scattering shards of pale blue water across the pebbles.

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A wing and a prayer

It’s a time of winged things. Summer is taking flight and giving way to autumn. House martins are whirling through thundery air, stocking up on insects before their journey.

In the park, Finley, aged two, is swinging higher and higher – ‘I’m flying …’ Jago, five, is standing still staring at the ground where there is a seething mass of silver wings among the grass. The muggy humid weather has created perfect conditions for flying ants to hatch. The newly emerged young queens and males are spiralling up on sweet-wrapper wings to mate in mid-air. Afterwards the queen bites off her wings, which have served their purpose, and creates a new nest by digging into the soil. The males, having mated, die.

Finley blows the seeds of a dandelion – ‘two, three, six’ and hands me the bare stalk. We examine a stink bug (Coreus marginatus) which has landed on his jeans. A fly sits beside me on the picnic bench. The droning sound of bees blends with distant thunder. In the garden, borage and lavender are straggling everywhere, but I refuse to tidy up as the insects love these plants. Hoverflies, ladybirds, wasps and bees are pinned to every petal.

As we watch the shimmering wings of the ants disappearing into the shadows of the lime trees we hear a loud roaring sound and the Red Arrows fly over in formation. Later is the sad news of the Hawker Hunter crash at Shoreham.

Goodbye to Summer

Early morning and the sun shooting low, straight in my eyes like an inquisition. I couldn’t see where I was going so studied the ground, seeing for the first time, reflective specs in the white lines on the road. The low light revealed snail trails like invisible ink – a log of night-time journeys, written in loops and flourishes. Bird droppings studded with yellow seeds blotted the pavement. Overgrown brambles and nettles plucked at me on the narrow path.

On the river half a dozen young mallards had turned sideways against the current as they swam under the bridge – perhaps to slow themselves down. Petals of Himalayan Balsam lay flat on the surface of the water like purple hearts.

Along the lane where it borders the site of an ancient track I got my usual goose bumps. The sun dappled the road through the trees and the only sound was birdsong. Suddenly I heard approaching footsteps – a jogger going by. I looked over towards the old high track almost expecting to see someone. As I emerged from the shade my shadow sprang ahead and startled me.

I could hear sheep tearing at the grass. Low down in the hedges, convolvulus flowers were furled in the shade, but open trumpets in the sun. Higher up, was a collage of colour and texture. Berries of all hues and sizes hung against a green backdrop – deep purple elderberries, dusky wild damsons, red and orange honeysuckle berries, wild cherry plums and peppermint-white snowberries. In an alder tree were compact green cones like hand grenades about to explode.

Some plants made up for lack of colour with intricate patterns and shapes – propellers of sycamore, knobbly hog weed seeds like jacks ready to scatter, wads of thistledown on the wind and delicate drifts of dandelion seeds counting down the days to autumn.

At home about twenty house martins were swooping up, one after another, to a nest under the eaves then dipping away as though saying goodbye to summer.

Time and Distance

The sky was a pale faraway blue edged with surfy white clouds – the look it gets as autumn approaches and the sun steps back. House martins were gathering on the wires – separate black notes on a page of music.

I saw things from the corner of my eye – a clump of seeding thistles huddled in a field, tufty white heads nodding sagely, the ghost of an egret taking off from the stream, a scattering of young pheasants in the dry grass, a tortoiseshell butterfly incongruously perched on an alloy wheel, the sharp silvery leaves of the Carline thistle. It’s strange how things sometimes seem clearer sideways-on. Stars are seen best on the edge of vision.

On the coastal path at Abbotsbury plants, were anticipating autumn. The multi-coloured berries of nightshade hung in strigs over the pebbles, bristly ox-tongue was seeding vigorously and teasels revealing their exquisite architecture. Tamarisk bushes were flowering desperately, pink feathery flowers in disarray, looking as though they’d got up late, and almost missed the summer.

Along the verges, tall stems were silhouetted against the sky, each one topped with what looked like a carelessly packed parcel of black yoyos dangling spindly strings. These wild leeks (known as Babbington’s leeks) dominated the hedgerow.

Thought to have originated from prehistoric times, this is a perennial plant which grows well here – behind the beach, sheltered from the salty winds by the Chesil bank. Earlier in the summer lush strappy leaves surrounded pastel green stems, each with a globular flower head encased in a tissue-like membrane. In midsummer the membranes tear into little pixie hoods revealing a bunch of round bright green seeds from which grow small pinky-mauve flowers on thin stalks. Now the seeds were black as billiard balls, ready to roll.

On the shingle, sea pea extended thin green fingers, pointing towards the sea. Clumps of sea campion lay low, seed heads bobbing in the wind like tiny paper bags. A line of anglers marked the shoreline. Unfortunately their rubbish littered the strandline – a silvery shoal of polythene bags, bottles, cellophane and tinfoil barbeque trays.

From the corner of my eye I saw a strangely shaped pebble. It was a fossilised sea urchin, ground down and misshapen by sea and shingle. It seemed to squint at me from the distant past.