'By badger light and lantern's sigh, and lonely flies the vixen's cry...'
Oct. 16, 2022

Autumn colours the tattered garments of summer


The colours of autumn this year promise to be spectacular and the towpaths are being transformed by the brush of autumn’s artistry. Join us tonight as we drink in some of the sights and ponder why this season can evoke such a mixture of emotions within us.  

Journal entry:

 11th October, Tuesday

“A wash of gold afternoon light
 That fresh clean scent of damp earth
 And falling water

The sluices are full and running,
 Laced with curtains of pearl and crystal.

A yearling ewe, with her forelegs
 Knee deep in the water.
 A heron, a couple of feet away,
 A statue centre stream, watches her.

Their eyes meet and for a moment,
 The world pauses. Face to face
 Eye to eye.

They drop their gaze and the world
 Is once more filled with the sound
 Of falling water.”    

Episode Information:

ButterflyAutumn colours...

butterfly 1
... the tattered garments of summer.

In this episode I read a very short extract from the early 17th century English printed volume by Nicholas Breton of the 15th century The Kalendar of Shepherds: Being devices for the twelve months.

You can read a digitised reproduction of this book, with its wonderful woodcut engravings, in the Welcome Library: The Kalendar of Shepherds: Being devices for the twelve months.

I also refer to Jacque’s monologue, ‘All the world’s a stage’ from Shakespeare’s As You Like It  (Act II Scene VII). 

For more information about Nighttime on Still Waters

You can find more information and photographs about the podcasts and life aboard the Erica on our website at noswpod.com. It will also allow you to become more a part of the podcast and you can leave comments, offer suggestions, and reviews. You can even, if you want, leave me a voice mail by clicking on the microphone icon. 

General Details

In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at archive.org.

Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded to Freesound.org on 23rd June 2018. Creative Commons Licence. 

Piano and keyboard interludes composed and performed by Helen Ingram.

All other audio recorded on site. 

Contact
For pictures of Erica and images related to the podcasts or to contact me, follow me on:

I would love to hear from you. You can email me at nighttimeonstillwaters@gmail.com or drop me a line by going to the nowspod website and using either the contact form or, if you prefer, record your message using the voicemail facility by clicking on the microphone icon. 

Transcript

JOURNAL ENTRY

 11th October, Tuesday

“A wash of gold afternoon light
That fresh clean scent of damp earth
And falling water

The sluices are full and running,
Laced with curtains of pearl and crystal.

A yearling ewe, with her forelegs
Knee deep in the water.
A heron, a couple of feet away,
A statue centre stream, watches her.

Their eyes meet and for a moment,
The world pauses. Face to face
Eye to eye.

They drop their gaze and the world
Is once more filled with the sound
Of falling water.”    

[MUSIC]

WELCOME

It's a highwayman type of night to night. A waning moon and running clouds buffeted by the kick and rush of a south-westerly. There's more rain on the way from the west, but, right now, the skies are washed clean and sparkling. The silhouette of a swan swam past earlier on a mercury sea. The temperatures are beginning to drop, so come inside.   

This is the NB Erica

 It is lovely to see you. There's a threat of a frost tonight, but I think the winds will keep it at bay. And the stove is on, the cabin warm, the kettle is whistling, so kick off your shoes, and make yourself at home.  

[MUSIC]

NEWS FROM THE MOORINGS  

The 15th century The Kalendar of Shepherds begins its section on October with the rhyme, ‘October good blast; to blow the hog mast.” A reference to beech masts, the husks and seeds of the beech tree that fall in abundance at this time of year and which pigs love to eat.

October, as another of my almanac guides, Miles Hadfield, informs us, has long been associated with not just winds but pigs – it being the time when, traditionally, the household pig was given the final fattening before slaughter in preparation for the winter months.

The Kalendar carries on, ‘It is now October, and the lofty windes make bare the trees of their leaues, while the hogs in the wood grow fat with the falne Acorns.”

This week there as certainly been a lot of winds. They’ve not been the gales of last week, but a lot of blustery weather. They’ve been southerly to south-westerly and so have been fairly mild when they have come, but with them they have brought sharp raking squalls of rain which are quickly replaced by racing clouds and warm spells of sunshine.

Both the Kalendar and then, four centuries later, Miles Hadfield note that this is the time when the cold begins to reassert itself. “Muffs and Cuffes are now in request”, the mediaeval author asserts, and then playfully notes that “kind hearts and true Louers lye close, to keep off the cold.”

Outside the house, we are treated to a description of “the Titmouse now keepes in the hollow tree, and the black bird sits close in the bottom of the hedge.”

