Step into the last days of autumn – there’s still nature to see…

By A J Selby.

The summer sun is fading as the year grows old, and darker days are drawing near
Justin Hayward
Forever Autumn

November is a great walking month. The countryside is putting itself to bed and we can watch the decline and decay from day to day as we head towards the dead of mid-winter.
Fresh air is, of course, very therapeutic and so, to me, is a warming drink at the fireside at the end of a leisurely ramble. As the leaves fall so the trees take on a starkness that gives them a sense of individuality that is absent in summer when the green canopy merges into one. Learn the different trunk characteristics from the smooth beech to the patterned oak and gaze up high into the tree tops and marvel at these ‘lungs of the planet’ that sustain life from the largest mammals – including us – to hundreds of invertebrates and trillions of micro-organisms in the soil below.
A recent walk took me into the New Forest to enjoy the magnificent stands of woodland ablaze with autumn colour that takes one’s breath away. This time of year the commoners – local smallholders in the main – are allowed to let their pigs out into the forest – although much of the ‘forest’ is open heath – to forage for beech mast and acorns. This is called pannage and is a centuries old tradition, with the pigs eating acorns that can be poisonous to horses. They also dig up a few juicy roots and stems which helps to fatten them for the end of the year.

The clocks have changed and we are all too aware of the limited daylight hours as we drift towards the winter solstice. Don’t let this put you off enjoying nature – there is plenty to see at dawn and dusk as well as listening to what the darkness offers. Owls, of course, are night birds and the ghostly sight of a barn owl drifting across farmland, caught in the glow of the moon still excites me. The tawny owl will hoot across a stand of trees and the screech when close up will make you jump. Listen for the rustle of the undergrowth as you stand still and try to work out what creature it might be.
And, of course, look at the sky on a clear night. Away from light pollution the Milky Way is a stunning band of trillions of stars and is best observed prostrate on a blanket with a decent pair of binoculars. I can recall camping in the 1980s in New Zealand in wild countryside and on a crisp, clear night I was blown away by the intense beauty of the night sky.

A quick check on the internet can tell you what planets will be in view at any given time – see the brightness of Venus low down near the horizon at dawn or in the early evening sky, or the faint red of Mars. Good binoculars or a telescope will show Jupiter’s rings and red spot and there are plenty of star clusters and nebula to view in the constellations, such as in Taurus and Orion. The Orion nebula, known as M42, sits just below his ‘belt’ and can be seen with the naked eye in unpolluted skies in winter, and even better with an aid.
Taurus has one of the earliest objects identified in the night sky – in the 1700s – known as M1 the crab nebula, located near the horns and the famous Seven Sisters, the Pleiades cluster with seven stars visible to the naked eye. Back on terra firma and walking into the old wood on one of those still, dull afternoons, the silence is almost deafening. Not a sound comes from the trees so the other senses are enhanced – the smell of the decaying leaf mould and the sight of small details that are missed at other times of year. The wren busying herself in the undergrowth, the contrasting greens of moss and lichens on tree bark, the bracket fungi jutting out of tall trunks, and the activity of small insects in rotten branches, scattered about like so much driftwood. This month also brings its share of dreary days, when the sun fails to smile at us and the sky is as grey and still as the heron on the lake.

The poet Thomas Hood captured these melancholy days in verse, which I make no apologies for repeating from time to time:
No sun – no moon!
No morn – no noon –
No dawn – no dusk – no proper time of day.
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member –
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds –

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