Ten days have passed and the garden feels a different place altogether. The warmth has gone, flushed out with the first of the season’s gales, and what is left is brittle and transient. Colours are changing – rich greens fading to olives and browns – and there is a yellowing of the air now, which pales quickly to grey as evening arrives. When the sun comes it rarely stays for long.
Trees and bushes are growing gaunt, their skeletal frames emerging from behind the summer attire. Leaves scuttle like crabs about the garden’s edge, and in the long untended grass. The last autumn crocuses have abandoned their show and drooped, leaving only two lonely poppies and the gangly monkshood still in bloom – brash, blue and deadly.
Overhead, geese move together in broad wing-strides, their ragged arrow formation pointing the way towards winter. The sound of them falls like hail over the valley.
This is an unsettling time. Everything is changing; each day, each hour is different. Knowing this place now, as it turns through this restless season, seems impossible. Like a lover whose temperament – whose very face – alters from one moment to the next, the land has become elusive, mysterious, enigmatic. It has left me lost.
Beyond the window, a blackcap flits from elsewhere to here. He visits the little goat willow often, and I sit, distracted, watching him fluster among the branches, picking intently at invisible things. Now and then he stops, looks out over the garden and offers an alarm call: chack-chack-chack-chack. He waits and listens, but nothing responds.
This bird should be on his way to somewhere else by now, and I expect each day for him to be gone. He arrived a couple of weeks ago, together with a female (whose cap is not black but chestnut brown). The female though has disappeared, and I wonder if he is still waiting for her to return. I wonder about this particularly because, while I hope that she has flown south, I fear that our cat may have been responsible for the disappearance. In my guilt I have written tragedy into the tale, and a grief that most likely cannot exist.
As I sit watching the bird, a movement beyond catches my eye. At the edge of the overgrown lawn a little hedgehog is nosing through the leaves and the dirt. His tiny feet take him in and out among the plants, as he weaves his way through the flowerbed. There is an urgency to his movements, and to his daylight appearance, which suggest that all is not well. Hibernation cannot be far away, and maybe this one understands he is not yet big enough to survive.I step out from the living room and up the path, to where the hedgehog has paused. It does not try to escape as I approach; nor does it attempt to roll up into a ball. The little creature simply lumbers from one edge of the path to the other, uncertain of what to do next. I wonder if perhaps he is no less lost than me out here. He knows this garden from one angle only, and has just a few months of life behind him. Maybe next year, with another summer and a long winter under his prickly belt he’ll be a wiser thing, but for now we might not be so different.
I let the hedgehog shuffle back into the flowerbed while I shuffle back to a warm house and a cup of tea. I sit down again in my chair by the window, and think of the great, impossible allure of hibernation.
It is right, I suppose, to be lost at this time – to feel pulled by an ebbing tide. The things around me are unsettled and uncertain, and to be immune from that uncertainty would be to miss a point. I could close these windows and doors, draw the curtains and turn up the heating. I could climb into bed and stay there till springtime. I could shut my eyes and imagine myself flying south. But then where would I be?
There is a conversation going on, and I am part of it. Or at least, I want to be a part. There are words whose sound is strange and whose meaning is uncertain; there are signals and signs that I cannot yet follow. There is a language, not foreign but unfamiliar. I am trying to listen. And I am trying to learn.