It is perhaps not surprising that, for all the frenetic activity that has earlier described in this section he finds little comfort, ending the entry with “I thus conclude of it; I hold it a Messenger of ill newes, and a second seruice to a cold dinner. Farewell.”     

Well, in all fairness October, so far here, has been fairly benign. We're having some incredibly colourful shows here. Apologies if you are listening outside the UK, because the autumn colours are probably the only things you are hearing about from us Brits! (well, things of importance, anyway!). There is still a lot of greens, slightly softening to yellows, but also some vibrant deep and rich reds from the acers.

We’ve also been experiencing those huge swings of temperature differences in one day that is so characteristic of this time of year. During some of the days, it is quite possible to potter about outside in just a T-shirt, but some of the nights have been chilly. We had our first (or is it second?) real frost of the season this week. Wednesday saw me scraping the car before going to work. Because of remote working, it is something I have not had to do for quite some time. However, it was more than compensated with some stunning dawns, with mists hanging low over the water so that the ducks appeared to be swimming through cloudy night skies. On Tuesday morning, the Hunter’s Moon cast its silvery path across the water. A light breeze was very gently rippling the surface, otherwise the water would have appeared as a blank, black void. One or two boats were beginning to turn their lights on, a smoke slowly curled up from a couple of chimneys. Then a duck must have cut a path across the moon’s pathway, a little black figure trailing a v-wake of silver. Perhaps humans aren’t the only creatures destined to come “trailing clouds of glory.”   

Later, I watched the same moon hang pin-sharp and clear in a dawn sky of granite greys between the building blocks and traffic lights of south Birmingham. Then later still, as light pooled into the sky, shining down upon the choppy waters of the reservoir to the chorus of gulls and rook songs.

I am still unsure about the cygnets. I still haven’t spotted them together. It is difficult to tell whether I am just seeing the same one or whether they are interchanging with one another. However, local news is not good, with recent reports of fresh swan deaths due to avian flu. I’ve still not given up hope, but it is strange that I have not seen them together even though their parents largely spend their time apart.

For the last couple of days, I have spotted a white duck who appears to have joined us. It is generally either in the early morning or the evening and so might be just using here as a place to sleep for the night. It makes sense, there’s safety in numbers and many pairs of eyes to keep an eye (or even ear) open for potential signs of danger. It's more than likely that she is a female as she is either an escaped or abandoned domestic duck. But she seems to be fitting in well with the mallard community. I have not seen how the archdeacon has reacted to this visitor, but the other ducks seem to be quite welcoming – or, at least, accepting. There’s no appearance of squabbles or attempts to drive this newcomer away. I’ve watched them all together foraging and swimming together quite peaceably.

[MUSIC]

CABIN CHAT

[MUSIC]

AUTUMN COLOURS THE TATTERED GARMENTS OF SUMMER

Draw back the hatch and look out.

Geese, jackdaws, a murmur of pigeons, the flash of kingfisher blue. Racing clouds that look like… well clouds. The sort of clouds that you and I drew when we were young.

Were you like me? I used to love drawing clouds. I was never very confident in my artistic creations when I was a child. I knew that what was there flowing out of my pencils and crayons didn’t really look like what they were meant to be and – more importantly – didn’t really look like what I wanted them to look like. But clouds. Clouds were different. You could never get clouds wrong. No one was able to say ‘that doesn’t really look like a cloud’, because you could say ‘yes, this one does – I saw it in the sky once’ and no one could argue. And so my pictures featured skies full of round cottonwool shaped fluffy clouds – some dazzling white (except where the chalks slipped) some glowering in their greys and blacks. Others were flat and irregular – abstract shapes floating weightless under the thin blue line at the top of the page demarcating this space as ‘sky’.  

Heavy seed pods of yellow flag, spill coffee-bean kernels along the towpath. Bamboo-like reeds weather vane like pennon flags, lush green rushes susurrate with moorhens and dabbling duck bills. And amongst this green, the marshmallow pink and whites of morning glory and tiny purple-blue lightning flashes of vetch. Himalayan balsam paper lanterns glow softly with warm orange.

Higher up, willowherb smoke, carried on a southerly wind and traveller’s joy is transformed into the hairy swirling star fields of old man’s beard and the deep greens of the hedgerows are softening.

New colours and new shapes appear. The wires of sorrel stems, leaves having dropped or drooping, tightly curled and desiccated, the colour of rich port and dried blood vie with the naked skeleton umbrella frames of angelica and hogweed.

The grasses are dying back, stems rattling like bones in the wind.

Thinning hedgerows braided with black bryony’s necklace of fiery scarlets and decomposing crab apples.             

