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THERE is some honeysuckle still flowering at the tops of the hedges, where in the morning gossamer lies like a dewy net. The gossamer is a sign both of approaching autumn and, exactly at the opposite season of the year, of approaching spring. It stretches from pole to pole, and bough to bough, in the copses in February, as the lark sings. It covers the furze, and lies along the hedge-tops in September, as the lark, after a short or partial silence, occasionally sings again.
But the honeysuckle does not flower so finely as the first time; there is more red (the unopened petal) than white, and beneath, lower down the stalk, are the red berries, the fruit of the former bloom. Yellow weed, or ragwort, covers some fields almost as thickly as buttercups in summer, but it lacks the rich colour of the buttercup. Some knotty knapweeds stay in out-of-the-way places, where the scythe has not been; some bunches of may-weed, too, are visible in the corners of the stubble.
Silverweed lays its golden flower — like a buttercup without a stalk — level on the ground; it has no protection, and any passing foot may press it into the dust. A few white or pink flowers appear on the brambles, and in waste places a little St. John's wort remains open, but the seed vessels are for the most part forming. St. John's wort is the flower of the harvest; the yellow petals appear as the wheat ripens, and there are some to be found till the sheaves are carted. Once now and then a blue and slender bell-flower is lighted on; in Sussex the larger varieties bloom till much later.
By still ponds, to which the moorhens have now returned, tall spikes of purple loosestrife rise in bunches. In the furze there is still much yellow, and wherever heath grows it spreads in shimmering gleams of purple between the birches; for these three, furze, heath, and birch are usually together. The fields, therefore, are not yet flowerless, nor yet without colour here and there, and the leaves, which stay on the trees till late in the autumn, are more interesting now than they have been since they lost their first fresh green.
Oak, elm, beech, and birch, all have yellow spots, while retaining their groundwork of green. Oaks are often much browner, but the moisture in the atmosphere keeps the saps in the leaves. Even the birches are only tinted in a few places, the elms very little, and the
I beeches not much more: so it would seem that their hues will not be gone altogether till November. Frosts have not yet bronzed the dogwood in the hedges, and the hazel leaves are fairly firm. The hazel generally drops its leaves at a touch about this time, and while you are f nutting, if you shake a bough, they come down all around.
The rushes are but faintly yellow, and the slender tips still point upwards. Dull purple burrs cover the burdock; the broad limes are withering, but the leaves are thick, and the teazles are still flowering. Looking upwards, the trees are tinted; lower, the hedges are not without colour, and the field itself is speckled with blue and yellow. The stubble is almost hidden in many fields by the growth of weeds brought up by the rain; still the tops appear above and do not allow it to be green. The stubble has a colour — white if barley, yellow if wheat or oats. The meads are as verdant, even more so, than in the spring, because of the rain, and the brooks crowded with green flags.
Haws are very plentiful this year (1881), and exceptionally large, many fully double the size commonly seen. So heavily are the branches laden with bunches of the red fruit that they droop as apple trees do with a more edible burden. Though so big, and to all appearance tempting to birds, none have yet been eaten; and, indeed, haws seem to be resorted to only as a change unless severe weather compels.
Just as we vary our diet, so birds eat haws, and not many of them till driven by frost and snow. If any stay on till the early months of next year, wood-pigeons and missel-thrushes will then eat them; but at this season they are untouched. Blackbirds will peck open the hips directly the frost comes; the hips go long before the haws. There was a large crop of mountain-ash berries, every one of which has been taken by blackbirds and thrushes, which are almost as fond of them as of garden fruit.
Blackberries are thick, too — it is a berry year — and up in the horse-chestnut the prickly-coated nuts hang up in bunches, as many as eight in a stalk. Acorns are large, but not so singularly numerous as the berries, nor are hazel-nuts. This provision of hedge fruit no more indicates a severe winter than a damaged wheat harvest indicates a mild one.
