Autumn is Knocking

The light on the horizon has changed significantly this past week, casting long, broad shadows across the hills.  The sky is filled with an eclectic mixture of brooding, grey clouds adorned with cotton-candy-like puffs of white accentuated with splashes of blue.  Crisp leaves are beginning to carpet the ground and collect in corners of the garden and in all our drains.  An annual autumn project of clearing leaves has now appeared on our to-do list.  The most notable announcement of the season’s change is the formation of the bright flame-red berries dangling from the Rowan trees.

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Where did the summer go?  It seems just yesterday we were filling the long days with visitors and projects.  We were busy tending to the vegetable garden and our on-going repair of stone walls.  Daily we pulled weeds, maintained the garden, and filled potholes.  We spent hours gathering and consuming the abundance of our vegetable beds, building a new fence — which resulted in an unfortunate concussion for Roger — juggling family demands and embracing the arrival of the thoroughly modern Millie!

In the summer months, we carry on with all our activities until our bones and muscles ache, taking breaks to walk Sam and Millie or have a cup of coffee. By the end of the day, covered with dirt, we put away our tools, clean ourselves up, and prepare dinner. Afterwards, we take a glass of wine and make our way back outside to soak in the hot tub.  We make plans for the next day while the night shift of wildlife clocks-in. On a clear night, one by one, the stars appear in the sky and the bats flash past to feeding on new insect life. Foxes and badgers make their plans for the evening’s hunt and forage, and the tawny owl in the stand of pines across the valley sings a musical riff.

Now, as I walk the dogs in the early morning, I feel a chill in the air and can see our breath in the dawn air.   This first walk of the day is one of two stories:  Sam sniffing all the news of the day to come and slowly awaking his achy bones as he lumbers down the track; while Millie darts from one moment to the next, chasing her toy and racing past me and Sam to exercise her job as the Ambassador of Joy!  I certainly have my pre-coffee challenge with the two dogs moving at different speeds and entertaining their different interests, but our pack of three sync up with the pleasure of the crisp morning air.

As we turn the corner on our walk, down in the valley the fog hangs along the river as if a dragon flew past in the night and left a breath trail.  Exposed by the morning dew are the webs of the thousands of spiders who make their homes in the gorse bushes.  With the arrival of cooler temperatures, many of these spiders now seem to be making their homes inside our house and not a day goes by when I don’t discover yet another large arachnid awaiting rescue from the kitchen sink.

It’s not just spiders who have made their way into the house, we’ve had a few bats too.  Recently, I was spending the afternoon stacking our winter wood supply in the barn when I noticed something flapping about in jerky flight.  Too late to be a swallow or a house martin, they’ve left for warmer climates and won’t be back again until the spring.   When I stopped to investigate, I spied a bat hanging upside down in the rafters.  I’ve not seen it there before or since, so I suspect this is simply a temporary rest stop as it was too early to be out and about hunting insects.  Sure enough, later that day Roger and I spent the better part of the evening trying to isolate the Horseshoe bat, which had found its way from the barn into the house.

The greater horseshoe bat is one of the larger British bats with a wingspan of about 35-39 cm, and also one of the rarest.  We are in one of the few areas in the country where these bats are still breeding, so it is a treat to see one.  After Roger photographed and confirmed its identification, we managed to get it into a room where we could close the doors, turn out the lights, and open the windows so it would head out into the night to commence its hunting before returning to its roost in parts unknown to us.

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As the plants die back to conserve their energy for a spring bloom, so too, Roger and I have turned our attentions to readying for winter.  But we aren’t there yet. Soon, we will spend more of our time inside by the fire and less outside. As the nights draw in and our wood burner provides daily comfort, we will turn our attentions to projects inside.  We have a water tank which needs replacing, pipes which need relocating, and we’re making some changes to the hot water system as a result.  Roll on Autumn….

Raking with Chickens

Raking leaves is one of those necessary projects with no end during autumn.  I rake and then rake some more.  Next, the wind blows or it rains and there are more leaves.  But.my approach is simple:  Get the majority of leaves up and into the compost and liberate the electric fence from any which lodge themselves onto it.  If I dedicate myself to doing this every week for about an hour, then it is a small and manageable task.

