The horse chestnut at the corner of the lane hides a few spiked cases beneath its hand-shaped leaves. I remember noticing this tree shortly after relocating to this quiet corner of West Sussex last year, introduced to it by crushed conkers in the track of tyres on the edge of the verge. Looking up, its blotched, leaf-miner-tracked fists of yellowing leaves raged at the autumn winds. Conkers were like treasure to child-me, though few of my friends seemed to care for their deep polished mahogany-lustred nutty scent.
The conker’s maturation is yet another sign of the year’s progression. I have already noticed the smoke-ghosts of the wild clematis seed fluff clouding the hedgerows along the disused railway line again.
It is hard to believe it has been a year since that
September day we moved to The Warren. I always get a wry smile at the name.
Before, in The Other Place, we scurried to and from work and home across the
housing estate, tense and frustrated; on reflection we were rather like
stressed rabbits, so this new mark on the map seems ironically appropriate.
This time last year I was writing about how September seems a good month for new beginnings; like a new exercise book, new school shoes, new season. This time, a sense of completion, of circular rhythm, gives that new-year feeling a firmer foundation.
I wonder how the fox family are getting on. In late April I spent a few memorable evenings, leaning on the field gate down the lane with my binoculars, feeling the spring-damp-cool goosepimpling the skin on my arms, grinning at the antics of four fox cubs around an island of scrub where the field rose in a steep bank before levelling out to the woodland edge. I rarely see them now, they were well grown and soon following their instincts and curiosity further away from their natal bramble patch. If the cubs were an estimated three months old when I came across them in April, they’ll be nearing independence now. Many cubs fail to reach their tenth month, the odds of traffic, starvation and human control are stacked against them.
My evenings with the foxes marked the peak of spring, a season that only a month or so earlier I’d waited so impatiently for. For a while, I seemed to lose my voice, online at least. I took a break from Facebook and Twitter, preferring to watch the blackthorn bloom and fade then bud and leaf, than be bombarded by notifications and newsreels. I developed a habit of standing beside the car for a moment before heading out on the road to work each morning, to listen to the wren in the end of the neighbours’ gardens. One day a kestrel caught a vole in the meadow next door; I saw her cross the sky-space above the garden, prize clutched in talons. Then the celandines began flowering at the edge of the woods. The golden stars cheered me, but didn’t quite quench the deep worry I tried not to acknowledge. Mid-March, and I hadn’t heard a chiffchaff. Perhaps they wouldn’t make it back, perhaps the woods would fall silent this spring, and if they did return what would they find to feed their hungry chicks in our depleted countryside?
I noted the pulmonaria (lungwort) was in full bloom, the elder well leafed. The soft fuzz of willow buds had exploded into fluffy clumps of pollen-laden tufts, pale yellow against the shadowy woods behind. My first chiffchaff of the season arrived just in time for the Spring Equinox, and the changing of the clocks.
Violets appeared in the meadow edge, followed, around the same time I met the foxes, by cowslips in softly-bright patches of yellow.
Hawthorn, or May blossom, opened in the first week of its namesake month; it smelt of sweet almond marzipan, pollen and fairy-tales.
By the time the walnut trees on The Green burst their leaf-buds, I knew I loved this place. I’d been wary at first, fearful to connect, to root, just in case we had to up-sticks and move all over again. But places have an odd way of revealing themselves to you; of rendering new links in every change of light, season, weather-front, each migrant bird arrival or emergent insect. The order the blossom opens in the orchard. Plum and pear. Cherry, then apple. Walnut. The habitual head-turn as you slow down past the gateway along the lane each long afternoon as you return from work, scanning for sheep, rabbit, fox. The noise of nesting rooks in the bud-tight ash trees by the old railway bridge, and the ones in the taller trees across the road by the pub. Blackcap song through the bathroom window.
One chilly late October afternoon I spotted a slow worm in the back garden. Sometimes as I waited to fall asleep in the dark I would think of her deep under the ground there, sleeping until spring. I would build a place for her to sunbath, to recharge so she could set about terrorising the abundant woodlice in the log and rock piles.
We didn’t have a lawn by the spring, the wear and tear of walking to the bird feeders and washing line, wore down the grass and near-drought conditions finished it off. Instead, dandelions colonised and a galaxy of bee-attracting sun-like flowers beamed brightly. They turned to globes of feathered seeds as they always do, perhaps welcomed more by the goldfinches that flitted down to feast, than my neighbours although no-one complained. The red campion I planted in the garden came into bloom, followed by the foxgloves; bees found them too.
In the summer heat our cottage became a refuge from the sun. Bats obviously thought so too; regularly seen populating the renewed evening cool with shadow flights from somewhere under the roof tiles.
The trees on The Green filled out to summer lushness, then began to crumple and turn. The pheasants were the first to find the fallen apples; a droning wasp got there before me also, so I’ll leave the damaged fruit for the thrushes that will arrive again this winter. They will be friends this time, to welcome back, rather than uncertain strangers, new neighbours.
I walk regularly in the village; I’ve learnt the bushes where the house sparrows congregate opposite the primary school, watched the winterbourne stream slowly run dry. I’ve been waiting to see how long the swallows will stay before signalling autumns approach with their notable absence.
I think I will collect a few conkers, for old times sake. There is always a pattern to a conker collection; the largest, the tiny one, the one that is patterned like polished tigers-eye, the one with the flat side where it grew together with its twin, and of course the huge shining treasured one that stays resolutely out of reach, dangling just beyond your fingers in its spiky, velvet-lined case. And now there’s also the one that will be added to the jar in the corner of my desk, a counter to mark one year taking root in this place.
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(Article originally published by New Nature Mag – Sept/Oct 2019 edition, available at https://www.newnature.co.uk/)
New Nature is a free bi-monthly online publication, available via email or download from the website.