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A time of contrasts; or, the turning of the leaves.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 02 October 2013
Out in the world, this time of year is filled with news from the party conferences, the creak and limber as the political world starts rolling again after the long summer break. In America, there is high drama as recalcitrant Republican members of Congress decide to bring the entire government to a halt. (It’s very hard to know exactly why, since none of the ostensible reasons are the actual reasons; sometimes I think it is just because they can.) Here, the various three-act operas revolve mostly around the arts of darkness admitted by Damian McBride in his oddly revelatory book, and the furious row over the Daily Mail and Ed Miliband’s father.

As my broadband signal winks in and out (possibly due to the gales which are coming roaring in from the west), I follow all this at a genteel distance. From time to time, I get worked up and yell at the radio. Then I fall to contemplating the much more important matter of the exact turning of the leaves.

The turning of the leaves, with a rather black Scottish sky behindThe turning of the leaves, with a rather black Scottish sky behind

Every year I try to work this out and every year I fail. Is it a hot summer which means the more vivid colours, or is it a wet one? Shall this long spell of dry mean that there will be no wild display, but autumn shall give way to winter with a sense of weariness and anti-climax? Is the changing of the season late this year?

I examine the trees with scientific interest and aesthetic hope. The beeches are still, in some places, as green as if it were July. There are one or two trees, too distant to identify, which have already gone a singing scarlet, and some, the chestnuts mostly, which are in an indeterminate state of yellowy nothing. The rosehips are the colour of rubies and the elders have their full complement of indigo berries. The sheep, who have no interest in leaf action, lie down crossly in the west meadow, as if they are staging a sit-in. The horses, ahead of the game as usual, are developing their teddy bear winter coats.

The elderberries.The elderberries.

I have an odd push-me pull-you life at this time of year. My desk work is demanding; I spend a lot of time at the computer, wrangling with words. I have a deadline coming and I squint furiously at the screen, willing myself to think faster.

Then, in complete contrast, I pull on my muddy boots and take Stanley the Dog out for his walk, where he hysterically chases pigeons and digs up perfectly enormous sticks. I stomp down to the field to see to the small equine herd, and everything is very earthy and about as far away from technology as you may imagine. It is then that I become acutely aware of where the weather is coming from, of the exact state of the leaves, of the direction of the wind, of all things elemental. It is then that the political bickering and the state of world events seem as distant as if I were living in 1913, not 2013. There are even moments when I gaze at the elderberries and think I should make them into cordial. (I think this every year, and I am never enough of a domestic goddess actually to do it.)

The beech avenue.The beech avenue.

And then I go back inside, where all the 21st century machines hum and blink at me, and the miracle of the internet turns me from parochialist to citizen of the world, and the external reality comes back with a rush, and I remember that there is a whole other parallel universe going on, where nobody much gives a damn what colour the beeches are. I quite like that I maintain a faint obsession about the leaves. It’s a bit hello clouds, hello sky, but it feels like a rooted sense of reality in amidst all those shouting voices on the radio. The voices come and go, but the trees endure.

The official arrival of Autumn

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley has not set their biography yet
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on Thursday, 19 September 2013
This moment in September is an odd time, a kind of limbo in the natural world. Everything here is still green, although the greenness has taken on a rather tired, dusty aspect, as if the very chlorophyll is getting creaky after a long, dazzling season. Despite a gloomy weather forecast of low skies and mean cloud, the Scottish sun is dancing about the place as if there is life in the old girl yet. My swallows have gone, but I saw a gang of swifts yesterday who have still not set off on their epic journey south.

Yet, there are some subtle signs of the shifting of the season. I wake to improbably golden sun, but when Stanley the Dog and I step outside it is properly cold for the first time. It is put on your gloves and scarf cold. It is almost wear a hat cold. In these northern parts we have not yet seen the first frost, but there are heavy, silvery dews, a gentle harbinger of the freezes to come. The beech hedge is still verdant, but the very first leaves are beginning to turn, and some, jumping the gun a little, have already begun to fall when the wind blows.

tan 01The limes just starting to turn.

