Dear Readers, I was in Somerset last weekend with Aunt Hilary, and there is no doubt that we are at the still point of the year, between the fervour of spring and the frenetic activity of autumn. Although it’s high summer for us, for many birds and most insects the focus of the year has shifted from reproduction to feeding up for the winter. Take this bee, for example. She is a queen buff-tailed bumblebee, as big as the first joint of my thumb, and she droned sedately past my ear, as stately as a battleship coming into harbour. In a week or so she will be in hibernation in a mouse hole or under a shed, and she won’t emerge until late spring, unless the weather is mild enough for her to pop out for a shot of nectar. All the more reason to have some mahonia or other winter-flowering plants in the garden.
After all the flowers of spring the predominant colour is green, and everything is looking a little tired and dusty. Leaves are nibbled by caterpillars or mined by leaf-miners. There is a hush, only broken by the peeping of young blue tits who, with their yellow and brown plumage, look like photo-shopped versions of the adults.
In the hedgerow, however, there are the startling red berries of cuckoo-pint. They look more like satanic excrescences than anything edible, which is just as well, as, although not dangerously poisonous, they can cause irritation of the mouth and apparently taste disgusting. It was also believed that touching the plant could make you pregnant (at least if you were female), so this must have acted as a deterrent. But at this point in the year they glow like beacons, fiery and unexpected.
I make a point of walking up to the gate of the fields that I pass, to see what I can see. What I saw in this field was a group of three heifers. One of them looked up and came towards me on her stocky little legs, her hooves sinking into the ground. Such a weighty creature she was, and so curious with her stiff white eyelashes and huge oil-black eyes. I smelt her sweet breath when she huffed out at me in confusion. But between us was a single stranded electric fence, and so I backed away, not wanting her to hurt herself. Which is ironic when we consider where she is eventually headed.
And way off in the distance I see something white, so I walk towards it. I am intercepted by a lady with a very young, very large chocolate-brown dog. The way she grabs him when she sees me coming towards her makes me think he is a boisterous dog and indeed he is, though somewhat thwarted by one of those leads that loops around his mouth, and maybe gives his owner more control. At any rate, he is just inexperienced in the ways of humans, and so after a stiff talking to from his owner he moves on, reluctantly, without knocking me flat on my backside. I continue on towards the white ‘thing’.
And what it is is a very large fluffy white feather. I wonder who it belonged to? Part of me is hoping for a barn owl, but who knows. It is certainly a feather for insulation, not flying, and what a beautiful thing it is, so perfectly designed to trap heat in every filament.
I turn back, and walk on. The cherry laurel by the stream is full of fruit, and the stream itself needs to be negotiated by the bridge after the rain from earlier in the week.
As I leave the main lane and turn left, I notice that someone has been strimming vigorously, for the wild garlic and the brambles and the ferns are mostly reduced to stubble, which makes for an easier but much less interesting walk. However, there is always something to see for someone who makes a profession of wandering slowly, and. lo and behold, i notice that the lardy balls of the snowberry come out at the same time as the flowers. And very pretty the flowers are too. Snowberry was originally used as cover for game birds such as pheasants, and is now thriving all over the place. Just as well that insects rather like the flowers.
But what is this? The insect with the stripey wings is a scorpion fly, with a long proboscis designed for poking into the bodies of dead and dying insects. It is also partial to human sweat but I was ok, because as we know, horses sweat, men perspire, but ladies merely feel the heat.
When I took a quick look under the eaves of Hilary’s cottage, I spotted no less than eight house martin nests. As I stood there quietly, I could hear the babies peeping away, and every few minutes an adult would erupt from the nest, or scythe back in. How wonderful these older houses are, with their nooks and crannies to house a spider or a bird, their outhouses full of swallow nests and wood mice. How I love it when people will put up with a bit of temporary mess to accommodate another soul in need, be they human or non-human.
And, just to round things off, look who was sleeping in the garden when I got home….
But not for very long. As soon as the fox heard that we were back, s/he perked up, stretched, yawned, and sauntered off over the shed roof, a leggy young creature with apparently not a care in the world. The hardships of the spring are over, and the brief breathing space of late summer is here. Rest, creatures, and conserve your strength. You’ll need it in the days to come.