Tall stands of thistle, now Caramac brown, raspy and hoarse. Their skeletal flower heads busied by a kaleidoscope of insects. Blown thistle down, wraps and hangs from sorrel and bramble stems like torn scraps of sheep’s wool on moorland hawthorns and barbed wire. The strange large leaves of teasels curl upwards, forming bodies like spikey armadillos baring a spine of prehistoric spikes. They are brittle and almost translucent in the strong sunlight.

 

A couple of hundred yards down the towpath from here, a barbed tangle of blackberry grows, impenetrable and thick. In the spring it flushed a perfect palette of green; lime, mint, emerald. Greens that the eyes can almost taste their freshness on your tongue and make the mouth water. Later as the weeks eased into summer, the delicate flamboyance of flowers began to unfurl – as beautiful and more subtle than any cultivated rose. High summer brings the berries – glistening deep indigos and deep twilight purples. As round and as full of life as the eyes of harvest mice. And my, the profusion of berries this year! The branches hanged heavy with great bunches the size of your fist – rich with reds and blacks. Each berry fat with juice – ripe, perfect!

I’m not the only one to have noticed that there appeared to be far fewer people picking them this year. Perhaps the good harvest meant that they were replete by the time these bushes appeared on the foraging walk. It is just that, following lockdown, it seemed as if the whole world was out – gathering, harvesting. Families and groups of friends, busily combing the hedgerows. It was quieter this year. At least around here, anyway. Add to this a bumper year for harvest means an abundant, almost profligate, profusion of a these sweet rich-black jewels.

And so, through summer, this patch of briar, hummed and sang with other life. Finches and tits foraged like monkey, climbing in and out the writhing tangle of branches, cast like a game of Jack Straws. In the heat and the long days of sun, it bustled with busyness.     

Now the swelling pillows of foliage all around them is dying back, seared fawns and browns. Even a few of the briar leaves have crimson tips, but in the main, the leaves are still full and richly green – if a little ragged and eaten away. But there is a ‘gap-toothed’ feel about the place. Through the cluttered jumble of tangled stems and leaf mould, the earthy bankside, collaged with the litter of human detritus (wrappers, cans, bottles, personal things dropped from a pocket or a rucksack) have been hidden all summer by the lush green screens of vegetation are now once more laid bare. 

There are still plenty of berries ripe for the picking, but more and more are losing their glossy (Labrador dog nose kind of a) sheen and have become dulled and matt with autumnal bloom of mould and mildew. Shapeless clumps of purple-black, dangle like sugar-sweet miniature bats from drooping stems. Fruit fermenting on the vine. I reach up to pick one still free from mould. I am as gentle as can be, but even so, it collapses into a watery mush between my fingers, like a popping a perished balloon. I taste my fingers – it takes like over-diluted black-current squash. Don’t pick blackberries after Michaelmas (29th September), the old lore goes. The devil has spat on them. At least that is what Chick, my grandmother, used to say. Others say the devil has pissed on them. It is strange how language changes. To use the verb ‘piss’ sounds all wrong and crude, but that is only to the more sensitive modern ears. Funnily enough, I was looking at language and semantic shifts and change with some students the other day and ‘to piss’ came up there. To the Stuart translators and compilers of the King James Bible it was the preferred term. Times change. Apparently, the cause of all this devilish spitting and pissing is because, the story goes, he and the archangel Michael (hence the association with the festival of Michaelmas) were battling it out. When he is defeated by Michael, Michael banishes him (and his followers) from heaven. Tumbling through the sky, Lucifer crashes to earth landing in the prickly middle of a blackberry bush. Whereupon, the devil painfully disentangled himself from the briar and cursed it – spitting and/or urinating on it for good measure!

Michaelmas has long since passed, but the hum of insects around the bush show they don’t care. It’s a warm, welcoming sound. A drowsy, sleepy, somnolent sound that, in the honey-warm sunshine, makes my eyelids heavy. Among this gentle landscape of movement, a tattered and summer-worn comma and painted lady, sit on clusters of festering fruit, their probosces burrowing deep within this banquet in the wilderness; the butterflies’ eschaton. From time to time, they flatten their wings, drinking the sun and the warmth as well as this heavenly nectar. 

We often talk about the different seasons as if one season replaces the other with something new and different. The cold, icy, earth-scapes of winter are replaced by the bursting leaves and blossoming colours of spring. The deepening greens and blaze of fruit of summer replaces the fresh-newness of Spring. Autumn then comes when summer leaves with its own colours and textures and moods. But this is not quite the case. Even now in high autumn (if there is such a thing) the presence of summer is still all around. The hedgerows and woodlands, the fields and moorlands, don’t slip out of one costume to put on another. There is a continuity here. A natural rhythm of aging, maturing. All along this towpath the garments of summer are still proudly worn – the life lived fully in the heat then the rains – it is just that they are getting a little weather-worn, life-worn. As they should. It’s a testament of a life well-lived in the elements. Lives that have known the suns and the winds and rain, the sharp knife-blade of frosts, the searing heat of drought. And they are here. Two butterflies, a comma and a painted lady, the painted lady’s wings are so torn and frayed I am amazed she can still fly, but here they full of life, in the sunshine in a world that hums to the sound of insect wings, drinking the sweet food of a briar patch pissed on by the human’s devil.      