It was a glorious, long, hot summer. It was a real treat, after the endless cold and rain of last year, when summer never really pitched up and all the farmers looked fraught and sad as they battled to get in the harvest and cut the hay. Even the cows looked demoralised. (Cows, it turns out, really object to the wet.) There is a faint melancholy to see it go, and it is going, for all the late sunshine. At the same time, I have that back to school impatience for the season to turn properly. I want the metaphorical sense of sharpening my pencils for the new term.

tan 02Meanwhile, up at HorseBack UK, just along the river, the Deeside hills are still as vivid as ever in the September light.

This morning, down at the paddock with my mare, I was mooching about with her when suddenly her head went up and her ears pricked and she was at once on full alert. Horses, being prey animals, are amazingly sensitive to the slightest noise or movement, often ones which are completely beyond human senses. I looked about, trying to see what she could see. I heard nothing. The field seemed quiet. The woods were drowsing in the morning light and everything was still. She gazed fixedly to the north. There was something there.

tan 03View of the set-aside this morning, with a happy pair of mares enjoying a free graze. You can see the greenness just starting to fade. The two equines, however, care nothing for that as they still find the good grass.

Finally, I heard it. It was a distant call and chatter, as if someone were having a cocktail party over the other side of the hill. It couldn't be, I thought, not so early. I scanned the sky. (We must have made an odd picture – the horse and the human, both staring up into the blue.) It was. It was the geese. The very first skein of the season, making their migratory path out of the north-west. They tracked a sure line, flying on a perfect diagonal to the south-west, calling as they went. I wondered, as always, at the twenty-seven avian mysteries. What do those calls mean? How do they organise their clever rotas, so that everyone takes a turn at the sharp end? How do they keep that wonderful formation? Where do they hone their astonishing navigational skills?

The mare, having ascertained that the noise was not that of a predator, lost interest and fell to grazing. I, still fascinated, oddly delighted, as happy as if I were greeting old friends, went on staring at the sky, watching the miraculous group until it went out of sight. There we are, I thought. That's it. Autumn is official. I can go back to school.

The departure of the swallows.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley has not set their biography yet
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on Wednesday, 11 September 2013
The swallows have gone. I did not see them go. I am inexplicably regretful about that.

I am not a twitcher or an ornithological expert. I was far too busy thinking about ponies as a child to take any interest in birds, although I do remember the larks singing on the wing as we rode out on the wide Lambourn downs. Then I went to London and spent most of my time in the dodgy bit of Westbourne Grove, before it became a hedge-fund playground, and in the darker corners of Soho. No birds there, except for some grumpy pigeons outside St Anne’s church.

The bird thing is new, and happened only when I got to Scotland. The first year I noticed the swallows arriving, I felt as if someone had sent me some great cosmic gift. I was oddly overcome by a child-like sense of wonder. These tiny, delicate creatures had flown all the way from Africa, to my old shed. Every part of their lives seemed slightly miraculous. Not only did they make that great journey, over thousands of miles, but when they got here, they had the talent to make nests of the most exquisite, precise construction. Muscle, navigation, and engineering skills; it seemed too much for one bird.

The swallows' low-flying training groundThe swallows' low-flying training ground
I began to become fascinated by their daily rhythms and their dedicated programme. After the arrival of their young, they would fly about each morning gathering food. They also posted guard: if they perceived any threat, they would do excellent diversionary tactics, screaming away in the opposite direction, calling wildly, to draw whatever predator they feared.

When the fledglings were ready for action, the parents would bring them out and start the flying lessons. At first, they kept very close to the nest. Short, educational journeys were essayed. Each week, they would go a little further, until the young birds were ready for serious training. Then they would go out into the open hayfield. It is a long green stretch of open ground, in the shape of a shallow bowl, with sloping banks on each side. It was here, in this perfect environment, that the adult swallows taught their growing chicks the art of low flying. They would skim the earth, making sharp manoeuvres where the ground banked upwards. As soon as the hay was cut, the manoeuvres could become more precise, as the contours of the earth were revealed. They made me think of Spitfires, in that ironically dazzling summer of the Battle of Britain.

Then, as August came to its end, they would begin the serious fitness work. They would fly very fast and very long, for hours and hours, clearly doing distance training. Each year, when I watched this, I would marvel afresh at their sheer physicality, their dogged determination, their excellent work ethic. I would also feel the faint flutter of melancholy, because I knew that soon they would be gone.

