It has been a summer of drifting. One day into another, sun into rain and back again. There has been no definition to the season. No meadow season. No season of tiny flying things. Not even the dreaded dog days of August. Even now, as the season turns, we drift from the hottest September day for over sixty years into impenetrable fog. And I have drifted too. There has been my job and the times in between; there has been little writing. I have no clear sense of what I’ve done with my summer. Writing is so often about trying: trying to find a story; trying to write that story in the way you have imagined it; trying to find someone to publish it. Sometimes what’s necessary is to stop trying and drift for a while.
But summer has begun to drift into autumn. The days shorten imperceptibly. It is always a surprise how early darkness comes. Mist festoons the dawn. The spiders are at work building their webs. And I’ve come back to the earth to find an anchor, something to root me to the creativity of autumn. Walking into the forest is always a liminal thing. There is the moment before, when you are in open landscape, and the moment after, when the trees enfold you. This is my threshold: the drifting summer before I entered the trees, the rooted autumn afterwards.
For me, autumn is all about earth. It is about the call of the land. Magically, autumn is associated with water, but the creativity that finds me in this season is from the deep darkness of the earth. It rises from below and from within. So I’ve come back to the woods, to walk earthen paths and to be cossetted in a claustrophobia of trees. I’ve left the airiness of the sea and the wide horizon, for a horizon cloaked by green.
And here, I also find stones. On the North Yorkshire moors the Bridestones are sandstone formations shaped 150 million years ago. To reach them, the track is steep and strenuous, through old oak forest. I can’t imagine that the trees will ever open up into moorland. But soon there is a gate, leading through a bracken-choked field. And then there is a track, purpled with heather, and there is the first stone, drawing us on.
The stones are giants. Gnarled, pocked and ridged, crevices inhabited by wild flowers. They stand on either side of a deep valley, a semi circle of watchers. It is said that their name is from the old Norse for ‘edge stones’, but the edge of what? Some say they are the petrified remains of bridal parties lost in the mist on the moors. Others say they are sacred to the goddess Bride, she ‘of the high places’. But there is more than one goddess here. The stones have the shades of old crones within them – a face here, a silhouette there. These are hoary old goddesses. Fierce, watchful, demanding.
This is a wide open place. I stand on an outcrop and despite the fierce humidity of the day, I feel the whip of the wind across the valley. This is an unforgiving landscape and if you were lost here, I suspect you would get no quarter from these stones. But still, they sing of what is beneath and within the landscape. There is more to the Crone than ferocity.
Back in the woods, I watch two sexton beetles battle over the corpse of a shrew. The loser crawls away in defeat, while the victor scurries to the body to begin work. The beetle will excavate the earth beneath it, drawing the body under the soil, where it will be food for its larvae. Look closely and you can see the tiny mites that live in co-operation on the beetle, eating the eggs of other flesh-easting rivals. It can take eight hours for the beetle to finish its work. The next day I return and on the surface there is no trace, but beneath the earth, who knows what transformation is taking place?
This is the season of beneath. When the fungi whose roots bide their time for miles under the earth suddenly fruit. A shaggy inkcap, a foot tall, beckons to a fence. Beyond the fence, forgotten steps sprouting bracken lead down to an old makeshift bridge spanning the beck. This is the season when hidden things become visible. I sit on the verandah and a roe deer appears, no more than a metre away. It stops and looks at me for one perfect moment, before bounding into the forest. The spirit of the woods has visited.
Harvest is almost upon us; when the fruits of our labours make themselves known and we reckon up what we have achieved. I have anchored myself back to the earth, ready for the coming season of fruitfulness. I do my best creative work in the dark half of the year, delving beneath and within the darkness to shape the year’s dreams.