We were just getting used to the idea of an extended autumn. Then the skies cleared at dusk, leaving a vast empty chasm that sucked the heat from the land. By morning a hoar frost had appeared, matting the fallen leaves and pinching the last bit of life from those still on the trees. When the wind blows they will tumble in clouds.
I went out to walk in a silvered world, to see the first pink light of dawn come edging over the horizon. Nothing stirred.The lough, with its tattered reedy fringe and slumbering flotilla of fishing boats, might have been cast from glass, so clear and sharp it was. I walked beneath birch trees where yellow and orange leaves hung still, each one now edged with a coating of rime.
I had hoped to see the starling hordes leave their roost in a great, black cloud, but they had already departed. Besides, over the last few nights firework-throwing clowns have dispersed half of the birds, finding fun in the panic they are able to cause by firing exploding rockets into the midst of the sleeping flock, so the spectacle would not have been as it ought. If the cold weather continues the starlings will congregate in ever greater numbers once more and we shall get to enjoy them properly once more.
In the meantime there is so much else to take our attention. A pair of jays, not expecting anybody to be walking their territory at this early hour, made their way towards me, swooping through the stunted alder trees that stand at the high water mark. They paused here and there, perching to peer down and screech angrily at an enemy I could not see - a mink, perhaps, for there are certainly some about. I found their tracks in the soft mud where they had been searching for waterfowl in the reed bed.
The jays didn’t see me until they were a mere 30 paces from where I stood; this despite them being among the most cautious and watchful of our birds. Even then they wanted to stay and scold whatever was beneath them, but their wary nature allowed them to come no closer. Instead, they flew around me in a wide, sweeping arc to take their watchman’s post in another small tree. As they flew past the sun illuminated the kingfisher-blue of their wings. Just a flash of colour, but its brilliance alone was worth getting out of bed for. Within two minutes they were back at their screeching and moving off into the distance to warn all woodland dwellers that something was coming their way.
I moved back through the woods, pausing to take a hazel wand. After peeling the bark with my thumbnail I swished it at the dead heads of tall thistles and cow parsley, the thin whip of a stick smashing through the frosted stems with ease until I came to the hedgerow where holly berries gleamed blood-red. Beneath them the hips of wild rose were strung out on long, thorny tendrils that grabbed at my coat as I passed by.
With the cold creeping into my toes I battled through the undergrowth and back to the road. A score or more wood pigeons clattered out of the tall beech hedge and into the east and a small cloud of finches evaporated from their breakfast at the alder catkins. Blackthorn grows here, in a dense forest of suckering stems. With the leaves gone the extent of the sloe crop can readily be seen; this year the shrubs are truly loaded with these tiny purple-black plums.
I pulled a handful to chew, taking those that were over-ripe and shriveling, at which stage the sugars are concentrated enough to make these normally bitterly astringent fruits quite palatable. Those who want sloes to make sloe gin or to add body to homemade wines should get them now. Soon the hungry winter thrushes will be here. They will move from one place to the next, descending on one bush after another, stripping the branches bare.
Back at home I eased into the warmth of the kitchen with a steaming mug of tea. A day of work lies ahead; books to look into, papers to shuffle, pens and paper clips to put in their rightful places and, increasingly, a computer to click the mouse of. An unreal world. It will be dark when I get back home.