September’s Song: Orange and Black – Hibernating and Recycling

The garden mourns.

So begins the poem written by Hermann Hesse, in translation, which you can read in full below, and which was chosen by Richard Strauss, right at the end of his life, to form the basis of one of his “four last songs”. Composed at the age of nearly 85, and creating sublime melodic, symphonic music, with poignancy reflecting his long career and battles with the German state. Both before, and during the second World War. The recording below by Jessye Norman singing in front of Salisbury Cathedral is well worth a listen if you’re not familiar with this music. Or even if you are. (But maybe close your eyes once the camera zooms in too close).


The flowers fill with cold rain.
Summer shivers
in the chill of its dying domain.

Yet summer smiles, enraptured
by the garden’s dreamy aphasia
as gold, drop by drop, falls
from the tall acacia.

With a final glance at the roses–
too weak to care, it longs for peace–
then, with darkness wherever it gazes,
summer slips into sleep.

Translated from the German by James McColley Eilers. For more on the background to Hesse’s and Strauss’s work click here for a link to the Brooklynrail website/blog. (This in itself is a fascinating site, which features previously unpublished translations of other writer’s work, in the field of poetry, fiction, nonfiction and dramatic writing. A brilliant resource, I’ve just discovered, and one to dip into in the future).

This “song” seems to capture very well my thoughts and emotions at the end of this September, as we squeeze out joy and sorrows from the soggy landscape, sliding early this year into autumnal and wintry torpor. It could be a long six months ahead, though there is a real sense of the garden coming alive again, as we get a little more time to enjoy things.

And the first snowdrops are now maybe just a month away!

Many of the photos in this post were taken on just a couple of mornings recently when clouds parted early, and in spite of the near constant film of moisture on all surfaces, the special light at this time of equinox, drew me outside in nightshirt and long-johns, camera in hand.

But what to look at?

The grand vistas, the cloudscapes, or the focused, cropped variety in the scenes from just outside the front door.

Time passes slowly on such mornings, as the luxury of just pottering and looking, before breakfast, helps me spot how quickly the garden is changing. Just a single part-sunny day last week seemed sufficient to kick start the autumnal leaf changes this year, as always heralded by the Stewartia pseudocamellia, Cornus sibirica alba, Parrotia persica and Acer aconitifolium. But this year, the Cornus alternifolia is putting on a fantastic display as leaves are turning deep claret over large parts of the tree, without yet losing their tenuous grip on stem, and life sustaining, sap. In front of this, an unnamed Hydrangea has too excelled in the richest of red leaf colours.

I often think Hydrangeas are overlooked for their autumn leaf colour tints. Not all exhibit such changes, but now’s a good time to visit gardens with a range of these shrubs to appreciate how valuable they can be, as indeed their fading flower colours also are.

All these oranges, reds and yellows in ageing leaves have been supplemented with brief sightings of fresh looking Small tortoiseshell, Aglais urticae, and Comma, Polygonia c-album, butterflies, also seizing the opportunities of late September, to have a fleeting flourish before their short days are over, as frosts arrive.

All this very early autumn colour persuaded us to hike to the Brechfa forest garden to see how the stands of trees there were looking. Actually this was very disappointing – as elsewhere, there is much evidence of death and disease amongst many of the blocks of trees, and with the exception of a few oaks, little autumn colour to speak of, though light shafting through trunks created wonderful perspectives. So we curtailed our visit in time to catch a very rare sight. On a bend in the forestry track, just below the stand of magnificent, and for now healthy Grand firs, Abies grandis, skyrocketing into a blue beyond, I spotted a large orange and black caterpillar moving in determined fashion over the gravel track surface. Then Fiona spotted another. And another. In the end we must have found 30 such caterpillars, some basking, some still feeding, over a distance of about 30 yards.

These are the larvae of Fox moths, Macrothylacia rubi, which I’ve occasionally found before, but only ever singly, and earlier in the year. They reach maturity at the end of September, but don’t pupate during the autumn, rather they simply hibernate as larvae, before emerging next March and April, when they can be found basking in sunny weather. They won’t feed at all next year, and in due course will then pupate, before the adult moths emerge around May or June. They’re one of the larger macro moths, not surprisingly given that the caterpillars are about 6 to 7 cms long, and have differently coloured adult male and female forms, as below.Perhaps we should revisit next year to see if we can find them at this same location where most of their listed larval food plants (scrubby willow, bramble, heather, bilberry) all grow on a site warmed by late afternoon sunshine, and backed by a rocky South facing slope. A favoured micro-climate indeed, which presumably was detected by the adult moths when egg laying took place.

Back home in the upper hay meadow, the badger has, off and on, continued with its pasture re-modelling. My friend, neighbour and serious naturalist photographer Dave Bevan cheerfully told me he’d never seen such dramatic badger damage before!

