In the dawn’s early light, the landscape to the west can be clear and sharp; it is as if it has been cut out with a surgeon’s keen scalpel and skill: no ragged edges, no blemishing nicks. To the east, in contrast, the prominent outcrop of Brentor and its tiny church is softly-edged, with the other curves and hollows of moorland solitude rendered with a palette of muted colours. To look from one to the other is to alternate between two complementary aspects of Nature’s physiognomy, though on some autumnal mornings a mist renders difference indistinguishable and conscripts all features into a dull, harmonious fellowship.
I’m sure the other evening there was the hint of a harbinger frost to give notice that Winter is not far off. In the morning, however, there were no familiar traces of Jack, even in shady corners and the haunts of eavesdroppers; but then there was the discovery of the mute testimony of the blousy dahlias which, having extended their luck well beyond conceit and prudence, showed the tell-tale signs that the cold caress of death had been bestowed upon them: petals had fallen to the ground and blue-black leaves hung limply, like bruised finger-nails; but the conscientious gardener would heed the warning and repentant, tuberous souls would be resurrected from the ground to await the resurgence of the life-force in the Spring.
There are other seasonal indicators: the other day I saw a pair of fieldfares; and there are already reports of geese having arrived from northern climes, driven from their summer breeding grounds by the winter weather that is encroaching southward. Some observers have suggested that this might be a sign that we are going to experience a hard winter. We shall see. Perhaps the most difficult messenger to ignore is the noisy, trespassing starling.
Most starlings are gregarious, breeding in colonies, feeding in flocks and roosting communally at night. They are brash and jaunty, ruthlessly opportunistic; they are aggressive bullies at the feeding table. The uncharitable might call them vulgar. The imputation of the second part of their scientific name having been pointed out to the starlings, we should not be surprised, perhaps, that they seem determined to live up to the label they have been given.
The colder, shorter days prompt the starlings, dressed in their sober winter garb, to come together in squabbling assemblies, the numbers of the resident starlings swollen by their kith and kin that have migrated from northern Europe to take advantage of the relatively milder climes of Britain.
In the gloaming, in the twilight’s last gleaming, power lines and telegraph wires become crowded with musical notes; on bare autumn trees a new feathering of leaves flutters with a dark, lustrous sheen; the number of leaves increases as if time and the seasonal declension had been reversed.
As the evangelical congregations grow larger and larger, the starlings’ petulance swells and the air fills with sibilant ‘spatts’ and ‘tcheers’ until the individual vociferations combine into a single cacophonous complaint, and a menace seems to propagate throughout the whole assembled multitude, like a spreading inkblot.
or one of any number of reasons, and for no reason, a starling grows jittery to the point when the urge to take flight becomes irresistible. This sets off a chain reaction and, in an instant, the whole flock has taken to the wing and is wheeling and weaving, swooping and swirling, in erratic clouds of broken blackness. Eventually, after a breathtaking acrobatic display, the starlings, calmed by some mysterious agency, alight again on their former perches; they are happier with the new order, and they finally settle to a fretful rest, a little less fearful of the nocturnal thoughts that may come to haunt them. The one consolation being that they are not alone.