There is something wrong with elm trees. In the early part of this summer, not long after the leaves were fairly out upon them, here and there a branch appeared as if it had been touched with red-hot iron and burnt up, all the leaves withered and browned on the boughs. First one tree was thus affected, then another, then a third, till, looking round the fields, it seemed as if every fourth or fifth tree had thus been burnt.
It began with the leaves losing colour, much as they do in autumn, on the particular bough; gradually they faded, and finally became brown and of course dead. As they did not appear to shrivel up, it looked as if the grub or insect, or whatever did the mischief; had attacked, not the leaves, but the bough itself. Upon mentioning this I found that it had been noticed in elm avenues and groups a hundred miles distant, so that it is not a local circumstance.
As far as yet appears, the elms do not seem materially injured, the damage being outwardly confined to the bough attacked. These brown spots looked very remarkable just after the trees had become green. They were quite distinct from the damage caused by the snow of October x880. The boughs broken by the snow had leaves upon them which at once turned brown, and in the case of the oak were visible, the following spring, as brown spots among the green. These snapped boughs never bore leaf again. It was the young fresh green leaves of the elms, those that appeared in the spring of 1881, that withered as if scorched. The boughs upon which they grew had not been injured; they were small boughs at the outside of the tree. I hear that this scorching up of elm leaves has been noticed in other districts for several seasons.
The dewdrops of the morning, preserved by the mist, which the sun does not disperse for some hours, linger on late in shaded corners, as under trees, on drooping blades of grass and on the petals of flowers. Wild bees and wasps may often be noticed on these blades of grass that are still wet, as if they could suck some sustenance from the dew. Wasps fight hard for their existence as the nights grow cold. Desperate and ravenous, they will eat anything, but perish by hundreds as the warmth declines.
Dragon-flies of the larger size are now very busy rushing to and fro on their double wings; those who go blackberrying or nutting cannot fail to see them. Only a very few days since — it does not seem a week — there was a chiffchaff calling in a copse as merrily as in the spring. This little bird is the first, or very nearly the first, to come in the spring, and one of the last to go as autumn approaches. It is curious that, though singled out as a I first sign of spring, the chiffchaff has never entered into the home life of the people like the robin, the swallow, or even the sparrow.
There is nothing about it in the nursery rhymes or stories, no one goes out to listen to it, children are not taught to recognise it, and grown-up persons are often quite unaware of it. I never once heard a countryman, a labourer, a farmer, or any one who was always out of doors, so much as allude to it. They never noticed it, so much is every one the product of habit.
The first swallow they looked for, and never missed; but they neither heard nor saw the chiffchaff. To those who make any study at all of birds it is, of course, perfectly familiar; but to the bulk of people it is unknown. Yet it is one of the commonest of migratory birds, and sings in every copse and hedgerow, using loud, unmistakable notes. At last, in the middle of September, the chiffchaff, too, is silent. The swallow remains; but for the rest, the birds have flocked together, finches, starlings, sparrow; and gone forth into the midst of the stubble far from the place where their nests were built, and where they sang, and chirped, and whistled so long.
The swallows, too, are not without thought of going. They may be seen twenty in a row, one above the other, or on the slanting ropes or guys which hold up the masts of the rickcloths over the still unfinished corn-ricks. They gather in rows on the ridges of the tiles, and wisely take counsel of each other. Rooks are up at the acorns; they take them from the bough, while the pheasants come underneath and pick up those that have fallen.
The partridge coveys are more numerous and larger than they have been for several seasons, and though shooting has now been practised for more than a fortnight, as many as twelve and seventeen are still to be counted together. They have more cover than usual at this season, not only because the harvest is still about, but because where cut the stubble is so full of weeds that when crouching they are hidden. In some fields the weeds are so thick that even a pheasant can hide.
South of London the harvest commenced in the last week of July. The stubble that was first cut still remains unploughed; it is difficult to find a fresh furrow, and I have only once or twice heard the quick strong puffing of the steam-plough. While the wheat was in shock it was a sight to see the wood-pigeons at it. Flocks of hundreds came perching on the sheaves, and visiting the same field day after day. The sparrows have never had such a feast of grain as this year. Whole corners of wheatfields — they work more at corners — were cleared out as clean by them as if the wheat had been threshed as it stood.
