Being out in the countryside with my dogs gives me time to think. I’ve learnt the pleasure of solitude without being lonely, and that’s a good feeling for me.

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This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

Gathering nature’s autumn harvest

November 5th, 2016

dsc03831CHANGING THE clocks back last weekend caused confusion in more than the dog walking routine. Losing an hour in the afternoon means changing Inka’s programme to a walk soon after lunch otherwise the light starts to fade and I won’t see as much to write about.

But Inka’s internal time clock hadn’t been turned back. He gets fed around 6pm and for the past week he’s prowled round the kitchen hoping to hypnotise me into feeding him at 5pm because that’s the hour his greedy Labrador stomach had become accustomed to for the past six months.

Tuesday morning was too good not to be out. A clear baby-blue sky, a cool breeze coming off the hills but the sun was warm. I took Inka round the woods behind the house.

Shakespeare wrote of ‘yellow autumn’ and Shelley of hearing the ’autumnal leaves like light footfalls of spirits…’ I know what they meant.

Colourful language
Yellow may not be the dominant colour but old Will Shakespeare wasn’t too far off the mark with his description. Leaves are dying on the trees and the bracken is turning through the sallow mustard stage on its way to winter crotal brown. Larches are the only conifer to shed their needles which die back to a light malt whisky gold, littering the woodland floor.

I stopped to look and listen. Ahead of me a beech tree was shedding a cascade of tawny leaves. Close by, desiccated sycamore leaves which had lost all hold on life spiralled down to land with a scratchy whisper – the light footfalls of spirits.

Our Scots vernacular has a wealth of expressive, pithy proverbs which condense a reflection on life into a handful of words, and watching those falling leaves put me in mind of one of my mother’s favourites.

“It’s the withered leaf that hings the longest” (some say “the sere leaf”) – that one dried, yellow leaf that defies all Nature’s forces to dislodge it from the branch. When every other leaf has succumbed you’ll see that one survivor hanging grimly onto its source of life.

The expression is still occasionally heard, describing elderly men and women who outlive their contemporaries, and many younger than them too. Survivors, defying age and gloriously celebrating life.

Spanish sweetmeat
I regularly pass another survivor, a Spanish or sweet chestnut tree which produces the edible chestnut used by cooks in the stuffing for Christmas turkeys. It must be around 200 years old, probably planted as an ornamental addition to the landscape of the Big Hoose. It’s twisted and moss covered trunk is deeply fissured and its upper limbs have developed unchecked into a wild Medusa-like crown of intertwining branches.

In our cold climate the nuts – which are, in fact, the tree’s fruit – develop only to about the size of beech mast although seven years ago, possibly because of a wet early summer, it produced nuts big enough for cooking.

The ground round the base of the tree is littered with sharp, spiny fruit cases not at all like the horse chestnut’s smooth, knobbly one. They dry out and open, releasing three or four nuts. Jays and woodpigeons descend on them and devour them and red squirrels carry them off to secret storage larders in anticipation of hard weather and food shortages.

Sweet chestnuts are distantly related to horse chestnuts but the two species are plainly different.

Sweet chestnuts have long, denticulate leaves quite unlike the horse chestnut’s broad leaves divided like the fingers of a hand. In spring the sweet variety produces long, pale yellow catkins, and conker trees are instantly recognisable by their tall plumes of white, and occasionally pink, blossom.

Horse chestnuts – conkers – should most definitely not be eaten by humans. I understand that they are poisonous for dogs too, so keep an eye on them when out walking at this time of year

Acorn coffee
Acorns are still dropping from the oak trees. I’m told they have a bitter taste and I’ve never eaten one, and it’s not something I would recommend in this column. I’ve read that in times of wartime shortages dried acorns were ground up to produce an ersatz coffee. But I think I’ll stick to the stuff in the jar.

One other fruit that you’ll see at this time are red yew berries. Their pink flesh is supposed to be edible but the stone in the centre is poisonous. I’ll play safe. I’m wary of eating even the flesh, just in case something horrid has leeched out of the stone and tainted it.

If I came home with several pounds of the wee berries and suggested that the Doyenne might pit the stones from all of them for a pudding I can imagine her response might be uncharacteristically robust. Which is another reason for leaving well alone.

I’ll finish with the opening lines of a poem by Scots poet Hew Ainslie (1792-1878) – It’s dowie in the hint o’ hairst, / At the wa-gang o’ the swallow, / When the wind grows cold, and the burns grow bauld, / An’ the wuds are hingin’ yellow…

Written on Saturday, November 5th, 2016 at 9:57 pm for Weekly.