That is, unless you have chickens.

Love our hens.  Hate their help.

Try digging a garden bed with chickens around.  They are there to supervise and assist, and eat all the worms.  Clean their coop, and they are all a flutter to closely inspect our efforts.   They peck at newly discovered insects, make certain the feeders are topped up, and kick about any new hay to make their nests just so.  Truthfully, they are a little micro-manage-y.

But rake leaves, and they are beside themselves with mischief.  Just look at the photos:

 

The beginnings of a row to make a pile for moving.

The beginnings of a row to make a pile for moving.

 

Here come the chickens.

Here come the chickens.

 

"Let's do it!" say the hens.

“Let’s do it!” say the hens.

 

A guilty member of the flock has spread the leaves back into their original location.

A guilty member of the flock has spread the leaves back into their original location.

 

After twice as much time, I managed to collect a sizeable amount of leaves for the compost.

After twice as much time, I managed to collect a sizeable amount of leaves for the compost.

 

The hens have taken themselves off to bed and seem to be having a conversation along the lines of, “It wasn’t me.”

The hens have taken themselves off to bed and seem to be having a conversation along the lines of, “It wasn’t me.”

Falling into Autumn

Dartmoor

Morning fog to start my day.

Crisp leaves are beginning to carpet the ground with browns, yellows, and the occasional tinge of burnt orange creating a tapestry of mulch. I adore walking through fallen leaves with their lightness and crunch, but I remain mindful that these same leaves must be cleared from the gutters and drains. When the wind comes from a particular direction, fallen leaves catch upon the electric fencing protecting our chickens, causing it to short out, rendering it ineffective and necessitating some fiddly removal of this fall foliage.

The return of autumn also brings with it morning mist covering the valley until the sun has a chance to burn through. Just out of bed, I put on my wellies and a light fleece over my P.J.’s and Sam and I head out for his first walk of the day. It is now early dawn, and in a few weeks, it will be dark at this hour, but the cool and damp air helps to freshen and awaken me.   With the earliest glimmer of light from the sky, the birds respond in elation to the coming day. For Sam, it’s the smells at this hour that seem to bring him joy, and they appear to be different from those on summer walks.  Rather than bouncing down the path, Sam begins his charge only to suddenly turn on a dime heading toward a stone, bush, or gap in the dry-stone wall. And there he remains, inhaling with renewed focus, the scents of a nocturnal animal that recently passed by this spot.

With the shortening of days, our encounters with wildlife will change. In the morning, I now see more rabbits and an occasional fox.  During autumn, I hope to catch a glimpse, or the sound, of the rutting behaviours of resident deer in the stand of pines across the valley. Meanwhile, Sam follows a sent between some flowering gorse bushes, and I wait for him – they say a dog taking in scents is similar to reading – and look closely to the gorse bushes. With the morning mist, the spider webs covering nearly every surface inch of these prickly bushes are revealed. I never see spiders out here — they seem to live among the nooks and crannies of our house – but the evidence of their webby-work is strong.

Covered with spider webs that are only seen when there is a mist in the air.

Covered with spider webs that are only seen when there is a mist in the air.

A few weeks ago, the last broods of Swallows were chirping in the nests scattered around Crockern. To enter the barn, was to receive a warning chorus before they flew out waiting for us to leave the space they’ve claimed as their own. But in the blink of an eye, the Swallows left and are now making their way back to parts of Africa for winter. With luck, those born this year will return here in spring to their birthplace, to build nests, roost under eaves of the house, inside the barn, chicken coop, and all the sheds, and just about anywhere which feels accessible and protected. They will return to dive-bomb about the house feasting on insects and singing their happy songs. But, as one migratory bird heads away for the cooler months, another arrives: The Fieldfares are starting to make an appearance flying about the gorse bushes and reeds.

