The Long View (Branscombe, October 29th)

It’s 260 million years before the present day. Off the back of an ice age, temperatures have spiked on Earth, sent soaring by rising carbon dioxide levels. Somewhere on the northern half of Pangaea, Earth’s only continent, a six-legged animal stirs, twitches its antennae, and slinks across a fern-shaded rock to escape the fierce heat of the sun. It lives for a few days, time stretches forward and the picture disintegrates. So, gradually but inevitably, does the continent.

160 million years later: the bristletail’s rock lies submerged in a shallow sea. The water is warm, very saline and populated by a huge range of bivalve and brachiopod molluscs. Many of their shell forms are familiar, such as oysters; others now strange to us will depart along with the dinosaurs at the end of the era. Generation after generation of organisms vanishes into the sediment until this flourishing marine landscape is held within a few centimetres of greensand rock. The sea level falls, and the water above dries up.

The continents clash and part in an imperceptible dance. Rocks rise and fall. The Eurasian plate drifts further north; our rock strata settle into a temperate region. A river valley some way to the south is breached by the sea, filling to become a broad channel. Our patch of earth becomes an island. Wind, water and salt work northward, eating into bedrock which itself once formed the bed of that long-vanished sea. Eventually, piece by piece, this sea floor is revealed again, falling in great boulders out of what is now a sea cliff onto a shingle beach below.

It’s now an unseasonably warm afternoon in late October, and the English Channel is docile. Only gentle waves of remarkably clear water lap at the shingle. Four of us bipedal apes – pretty new on the scene – trace one of the ancient shell beds with our fingertips. A small animal scuttles across the boulder as we marvel at the texture of tangible ghosts in the rock. Six-legged, binocular-eyed, hunchbacked and with three long filaments for a tail: it’s a bristletail, in general body plan unchanged since its ancestor sought shelter beneath a tree fern at the close of the Paleozoic.

It’s almost impossible to conceive of a 260-million-year span. Reframed as a year, let’s say that first bristletail awoke on New Year’s Day. In the first weeks of spring Pangaea breaks up and the continental plates we would recognise today drift apart.  The mid-cretaceous warm sea blooms through the summer months before gradually falling beneath layers of soil and rock through September. In mid-October a meteorite falls and the dinosaurs meet their final downfall. A month later, New and Old World monkeys divide. Apes emerge towards the end of November; our earliest recognisable ancestors not until Christmas Eve. Our species, Homo sapiens, arrives just in time for tea (of course) at quarter past five on December 31st.  Modern human history fills only the last 20 minutes before midnight.

In a million years or so, this turbulent period in the earth’s history many now dub the Anthropocene will be long buried. Our lives are so brief by comparison we may as well be standing still. The only time available to us is right now, which makes it all the more remarkable that we could spend an afternoon breaking the remnants of eons past out of the rock to hold them between our fingertips, unseen since before the end of the age of dinosaurs. What did we mortal monkeys do to deserve the ability, and knowledge, to hold the life of the ages in our hands and understand something of its vastness?

25th October (Flames)

It’s dark for the earliest of my walks to the station this week, the air thick with drizzle. Redwing calls penetrate the murk, crisp against the relative hush of a suburban dawn. When I return, after dark, they’re passing overhead again. Piercing, descending, trailing off into the evening sky; their calls are a premonition of the screaming rockets that will fly similar paths over the gardens of Newbury on November 5th. If we didn’t already have a 400-year-old political justification for pyrocentric festivities at this time of year we’d have to invent one. It’s too perfect. In fact, the accelerating inferno of autumn racing around the hemisphere is surely more worthy of celebration in its own right.

In October, the whole year goes up in flames. Trees spontaneously combust, lit from within, their leaves darkening and blistering as though in a hot oven. When they finally fall they crackle underfoot, as pleasing a soundtrack as the thrushes overheard. Many plants are throwing energy into fruit, and it’s the smallest of these acidic beakfulls of sugar energy – haws, dogwood, rowan – that the redwings are here for. They’ll carry these digested embers back to Scandinavia, or Iceland: sparks to ignite the next generation of avian fireworks that will race across smoky October or November evenings in years to come.

I imagine the autumn harvest used to also sustain us in a fairly direct way. Our hedgerow plunderings are now just symbolically connected, at best, to the life-and-death foraging of birds, yet there’s something deeply sustaining about the taste of autumn fruits. They have an earthy, mineral sharpness detectable even when buried by the vats of sugar my 21st-century taste buds have grown accustomed to. The body could well live by supermarket alone, but my spirit seems to be lifted by food more directly acquired from nature. Perhaps I’m looking for a tangible connection to the redwings: their lives may objectively be much harder than ours, but in the wildness of that call I hear a freedom, born in the heat of autumn, that feels utterly out of reach.

 

2nd October (Theale, Berkshire)

Autumn is making its presence felt by the Kennet & Avon. Leaves are increasingly tinted yellow or brown at the tips. Of summer, all that remains are the skeletal frames of hogweed and burdock, long since gone to seed. That and the rich legacy of fruit its energies leave behind, whether blackberries and haws or the newly expanded long-tailed tit family passing noisily from bush to bush. Summer does put up pockets of resistance: a few hogweeds are on their second flowering. The sun remains warm, animating the plentiful larger insects which remain active to feed on those blooms or a pungent ivy patch. Particularly where this autumn sun hits a bramble bank, the gentle chirps of dark bush crickets are also very evident. They sound not unlike the edges of a stack of paper being rapidly flicked; often several will call back and forth in busy bursts of communal song. To me this has become an essential part of the October soundscape.

Despite the continued abundance of thermopiles, the year’s slide toward midwinter feels well underway. Descending a short muddy slope to the banks of the gravel pit, I feel it acutely: even an hour and a half before sunset the shade has a frosty chill. The sun is already low and the rafts of coots, great-crested grebes and lesser black-backed gulls out on the water are stark in this light, whites dazzling, blacks and greys almost iridescent. By contrast, the kingfisher that shoots low and close across the water is seen only as a sleek, purposeful dart, colours entirely muted. I track it with my binoculars and almost don’t see the grebe which pops up like a cork even closer to the bank. It’s clutching a small red-finned fish, which it deftly flicks through 90 degrees before swallowing it with a single gulp. My rebirth as a birder was on the banks of lakes such as this, some autumns ago, so to spend just a few happy minutes in the company of wintering waterfowl is a bit like coming home.