Who doesn’t love a British autumn? Even this one, more locked in and lonelier than most, has so much to offer: it’s aflame and awash with colour again, a constant reminder that even on those days we want to stop the world and get off, the seasons come and go regardless.
This morning, just before the school run, a lanky dog fox wandered through our garden, as close to the house as the boot scrapers, taking advantage of the camouflage of overgrown flowerbeds we’ve yet to dig over. Scarred, rusted and wet, he was no greetings card of anthropomorphised red foxy charm, but timeless and defiant amid our accidental rewilding. Big as a spaniel, he turned to watch us watching him through the window. I hurried for my phone to photograph our visitor, but by the time I’d tripped over the greyhounds – still upside down on their beds, legs akimbo, luxuriating in the full-bellied warmth of human companionship – he was already slipping away, camouflaged amidst the remains of a border of dry goldenrod.
His visit has cheered me up enormously, one of those shared magical encounters a family rarely forgets, albeit unremarkable compared to the global historical shifts that headline each news week, especially right now. Such small personal moments punctuate our bigger collective memories: do you remember that dog fox visiting the garden? Wasn’t it the year of the pandemic, when Biden had just won the US Election?
Last year, when a procession of muntjac trotted brazenly past the French windows, my mother – gravely ill with bone cancer but determinedly holding court downstairs with visiting friends – regaled us with the story of how they’d been introduced to England by the Duke of Bedford in the early 1900s, soon escaping Woburn to rampage through crops and herbaceous borders all over the UK. She died just a few days later. As all those who have lost loved ones know, grieving starts with death and works backwards, sometimes terribly slowly. This small, positive and personal moment so close to her death has stayed with me. She was thrilled to share a fact none of us knew, and it’s now something I always recall when I see the little Chinese deer that regularly rootle around outside, just as I remember the male pheasant and peacock double-act who ‘adopted’ my parents’ garden when I was a girl, a bromance we all delighted in, also the badgers who partied on our lawn all night in Worcestershire despite Sam manfully marking his territory, the feral cats who serenaded me when I wrote in my ‘shed’ in Somerset, and the old hare that crosses the driveway outside my study window here when I write until dawn. Nature’s tapestry is always out there to run our hands along for comfort, a map that helps us navigate tough times.
Which brings me to books – the reason I write this blog – and the part that nature plays in my big bouncy ones, that reliable four-by-four seasonality I plunder like so many writers, sharing joy in our rural landscape, its wildlife and its guardians. To me, the British countryside is inevitably a central character in its own right, whether the rest of my cast escapes to it, as they often did in my early books, or are a permanent part of it as they are in the Comptons series.
Right now, I’m busy writing a novel that starts with spring bursting from deep winter, which feels very upside down, but is a lovely reminder that all too soon we’ll be there again: buds creaking open, days lengthening and sun strengthening. This third Comptons book has been rather delayed which is why it’s still a work in progress, but thankfully writing throughout winter is my mainstay so I’ll be nose to the grindstone from here on in to get it finished, albeit occasionally looking up in the hope I catch sight of a wild visitor or two.