The sunshine of the autumn afternoons is faintly tawny, and the long grass by the wayside takes from it a tawny undertone. Some other colour than the green of each separate blade, if gathered, lies among the bunches, a little, perhaps like the hue of the narrow pointed leaves of the reeds. It is caught only for a moment, and looked at steadily it goes. Among the grass, the hawkweeds, one or two dandelions, and a stray buttercup, all yellow, favour the illusion. By the bushes there is a double row of pale buff bryony leaves; these, too, help to increase the sense of a secondary colour.
The atmosphere holds the beams, and abstracts from them their white brilliance. They come slower with a drowsy light, which casts a less defined shadow of the still oaks. The yellow and brown leaves in the oaks, in the elms, and the beeches, in their turn affect the rays, and retouch them with their own hue. An immaterial mist across the fields looks like a cloud of light hovering on the stubble: the light itself made visible.
The tawniness is indistinct, it haunts the sunshine, and is not to be fixed, any more than you can say where it begins and ends in the complexion of a brunette. Almost too large for their cups, the acorns have a shade of the same hue now before they become brown. As it withers, the many-pointed leaf of the white bryony and the bine as it shrivels, in like manner, do their part. The white thistle-down, which stays on the bursting thistles because there is no wind to waft it away, reflects it; the white is pushed aside by the colour that the stained sunbeams bring.
Pale yellow thatch on the wheat-ricks becomes a deeper yellow; broad roofs of old red tiles smoulder under it. What can you call it but tawniness? — the earth sunburnt once more at harvest time. Sunburnt and brown — for it deepens into brown. Brown partridges, and pheasants, at a distance brown, their long necks stretched in front and long tails behind gleaming in the stubble. Brown thrushes just venturing to sing again. Brown clover hayricks; the bloom on the third crop yonder, which was recently a bright colour, is fast turning brown, too.
Here and there a thin layer of brown leaves rustles under foot. The scaling bark on the lower part of the tree trunks is brown. Dry dock stems, fallen branches the very shadows, are not black, but brown. With red hips and haws, red bryony and woodbine berries, these together cause the sense rather than the actual existence of a tawny tint. It is pleasant; but sunset comes so soon, and then after the trees are in shadow beneath, the yellow spots at the tops of the elms still receive the light from the west a few moments longer.
There is something nutty in the short autumn day — shorter than its duration as measured by hours, for the enjoyable day is between the clearing of the mist and the darkening of the shadows. The nuts are ripe, and with them is associated wine and fruit. They are hard but tasteful; if you eat one, you want ten, and after ten, twenty. In the wine there is a glow, a spot like tawny sunlight; it falls on your hand as you lift the glass. They are never really nuts unless you gather them yourself. Put down the gun a minute or two, and pull the boughs this way. One or two may drop of themselves as the branch is shaken, one among the brambles, another outwards into the stubble. The leaves rustle against hat and shoulders; a thistle is crushed under foot, and the down at last released. Bines of bryony hold the ankles, and hazel boughs are stiff and not ready to bend to the will. This large brown nut must be cracked at once; the film slips off the kernel, which is white underneath. It is sweet.
The tinted sunshine comes through between the tall hazel rods; there is a grasshopper calling in the sward on the other side of the mound. The bird's nest in the thorn-bush looks as perfect as if just made, instead of having been left long long since — the young birds have flocked into the stubbles. On the briar which holds the jacket the canker rose, which was green in summer, is now rosy. No such nuts as those captured with cunning search from the bough in the tinted sunlight and under the changing leaf.
The autumn itself is nutty, brown, hard, frosty, and sweet. Nuts are hard, frosts are hard; but the one is sweet, and the other braces the strong. Exercise often wearies in the spring, and in the summer heats is scarcely to be faced; but in autumn, to those who are well, every step is bracing and hardens the frame, as the sap is hardening in the trees.