One constant remains: the scene of endless activity at our bird feeders with the Sparrows, Tits, Robins, Finches, Nuthatches and Jackdaws taking it in turns to sustain themselves on the seeds we put out daily.   As soon as the sun is up, the collection of birds make an appearance at their “local”.

Chillier weather, shorter days, fewer eggs, a lower angle of the sun casting longer shadows, and our daily watch for coming frosts, necessitating a nightly covering of the vegetable beds with fleece, are some of the markers of the autumnal transition. Despite the winding down this time of the year represents, it also is a last big push before winter. In the coming weeks, we must ready our firewood for winter, clean the greenhouse of its last remnants of summer beauty, clear drains, rake leaves, mow the lawn one last time, turn and bag our compost, finish weeding, lay mulch, and straighten the barn. With this list of maintenance, should I consider planting more bulbs?

Last year, I planted 350 and thought that was plenty, until spring rolled around and I longed for even more snowdrops and daffodils to bravely announce a seasonal change. With the new oil tank in position and the Aga Saga chapter finally – and hopefully – closed, I’ve got more flowerbeds to construct. We will shift rocks, create drainage, fill the newly made beds with manure, compost and soil, and finally transfer plants. What an ideal location for more bulbs!

Autumn is a season of transition where our surrounding landscape and we switch from industry and activity to a quieter introspection. In a few weeks, we will begin to spend more time inside by the wood burner.  We may take on a few smaller projects inside the house: There are floors we hope to sand, and three more ceilings to repair, among the many projects. Of course, to do any of these will not be straightforward, it never is, as there will be wires and pipes to relocate, blown plaster to repair, and all manner of surprises to address. And, we will need to move furniture out of one room and into another before putting it back again. Then again, we may look more closely to an extended period of introspection.

All The Leaves Are Brown

Crockern Farm

After an extended and beautiful summer, autumn has arrived. Crisp leaves now carpet the ground. A damp air freshens and awakens. And a lower angle of light on the horizon casts longer shadows. On early dawn walks with Sam, I spy spider webs glistening on the gorse bushes and glimpse my exhaled breath as we walk down the track. If there is a mist – and now there is almost always a morning mist – and if the sun is just right, the bushes on the hillside glisten and sparkle. With the end of October near we will soon enter the winter months, making staying indoors much more tempting, especially if it is as wet and windy as last year.

This season brings the arrival of chillier weather, and with it, more of the critters from outside join us inside: spiders who spin intricate webs in a moment; the long eared bat; moths and a few late season butterflies; and our chickens. These are a curious clutch of hens and if the door is left open a jar, they march in single filed to see what might be on offer.

With its cooler air and changing colours, autumn always fills me with memories of apple bobbing, raking leaves, pumpkin carving and, of course, Halloween adventures. Halloween is a once a year opportunity to get dressed in scary clothing, hang up paper bats and skeleton decorations and cover the front door with fake spider webs, carve pumpkins and eat vast quantities of mini-chocolate bars. Who doesn’t enjoy that?

It is disappointing to accept, but once again I do not think we will get any trick or treaters up our long track. All the same, I’ve purchased candy, as I will not be caught short-handed should the bell ring. And imagine if our doorbell did ring!   How would that brave soul — or, boooooooh undead being — behave if we didn’t have a bowl full of mini chocolate bars to offer as treats? Halloween is not just about trick or treaters, it is the very night when lost souls roam and haunt! What if a coven of witches on their way to celebrate the night of the dead at one of the ancient stone circles on the moors knocked on our door in hopes of receiving a bite size Snickers Bar? Well, I for one refuse to disappoint!

Pumpkins ready for carving.

Pumpkins ready for carving.

Autumn is also a time of finishing up all those outdoor chores before winter arrives. As the plants die back to conserve their energy for a spring bloom, so too, Roger and I have turned our attentions to readying for winter.   Most recently, Roger has been repairing the shelves under the kitchen counter – a truly awful project – whilst I’ve stacked more firewood, cleaned the greenhouse, raked the fallen leaves, cleared the drains, given the lawn one last mow, turned and bagged compost, weeded, laid mulch, and straightened the barn. “It’s preposterous, I’m cutting shapes which have never been invented before!” said Roger as he walked past carrying a new shelf to replace the rotten ones under the counters.  And watching him contort himself underneath the kitchen counter, home to spiders and decades of accumulated dust, to solve the puzzle of these shelves has me realizing how easy my chores have been.

