Autumn treasure 11: Tawny owl hoot

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10/12/18 The sound of tawny owls isn’t restricted to autumn, or even to night time. They are usually not far away at any time of year, and a few years ago there was a period when I would hear them in the garden more often at about 11am than any other time of day.

Recently I noticed I had been missing them. Autumn nights are not complete without that most magical of sounds: a sonic reproduction of alpaca wool. It is a sound I could snuggle in. What a contrast to the bird that produces it! Loose-feathered and beautiful as tawny owls are, I am under no illusion as to their cuddliness. One glimpse of those piercing eyes and deadly beak and claws instantly corrects any mistake on that front. Their babies are another matter, however. Perhaps the sound is of owlet fuzz rather than alpaca wool. It certainly has the same effect on me as looking at a photograph of a baby owl.

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Autumn treasure 10: Lit cottage windows

Lit window7/12/2018 Sometimes it can feel like a nuisance having to drive home in the dark as early as 4.30 in the afternoon. I don’t much like it, partly because so many people fail to dip their headlights that I often get home with a headache, not to mention experiencing several moments of panic as a result, when I can see nothing of the road in front of me.

But then I realise there is something I love about going home in the dark. Seeing the little windows of old Suffolk cottages lit up is delightful. They are better than any Christmas lights, and last all autumn and winter. The occasional glimpse of beamed walls and wonky ceilings inside adds to the treat. Although I am out in the dark, they remind me how snug I will be once I get home. And it also somehow makes me feel as though I am in a story, wondering what all those people are doing inside in the warm.

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Autumn treasure 9: Enthusiasm

5/12/2018 It’s strange. I’m enjoying autumn more than ever, and yet of all the seasons this year, I am struggling to choose subjects to write about. I have had many ideas, but few have lodged in my mind.

I’ve been trying to figure out why. Since I got back from holiday, my autumn has been characterised by activity. A good proportion of it is seasonal – tidying up in the garden and lighting bonfires, splitting firewood, making jam, apple picking with goats (a sometimes inconvenient but certainly entertaining version of the activity), rushing to stew and freeze all the apples before they rot… Even those parts that aren’t exactly seasonal have benefitted from the darker nights and colder days: indoor activities such as planning refurbishments and repairs, decorating, tidying and sorting, finding time to work through an enormous pile of B&B ironing which I can never bring myself to do when the sun is shining (most days since late spring this year), and cello practice. There has been sociable fun too: concerts, meeting new people, going for walks with my neighbour, and inviting people round for tea or supper.

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Autumn treasure 5: The smell of quinces

Quinces30/10/18 If I had to choose one thing that for me could represent – even conjure up – autumn, it would be the smell of quinces.

There is something about smells. They seem to possess a power that sights, and possibly even sounds, don’t. They can transport me instantly to a different time and place; conjure up feelings, scenes and situations vividly and sometimes unexpectedly.

Luckily there are few smells that do this in an unpleasant way – as dreams usually do, I find. Mostly smells bring good memories, or at worst nostalgic or curious ones. The smell of quinces not only represents for me childhood autumns in Suffolk, but is in itself intoxicating and addictive. I could put my nose to a quince and inhale over and over, all day long.

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Autumn treasure 4: Leaves

25/10/2018 I tend to suffer from maple envy in autumn when I look above the ugly, half-bare conifer hedge towards my neighbours’ garden, and see the top of their bright red maple tree, which was yellow not long ago. This year it got me thinking. My dad and my brother planted plenty of maple trees in my garden, so where are all the autumn colours?

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Autumn treasure 3: Chilean guavas

Chilean guava

10/10/2018 For a few months in 2011 I lived next to a river near Pucón, in the temperate rainforest region of Chile. Large, evergreen shrubs that looked similar to box grew in abundance along the riverbank, and one day I saw a lady with her young son collecting buckets full of the red berries that grew on them. I asked her what they were, and what she used them for. ‘They’re murtillas’, she said, ‘I make jam with them’.

I picked some and ate them. The flavour was like nothing I’d ever tasted before, and I was excited. The next day I went back with a plastic bag to collect more, and so began my first jam-making attempts.

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Autumn treasure 1: Ivy flowers

Occold window1/10/2018 I have never much liked ivy – except when it radiates sparrow chatter – and I don’t know many people who do. There is only one context in which I think it has any aesthetic appeal: growing, spider-like, up the outside of an old church wall or door. But I know those conserving the buildings must be at constant war with it.

Six years ago, when I first started walking along the South West Coast Path, I had an entirely new experience of ivy. Almost simultaneously I heard a loud buzzing and noticed a strong smell of honey. I looked ahead and saw a long stretch of hemispherical yellow-green flowers on both sides of the footpath. They were covered in bees, wasps, bumblebees and hoverflies. Butterflies were also fluttering about them.

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Summer treasure 13: Grandchicks

Winnie30/9/2018 Many of you know the story of Winston the Wood Pigeon. But you may not know the latest developments. Beginning with the fact that Winston is now Winnie. And no, she is not confused about her gender.

Winnie and her sibling came to live with me aged approximately two weeks. Becoming a pigeon parent was a steep learning curve, and sadly Winnie’s sibling didn’t make it. But Winnie was a tough old bird, and when she took her maiden flight on the day I visited Winston church in August last year, her name was decided.

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Summer treasure 11: What are YOU doing in my kitchen?

11/9/2018 It is the first time in my life that I have been given a fright by a tiny ball of fluff.

I put out my hand to turn on the kitchen tap, and pulled back in alarm. There was something behind it, moving ever so slightly. It was spherical, and for a moment I couldn’t tell what it was. Then I saw a few tail feathers sticking out at one end and realised it was a baby bird.

Goldcrest ballBut it wasn’t any baby bird I had seen before. Part of my confusion as to the identity of this apparition was caused by a bright yellow-orange streak amongst the grey, gold-green and black. Indignant, it took its head out from under its wing when I picked it up, and I saw that the colour was on its head. It was almost weightless.

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Summer treasure 10: Wasps’ nests

cedar wasp nest9/9/2018 The discovery of an exquisitely beautiful wasps’ nest hanging in a cedar tree in my garden yesterday prompted me to think again about these much destested creatures. I wouldn’t exactly put wasps at the top of my list of favourite animals, and I admit they make a nuisance of themselves towards the end of summer when, unemployed and in a drunken stupor, they wander about looking for sugar. But I become extremely angry when I see people killing them.

I have lost count of the times when, forbidding a visitor to kill a wasp in my garden, I have been asked, ‘but what is the point of them?’ To my shame, the only answer I have been able to give is, ‘if wasps disappeared from the planet tomorrow, you’d know about it. And not in a good way’. The truth is, though I was certain wasps did have a point, I was only guessing at their ecological importance. I believe there is no creature on the planet that has no purpose; it wouldn’t exist if it didn’t. Certainly no insect, anyway. I am not always so sure about humans – except perhaps as the only creature capable of appreciating the miracle that is our planet. We have a funny way of expressing it though, so intent do we seem on destroying our only home…

It is time to extol the virtues of these poor creatures, beyond that of providing a free cleaning service for my fences and garden furniture. My love for hornets is greater than for wasps – they are, after all, regal in their size and colour, and don’t bother humans even in late summer – but I feel more urgency in expressing my support for wasps.

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