Autumn in Shetland can be the shortest and most ill-defined of seasons. It comes and is gone in the rushing of air. Gales drag summer southwards, leaving behind a space that autumn must fill. But gales do not stay silent for long, and winter begins quickly to press itself upon us.
Here the season is marked most clearly by the passage of birds and, for some, by work. Lambs are sold and slaughtered; vegetables are taken from the ground. The traditional signs of autumn elsewhere – the yellows and reds and the falling leaves – are not entirely familiar in Shetland, where trees are uncommon and mostly diminutive.
But here in this house, we are lucky. The southern border of the garden is marked by trees – a line of 100 metres or so, by ten wide, sloping down from the road to the bank of the Vidlin Loch. That slope is divided both physically, by a wall and a fence, and botanically, into three roughly equal parts.
At the top, closest to the road, are densely planted conifers – mostly shore pines and Sitka Spruce, if my identification skills are to be trusted. These are big trees by Shetland standards; the largest are fifteen, maybe twenty metres tall. Here, trunks and branches are tangled, and the light struggles to break through. Walking in among them, pushing limbs and needles out of the way, it is possible to feel a great distance from home.
Below them, in the middle part of the garden, closest to the house, the cover is broken and the trees are mostly shorter. There is a diverse, somewhat eccentric mix here, both evergreens and deciduous, as well as a few feeble currant and raspberry bushes, clumps of fuchsia and a very un-northern sprouting of pampas grass.
The lower section of the garden – ‘the forest’ – holds a mixture of well established trees, most likely planted when the house was built back in the late forties. It is enclosed on all sides by a fence, yet it feels, undeniably, the most ‘natural’ part of the garden, if such a label can be comfortably applied, which of course it cannot. There are firs and spruce here, two kinds of willows, hawthorns, sycamore and others. I recognise some but several remain a mystery. I am frustrated by my ignorance.
On an afternoon between gales I took an identification book – newly purchased for the purpose – and wandered slowly beneath branches, pausing beside each anonymous tree. Blackbirds harangued me from above, and two robins, recently arrived, watched my progress with apparent concern. A tiny Shetland wren (Troglodytes troglodytes zetlandicus) crept like a mouse among fallen leaves.
Even with this book though I struggled. Most branches are now bare, and to uninitiated eyes like mine the differences are hard to distinguish. Those leaves that remain are largely in poor condition, fragile and discoloured. I have picked the wrong time of year to educate myself. And what is worse, I had been forewarned that Shetland’s climate can produce trees quite distinct from textbook examples of the species. The odds were not on my side, and I barely knew where to start.
After twenty minutes or so, cold and frustration pushed me back inside, and I returned to the dining table with an armful of leaves and twigs and cones, determined to make at least semi-informed guesses at all of them. With the book in front of me, I sat down and picked at random.
A leaf, about ten or twelve centimetres long, roughly oval in shape, but pointed at the end and more rounded towards the base. The edges were toothed and 14 or 15 veins spread out on either side of the midrib. Despite being one of the last on the tree, the leaf had retained most of its colour. Only a light singeing of the apex and teeth gave away the season.
Immediately I was stuck. The closest image I could find was of a wild cherry, though that seemed improbably exotic for a Shetland garden. But perhaps not. Unsure, I moved on.There were some I was confident about. The larch was unmistakable – splayed tufts of yellowing needles all along the rough-skinned branch – and the three-part leaves of a laburnum were equally unambiguous. There were two alders, I think, of two different varieties; the cones, though more or less equal in size, were quite distinct in appearance. But again, I had little confidence in this conclusion.
Of the others, one more was familiar: the scaly green fronds of a cypress tree. The look and, more particularly, the smell of it dragged me unexpectedly back to a place quite distant from here. I couldn’t picture it at first, but then I remembered: the garden of my paternal grandparents – both long dead now – in the Sussex town where I spent the first years of my life. Not all of it comes back to me, but I remember the square lawn that my grandfather cut slowly and meticulously with his push mower. And beyond it I can see the trees: a tall oak in the centre and a broad holly bush to one side. Behind them were others – a world to explore – and somewhere in that garden, I am certain, were cypress trees. As a child I would run and hide among them, the soft leaves brushing against my face, the scent of them in my nostrils. It seems strange that a smell would stay with me for so long, yet somehow I am relieved to have found it again.
When I returned to the table the following morning the leaves had dried and curled in upon themselves. The larch needles too had begun to loosen, and as I ran my finger over them, a shower of yellow exclamations fell, leaving the twig bare and almost ugly. The table was strewn with the victims of my curiosity, brittle and withered after just a few hours inside. All except the cypress fronds, which looked and smelled exactly as they did the day before, and exactly as they did more than 20 years ago.