Last summer, there was a tremendous muster the night before they left. The quarrelling gang of swifts from my sister’s house came roaring up for a last hurrah with their avian cousins before the great trek began. I knew this meant that they were off, so I could make my farewells and wish them good journey.

The view south from the shed where they nest. I presume this is the direction in which they will have flownThe view south from the shed where they nest. I presume this is the direction in which they will have flown

This year, I’ve been preoccupied. I have the new work with HorseBack UK, the new mare to school, one book to write and at least two secret projects. I hardly know what day of the week it is, so this year I did not have the time to map the swallow timetable.

This is all a little bit nuts, I do admit. But I love those birds. I am used to the glorious, joyful trilling of their daily song. It is the soundtrack to my day. And now there is – silence. And some strange part of me is properly sad that I did not get to wave them off.

And then autumn arrived

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley has not set their biography yet
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on Tuesday, 09 October 2012
Autumn has suddenly come roaring over the hill. For the first time the mercury has tumbled below zero, and yesterday a glittering white frost fell on us. I stamp my feet and shake my hands to get the circulation going; I contemplate the purchase of a serious winter hat. Working with the horses gets a little tougher, as I fumble with buckles and drop brushes from frozen fingers.

The cold ushers in outrageous beauty. The giddy Scottish sun shines down out of sapphire skies, and the leaves are just starting to turn, and the mountains take on the deep blue aspect that they assume at this time of year. The geese are beginning to migrate, appearing suddenly over the hills in their mighty v-shapes, calling out in wild unison as they go.

Every year, I mean to look up exactly where it is they have come from and where they are going to. I am mildly ashamed that I do not know. For some reason, I have it in my head that they are going to Russia. They are certainly bound for the east, but for all I know it might be Stonehaven, not Vladivostok.

I love to think I am in touch with nature. As I get older and more absurd, all I want is to be rooted in the earth. I am still shatteringly impressed if I meet someone who once worked at Chatham House, as one brilliant woman in our village did, or who does something with military intelligence, as does the man who sat on my left last night at dinner. But oddly, what really thrills me the most is when I wave to the farmer, driving by in his muddy Landrover.

There, I think, grinning like a loon, is a fellow who really knows valuable things, about weather patterns and the psychology of livestock and the breeding of rams. There is a man whose head is full of honest, true things, whose hands are mapped with the ancient black of the Scottish soil.

You can see I have a fatal tendency to romanticise. I have no idea why the idea of the earth appeals to me so much just now. It might be because now I have horses I am working outside for long hours, getting filthy and muddy instead of staring at a computer screen. It might be because the world seems rather alarming and unknowable. No one has any idea what to do about the economy, about the crashing Euro, about the labyrinthine situation in Syria, about Iran’s nuclear programme. People come on the wireless with all the bad news and no good answers. Today, the Taliban shot a 14-year-old girl, apparently because she was ‘promoting Western culture’, whatever that means.

I don’t understand a word of it.

But I understand that the soil will still be there tomorrow and the mountains will not move and perhaps that is restful to a battered mind.

There was a terrible fuss the other day when the Prime Minister forgot what Magna Carta meant. I know it’s important to know a bit of Latin; I know that a grounding in Classics broadens the mind. I know also that knowledge is not relative; one form of it is not better than another. But just now, in the mood I’m in, I would be much more impressed if Mr Cameron could tell me where those crazy geese were going.

The swallows depart

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley has not set their biography yet
User is currently offline
on Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The swallows have gone. It has amazed me how long they have stayed this year. I always think they fly south at the end of August, but this may be fantasy on my part. Perhaps they always wait until September.

They have been mustering like crazy for the last two weeks. All the different families come from their various nest in the steadings and sheds and outbuildings, and have an evening rally over the field where my mare lives. Sometimes I just stand and stare at them, gaping like a loon. They are so fast and athletic and certain. They seem to have a rigorous regime, getting racing fit for the thousands of buffeting miles to Africa. Every year, I find myself in awe and wonder at the great journey the tiny, delicate creatures make.

I saw them last night, when I went up at about six for evening stables. ‘Ah,’ I said out loud, as they filled the feed room with their swirl and chatter, ‘you are still here.’ And then, today, suddenly something was different. It took me a moment to work out what it was. It was: silence. The birds had flown.


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