Except for one. I’ve just finished planting over 350 bulbs. How is it that bulbs seem so few when you buy them and oh-so-many when bent over planting them? I can only hope when spring arrives I appreciate the number and avoid my usual mistake of thinking, “Hey, we need more bulbs for next year!” Across from our barn is a collection of mature trees – Ash, Rowan, Oak, Sycamore, Beech, and Laburnum — under which there are now more clumps of bulbs. These snowdrops, bluebells and daffodils with their delicate yet proud stalks holding flowers will declare, in the fullness of time, spring is on its way.   They will be our hopeful signs that winter is not forever.

But we aren’t there yet. Soon, we will spend more time by the fire and less outside. As the nights draw in and our wood burner provides daily comfort, we will turn our attentions back to finishing the downstairs. We got stalled.  The summer was just so nice. No, it was glorious! That, and the demands on our time were extensive. Work, travel, and the real test to any relationship, selecting plumbing taps, had us running to play catch up. Yet, we’ve endured. The fixtures are all here and the plumber arrives this week. We’ve framed and wired the new bathroom and with that, we can hopefully complete the downstairs before the year’s end.

This week, however, we will carve our pumpkin, enjoy the visit from our friends, and wait for the knock on the door from those lost souls!

The colours of autumn.

The colours of autumn.

I’m Likin’ the Lichen

Autumnal day on Dartmoor with view toward Wistman's Wood.

Autumnal day on Dartmoor with view toward Wistman’s Wood.

The season has announced its arrival; autumn is here, with winter’s cold and damp nipping at its heels.  Gone are the House Martins and Swallows, but returning to the birdfeeders are the Yellowhammers and Nuthatches.  Colour and sound have been shifting, slowly and gradually, with the long grasses, ferns and reeds in the fields surrendering to buff, brown, and reddish tones, which now dominate the landscape.  However, when you pause and examine closely, surprise stains of colour are found in small locations upon trees, walls, and stones in endless varieties of lichen.

There are over 30,000 species of lichen worldwide, and in a recent woodland survey in East Dartmoor, 115 were identified.  They grow on rocks, trees or soil sometimes in a nearly imperceptible crust-like layer.  Alternatively, they can be bushy and trailing like ZZ-Top beards, hanging from trees.    I especially like the bright orange seen on rooftops across the British countryside, a reminder of the health of our environment since they are sensitive to air pollution.  A general rule of thumb is the smaller the variety of lichens in an area, the more polluted it is.

Lichen growing on a rock in a stone fence.

Lichen growing on a rock in a stone wall.

Some lichen has found a home on this old wood post.

Some lichen has found a home on this old wood post.

In the past few weeks, autumn showed itself confidently providing cooler mornings with misty, low hanging clouds before the sun burns its way through.  Small clusters of mushrooms dotted about, and the tell tale mushroom hunters on the hill, walking slowly, bags hanging off the shoulder and eyes looking downward, provide additional evidence of the seasonal change.  I lack fungal expertise, so prudently take a pass at this bit of foraging.  Instead, I enjoy observing those out and about, as there seems to be a lot of twirling, spinning, and dancing on the landscape.  I suspect some of the found fungi might be hallucinogenic.

We’ve made seasonal shifts, too.  I’ve pulled out all my fleeces and can see my breath in the dawn light when I walk Sam.  My morning chores now include bringing wood in from the barn and building a fire in the wood burner.  I watch the birds at the feeders knowing that they have short lives and must make it through the winter if they are to hatch their broods in the spring.  This time of year brings about an awareness of the impermanence of life, as often on a walk, Sam and I will come across the skeletal remains of a dead sheep or fox.   Again, lichens come to mind as they remind us of a greater permanence, growing so slowly that they have been used to confirm ancient woodlands after an historic clearance.

