October 3rd, and the morning sky is paler than usual. The wind is up – leaves shiver, the high clouds that in summer look stuck in place are drifting, nudged along by the air as it shifts inland from the Atlantic towards London. It is cold.
Winter is coming.
This time of year, I still sleep with the window open most nights, listening to traffic noise and owls as I fall asleep. There are always owls somewhere in the wood near the house, sat quietly in trees or calling to each other just after the dark comes – there’s always traffic too, turning from a clear and very present whuush into a kind of whispering by midnight, as the cars are replaced by HGVs making midnight delivery runs.
Woodland and road so close to each other has one inevitable consequence: roadkill. Badgers, foxes, sometimes a deer. Once a huge crow, laid out on the road as though it had gone to sleep there. Here’s a contrast: death in nature versus death in the full flow of late night road haulage vehicles; slow or sudden, unseen in the woods or plain and public for all to see on the roads. I know which I’d choose.
By the time we get to mid-October, the rain will be heavier and more frequent and the cold each morning will have become routine. The window will stay open – I like the air – but I’ll turn the radiators on for 6am, and wear a jumper to bed. I’m criticised for these two habits, probably fairly: the radiator could be left off if I kept the window closed, gas money saved, the climate saved. But I sleep less well if I can breathe fresh air whilst I’m laying there dreaming about whatever it is my mind has thrown together that night; I’ve tried to close the bedroom windows overnight but I wake up, unsettled. And if I sleep with windows closed, I miss the hedgehogs when they visit the wood; I miss the roe deer and the muntjac when they call from the fields nearby. I miss the sound of the rain.
You can hear the sound of the leaves changing as the autumn moves towards winter. In the summer, leaves in the wind sound like the ocean an a calm day; in autumn, the leaves sound like rain. By the time we reach December, I hear white water rapids in the few remaining conifers whose leaves shape the air like helicopter blades, cutting and swooshing the wind into a kind of moan which spreads out through the trees resounding, resolving into ahh-ssssshh, as though the trees have a secret. When it rains, the fir tree near the house makes drip-drip noises and when you do hear owls at night they’re accompanied by a soft, steady drumming. Rain signals the change of the seasons as surely as temperature does.
I go walking most days all the way through October, watching the leaves change, waiting for that day when the wind has got up overnight and suddenly I can see through the hedgerows and the copse on the top of the hill, as though half the trees have vanished. Really, remember, half of each tree has disappeared – I don’t know the total combined weight of all the leaves on an oak tree in summer, for example, but I’m pretty sure there’s some significant weight loss each autumn as all those leaves fall. One autumn, when I was younger, I saw a shed roof collapse from the weight of the leaves that had fallen on it. The weight of nature pushes us back to the facts, whether we want it to or not: whatever we build for ourselves is vulnerable, unless we have the humility to realise that we can never expect to exert any genuine control over the world.
Moving on is easy in autumn – everything changes, everything is so obviously temporary and transient that even the most stubborn stick-in-the-mud will admit that sometimes letting go is easier than holding on to the now for dear life as though you can keep it as your own. But winter is more difficult to accept, until you let yourself fall in love with absence and endings and the slow sense of active nothingness that rolls across the landscape as December approaches – frosts, wind, frozen water in puddles on the footpath after a long night of rain, the sense of guaranteed snow that fills the air just before the first flakes fall. All that, every year.
Try holding on to yourself in the face of nature’s disposal of leaves, greenery, blue skies, flowers – even animals hide as winter comes in. You have to admit it: the time you spent in summer lighting barbecues, dressing up, making new friends, hanging out in the park in the sun – that was time well spent and now, in the rain and the weather and the cold, everything will be tested. I find the tests come to myself hardest when I’m walking and suddenly the rain sets it: no amount of waterproofing stops the atmosphere invading my clothes as the damp clings. Friends hide with me under trees, waiting for the showers to pass, and we notice what’s changed since the last time we walked together. Sometimes, we see deer or jays; there are always squirrels in the wood over the hill, and when we pass other walkers their dogs attack us affectionately, whatever the weather. You can’t hide from canine attention: they insist.
By Christmas, the roads will be quieter at night: drivers go slower and quieter in the dark. The owls will call less — if the neighbours light bonfires after gardening, and if the evening is calm, then I may here one of the male owls calling from his roost in the oak tree at the north end of the house. Like the wind picking up: whoooooo. I remember the day after my fourth birthday, in the 1980s, staying up late and hearing owls call, one of my parents’ friends describing the birds as “ghosts”: you never see them, you just hear them, he said.
Maybe the owls take the same view of me, led silent in bed with my bedside lamp still on at 10pm, reading and listening to the wind, to nature: a ghost-presence. Just a line of electric light in the dark, in the rain or the snow, soon to go out to be replaced by snoring, or by silence, or by the well-read voice on the radio reading the late-night news.
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