And everywhere I look I see the tattered garments of summer – and now autumn takes up her palette of colours and does something so wonderful with them. Nothing is wasted, nature has no rubbish tip.

Why do we see the battered and worn as something to hide or to avert our eyes from? Yes, it is hard to feel the touch of age upon our bodies and to not quite do the things of youth. But it is not something to be ashamed of. The lines on our face, the colour or loss of our hair, the stiffness with which we walk. Why do we wear age so heavily? As something to put off, to repel at all costs?

Equating the season of autumn with aging is nothing new; the autumn years of our life – it is a literary and cultural trope that verges now on the cliché. But why are both treated with such melancholy and sense of sadness. I have been trying to find poems that celebrate the triumph of autumn and – apart from the few that are often quoted Keats’ 'season of mellow fruitfulness' – which still has a minor chord feel to it) – I can’t find any. Neither can I for aging. Oh yes, there are plenty that rage against it or refuse to be cowed by it, but their perspective, by their very nature, suggest an underlying assumption that to aging is something to be resisted.   

Shakespeare in As You Like It memorably summed up aging in terms of loss

[READING]

Yes, that is, in the main, undeniably true, but he missed the important thing – the person in the body. Why is getting older so focused on decline and loss? I cannot remember these feelings when I lost the ability to grow new teeth to replace the old, or when I could no longer pipe treble because my voice broke, or tuck my knees around my head and walk on my hands, because my body was getting older. The reverse, they were clear signposts that I was growing. Natural transitions – the playful sweep of seasons…. but these autumn years are somehow different. A culture that worships youth aside, perhaps it is also something about how humans have never really come to terms with our knowledge of death?

This is not an appeal to replace the cult of youth with a cult of age. Aging is hard. It is as hard as puberty and adolescence, but why do we find it so difficult to see the beauty and naturalness in this process? Why do we prefer the pristine wings of a butterfly just out of her chrysalis to those of this painted lady, battered and weather-worn through living fully?

But, sometimes, it is so difficult to see this. We see decaying wood, rotting fruit, rasping dead-heads of summer’s flowers being in some way sad. The narrative of decline and loss. Mouldering fruit are unattractive, ugly even to our eyes. Though not to others we share this world with.

Why do we so habitually see the passing of summer into autumn and winter something to be mourned. That decay as something horrible and unnatural rather than the triumphant finale of those long days of growth and life? Why is it so hard to recognise the naturalness, the beauty within this process? That this is what the frost nipped and wind-whipped bud has been waiting all year for – enduring the parched scorching heat of summer – the bursting, the unfurling splendour of leaf and petal, the slow emergence of fruit – and now, finally, to culminate this long journey, by falling back into the earth.   

 

For when I am old – and I am getting there – I want to be like that butterfly, opening her battered, torn, and life-worn wings open to the soft warmth of the autumn sun, and drinking deeply from the well of earth’s life.

Like her, I want to wear the marks of a body aging as trophies of a life lived – a celebration of what IS, not a mark of decline and what WAS.

Perhaps, it is slightly easier for some to see this in the landscape around us, but not in those same processes within ourselves. Perhaps, in truth, it is harder to count the cost of aging in ourselves than it is for the butterfly. But that is because we allow the butterfly to simply be herself, a privilege we don’t accord ourselves. We measure our worth by what we give, our usefulness, our contributions and forget that, like the butterfly, our worth is measured by not what we can or have done, but who we are and who we are becoming.

And we are still all becoming – irrespective of the restraints our aging bodies place upon us. Physically, materially, even maybe mentally, there may be decline – but who we are is still growing, we are still becoming.    

The ragged butterfly feeding on a clump of decaying fruit on an October afternoon belongs not because of what she can do but who she is. Your merit, your worth, is not based on what you could or can no longer do, but that you are you and, because of that you belong here.

Like her, our garments may be as tattered, but the calling home of autumn has painted her more beautiful than her pristine wings ever were. And everywhere, autumn colours the tattered garments of summer.   

SIGNING OFF

This is the narrowboat 506812 the Erica signing off for the night and wishing you a very peaceful, restful night good night. 

WEATHER LOG