Nature 2012 October

Some autumnal poetic licence

Each season has its own unique characteristics and feel. Autumn, though, seems to have provided poets and bards with more inspiration than the others. Shakespeare provides a sense of power being gradually unleashed in one of his Sonnets (No. 73):

That time of year thou may’st in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,-
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

Liking a roofless church, perhaps one with those gothic arches, to the boughs of large trees is evocative of the Chilterns. It is not uncommon to hear a rookery full of raucous birds standing firm against the elements.

Meanwhile John Keats recognised in his eponymous poem ‘To Autumn’ that the season is the time for fulfilment of nature’s annual labours, culminating in a bountiful harvest of fruits and nuts:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;

Aside from those more obvious desserts which we can enjoy such as blackberries and hazelnuts, there are others which may be fare for blackbirds and thrushes but which sensibly do not receive our attention because they would do us harm. First of these is bittersweet. Unlike its relative the potato it is a hedgerow climber with yellow and purple flowers prefacing the traffic light fruit: turning from green through amber to a full stop at bright red. They might have made a delightful treat if it were not for the alkaloids which, as the name suggests, give the berries an acerbic taste. Though these berries (apparently) initially offer a less than enticing taste, the essence turns sweet as it hits the back of the mouth: a short-lived delight as it soon makes you sick. Another vine-like hedge plant with a reputation is woodbine or honeysuckle with its dark purple fruit favoured by birds, but not humans.

Returning to Shakespeare, he recognised how the intoxication of maturing fruit can impact on dreams and emotions, such as in Othello when he pens:

Not poppy, nor mandragora,
Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,
Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep

We know, all too well, what poppies can provide but what of ‘mandragora’ which is the Latin for mandrake, referring to the root of what is known better to us as deadly nightshade, a relative of the aforementioned bittersweet. Not only does it provide no warning to its victim of its dark side but, to the contrary, it creates an initial sense of euphoria followed by a deep sleep from which there is no return, as Romeo and Juliet were tragically to discover:

Within the infant rind of this weak flower,
poison hath residence, and medicine power

Another noxious weed oft referred to by The Bard is hemlock, the fruits of which are used to distil a vicious poison, favoured by Ancient Greeks as well as medieval enchantresses, and as reflected within the witches’ chants in Macbeth:

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,
There’s much industry afoot in Autumn.

Whilst some invertebrates have given up the ghost, others such as spiders are busy, snaring prey which is still in abundance. An early morning or evening walk through meadow grass reveals a myriad of glistening threads. A New England poet, Rose Terry Cooke, was an observer of both humanity and nature and frequently drew comparisons between how lives in both spheres were drawn. In her poem ‘Arachne’ Rose takes one right down to ground level:

I know thy peace when all is done.
Each anchored thread, each tiny knot,
Soft shining in the autumn sun;
A sheltered, silent, tranquil lot.

The sounds of Autumn are also characteristic, and returning to Keats in his Ode To Autumn there is recognition of the songs emanating from fauna, with his referring to:

Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

With milder winters we are seeing and hearing migrating birds much later into the year and it is not unusual to espy a few such birds in early October. Mind you, Keats may have engaged in some ‘poetic licence’ regarding the crickets: on warm evenings they can still be heard occasionally well beyond their usual sell-by date.

And finally, I just want to catch up on one or two recent feedbacks on observations received. Perhaps the best spot of the year came from a smart-eyed correspondent from Sandpit Hill who in August managed to capture a rare shot of a newly emerged purple emperor butterfly, sunning itself on the warm earth of the vegetable patch. They are none too frequently seen as they spend much of their time high up in the tree canopy. However, I am advised that, on first emerging, they disperse and may be found away from their usual habitat. There was also a flurry of e-mails about birds of prey. It seems sparrowhawks have been making themselves more obvious with a number of sightings in gardens over the late summer. They were seen either taking smaller birds, which were distracted whilst feeding from bird tables, or feasting off a bloated woodpigeon. Probably this greater visibility was due to a shortage in the ready availability of prey.