Because these grey, green, silver green, mustard yellow, ochre, or rust growth on every possible stone and wood surface live at a different time scale to the brief one of our resident birds, or indeed, us, I sometimes wonder if the lichen I’m looking at were here 100 years ago and bore witness to previous residents at Crockern.

More varieties of lichen on a rock in the stone wall.

More varieties of lichen on a rock in the stone wall.

All sorts going on here on this footpath sign.

All sorts going on here on this footpath sign.

Found this on a walk just this week.

Found this on a walk just this week.

Since we first set eyes upon Crockern, Roger and I have been very curious about the history of our house.  When was it built?  Who lived here?  Were they cold?  Almost daily we receive a “fact” from someone walking past:  “I heard a witch once lived here.”  “In the 1970’s it was a hippy commune.”  “Oh, I used to go to parties there.”  “My mother grew up at Crockern and bathed in the river.”  “It was originally built by the man who managed the rabbit warrens.”   Witches.  Farmers.  Children.  Wood Workers.  A Potter.  On and on goes the list of past residents based on, from what we can surmise, mostly hearsay.  If only the lichen could speak!

Not knowing where the truth lies, we decided to begin our slow search to uncover some history by looking at the local records one afternoon.   We weren’t certain what we’d find, but hoping to perhaps learn when the house was originally constructed.  No such luck on that front.  But, we did uncover the arc of a life of one very distinct past resident:  Mr. Mortimer.

On 2 November 1885, J. Stanley Mortimer bid at auction on Lot #2, Crockern Farm, which was comprised of the house, outbuildings and 228 acres.   In the early 40’s, the war department requisitioned 115 acres of his farm.  He died in the mid 1940’s.  But not before he contributed to a fat folder of correspondence.

These file notes indicated that Mr. Mortimer owed money and frequently had to retrieve his livestock, which had wandered off to pastures beyond his land.  In particular, he did not enjoy his track being used as a footpath toward Wistman’s Wood.  During Mr. Mortimer’s time at Crockern, there was no footpath designation along the track up to the house, so he considered all those walking along it as trespassers.  After his death, the distinction was made and now appears as such on Ordnance Survey Maps.

We enjoy the walkers who come past, and delight in their explorations around the area.  Not so with Mr. Mortimer.  Each walker was just another intrusion and a cause of his troubles:  Gates left open, livestock disturbed by walkers, and his privacy routinely invaded.   While we enjoy the walkers, we do feel frustration when someone drives up the track in hopes of getting closer to the Woods, comes calling to offer us religious salvation, or when we pick up the litter left behind by recent visitors to the park.  (https://crockernfarm.wordpress.com/2012/12/11/dartmoor-walking/)

Mr. Mortimer lived in Crockern for over 50 years, during which time he came to be characterized as one of the most eccentric individuals in Dartmoor.  His farming methods were considered “hopeless.”   In 1905, he was reported to have obstructed visitors’ access to Wistman’s Wood and went so far as to charge tolls.  Laughable and yet, inspired!  If we had a pound coin for every foot walking past, we’d be millionaires, seeing a far better return than the sale of our chicken eggs.  J. Stanley Mortimer truly ruffled feathers and in one official letter a complainant wrote, “He threatened Mrs. Dwyer with stoning, has used bad language and is extorting money under threats!”

Surely, trying to eek out a farm living on Dartmoor was hard enough; did he need to suffer the slings and arrows of his neighbours?  Then again, they had to suffer him throwing stones at them.

As we move through this change of season, hunkering down earlier in the evening and following frost reports to protect our winter veg garden.  We’ve raked the leaves and the last of the grass for the compost, and the wood store is impressive and ready to heat the house and the hot tub.  We watch as the vegetation retreats, revealing different wildlife, and with that, we let the chickens out later in the morning and put them away earlier at night.  The birds change.  The days grow shorter.  But the lichen slowly carries on, noting our contributions to Crockern.

This rust and tumeric coloured lichen is growing on the side of our house.

This rust and tumeric coloured lichen is growing on the side of our house.