When I went on the internet today an array of pumpkins and marrows spelt out the word Google, and an animated cheeky (red) squirrel darted about among them. A fun way to mark the autumnal equinox.
One of my early morning dog walks is along a very straight country lane. In the summer the sun rises towards the northern side of this lane: in the winter it rises towards the southern side. But at the equinox the dawn sun is exactly in line with the lane. The autumn equinox – the northern hemisphere’s tipping point between each day having more hours of light in summer and having more hours of darkness in winter.
Two seasons walking
together, one flies away –
life in the balance
Today everything is bathed in the sepia light of the September sun, a pale golden wash over the fields and trees. There’s a “brownness at the edges of the day” (as Tom Stoppard wrote in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead). Random branches in autumn mode against the still predominant green, small segments of hedgerow turning bronze or coppery – but I worry that the trees that already look autumnal might be victims of some tree disease. The wind turbines on the Solway Plain turn languidly. They are like strange mechanical trees. There’s a mist over the Firth but I can see the outline of Criffell on the Scottish side of the water.
Apart from a few magenta dots of hardhead flowers and the deep purplish-blue clusters of tufted vetch, everything has gone to seed. The dried stems of angelica and cow parsley are doing their umbrella impressions. There are soft clumps of thistledown – a bounty for foraging goldfinches – which I admire with a slight twinge of guilt (I’m the daughter of a farmer who believed that all thistles should be cut down before they had a chance to seed). The hedge is beaded with red – haws, hips, honeysuckle berries – though blackbirds and thrushes have stripped the bright orange rowan berries weeks ago. Half a dozen herring gulls fly westward, their bodies pearlescent against grey cloud drifting in from the coast. They remind me of Philip Gross’s gulls flying back from ‘a day’s work at the landfill’ in ‘Betweenland VI’ (from The Water Table), but these birds are heading not for the tip but for one of my neighbour’s newly ploughed fields.
As I shield my eyes against the low sun I wonder why the lane is aligned east/west for almost a mile. The answer to its lack of deviation, if not its alignment, is the indent in the hedge, leaving a wide semi-circle of grass verge with a small (overgrown) pool in the middle of it. It’s an old drover’s watering hole for cattle. This part of Cumbria is criss-crossed with straight drovers’ tracks - routes to markets and livestock fairs to avoid expensive toll roads. This lane was once a drove road.
Flocks of birds are on the move as the hours of daylight diminish and the nights grow colder. I’ve yet to see any big flocks of geese or swans heading for the Solway (any day now, I hope) but the swallows, who spent last week psyching themselves up on the electricity wires, have gone. How I miss them.
All summer they painted the ceiling of the sky
with their invisible inky scribbles
their droppings spattered the wall
at night I would hear the feed me/need me
cries of the chicks and wake to them at first light.
They raised three broods under our roof
birding the air with swallows.
This morning the sky was as calm as the lake at dawn
the trees and hedges 2D stage flats in the mist
swallows were lining up on the telephone wires
nudging and chittering like prommers in a ticket queue.
After a summer of carefree cartoons
it was time for some serious drawing –
an arc linking two hemispheres.
The sky has cracked open with their absence
tonight the wind rattles the leaves
I turn on the radio and hear news of another season
of war gathering on the horizon.
But one day after the long siege of winter
I will catch sight of a ghost
from another year ribboning above the stream.
The next day there will be the print of a small
bird skating on the chill air.
From The Art of Gardening (Flambard Press) © Mary Robinson 2010
The haiku at the beginning of this post is ‘September’ from Kalends © Mary Robinson 2012