I’ve had periods of replacing turves, and as fast as I do, a new area seems to have been disturbed. But I’ve now found what might be conclusive evidence of what it’s hunting.

These grubs have been found twice, after we’ve flipped over big ripped slabs of turf.  They’re almost certainly the larval forms of the Garden chafer, Phyllopertha horticola, which this year was obvious in quite large numbers flying over this field. You could argue that the fact that these orange-headed larvae were found by us means that they weren’t what the badger was actually after. However, assuming some would have been missed by the predator, and that they’re quite slow moving, I would think they’d make a very high protein supplement to an autumnal diet including plenty of worms, blackberries, and other less nutritious offerings.Perhaps we should be delighted, that the grubs indicate that the chafers assessed our hay meadow as a safe and suitable nutritious location for their larvae to develop, and so laid plenty of eggs here. The badger(s) had to cross several neighbouring fields to reach us with no signs of damage in any of them. But right now, I just hope that the season of grub interest soon closes, and the pasture has a chance to recover.At least 3 new fungal fruiting bodies have appeared within the garden this week. The most intriguing were Fairy fingers, White worm coral or White spindles, Clavaria fragilis, aboveClick here for more on this fungus. These are saprotrophic fungi which derive their nutrition by breaking down already decomposing (mainly plant) material, into simplified molecular materials which are then absorbed by the fungal mycelial network. Like the waxcap mushrooms which are frequently found in our meadows, it’s one of a group of fungal genera known as the CHEG’s (Clavaria-Hygrocybe-Entoloma-Geoglossaceae), which are considered to be excellent indicator species for old permanent grasslands.

But the interesting thing is that I haven’t yet found the Fairy fingers in our meadows, but rather in our magic multicultural terrace garden. Visitors will know that this part of the garden used to have a pond in it, over fifty years ago, to take the water run-off from a water wheel sited against the North gable wall of the house. When we acquired Gelli, it had already been filled in, for perhaps 30 years, and was rough grazed pasture. This was then covered by us with smashed concrete and dug out shale from the conversion of the old milking parlour, about 20 years ago. So has the fungus colonised the current, almost grass free, forb based “meadow” now on this site? Or was it living in the previous rough pasture, and it’s taken all these years to fight its way up to the new ground surface?

Another fungus is less welcome, since I think it is the parasitic species, Grifola frondosa, above, which sits at the very base of our grand old oak tree behind the barn, which has been mentioned in these pages a few times, since it occasionally sheds large branches. This fruiting body, unlike the Fairy fingers, is a huge structure, maybe 35 cm in diameter. Its common names are Hen of the woods, Ram’s head, or Sheep’s head. In Japan it’s known as Maitake, and it has been used medicinally in some Far Eastern cultures. Click here for more. Neither of the above fungi are recorded as being ‘common’.The final mushroom, below, has so far evaded my attempts to name it, but it has a very tough flattish bracket type fruiting body of a dark brown colour and seems to be attached to a surface root of one of the firs I took down a number of years ago, and subsequently shaped into a mushroom, with the chainsaw. Ideas anyone?So much to see, and excite, as the season of decay begins to gain the upper hand.

But the garden mourning? 

It took Dave’s eagle eyes to spot what I’d missed, as I found the feather strewn gate post at the exit from the croquet lawn into our top meadow. A sparrowhawk must have used it as a plucking post, and all that remained of the small bird were these many small curled feathers, separated sufficiently to marvel at their exquisite detail and subtle shading. I’d thought a house sparrow, since we have many of these around the place this year. But Dave looked closer and spied the orange tips to a few of the feathers.

Probably a juvenile robin, losing concentration, or not yet being world wise, snatched from the garden and torn to pieces.

A different kind of recycling.

Less regimented than the fortnightly, regular blue bag collection at the bottom of the track.

No knowing when this is timed for. What power may strike from the trees.

The following day, a dingy silhouette, fleetingly paused just 10 yards from the feathered post. But wary, it wasn’t hanging around to pose for a better photo.

Balanced, briefly. On that twisted, barbed metal strand. Finally, a few more joyful images from this changeover season.Orange and Black.



12 thoughts on “September’s Song: Orange and Black – Hibernating and Recycling

  1. Your autumn looks more vivid, colourful and exciting through your photographs and discoveries rather than mourning. The garden looks beautiful with all its autumn hues. I am appreciating autumn more and more but it is a busy time over here as everything ripens and needs collecting. Amelia

    • Thanks Amelia. Actually we both agree with you that we enjoy autumn more and more each year because things slow down a bit! And the weeds don’t grow as much either – a huge issue for us over here. Very little to ripen this year in this very poor light, but hey ho…. good conditions for propagating still.
      Best wishes

  2. Julian fantastic photos as usual- thank you! I’ve enjoyed listening to the video and reading the poem too. Sorry to read the badger is still ‘loving’ your meadow …it’s those tasty grubs after all!

    • Thanks Marianne….I didn’t know much about the background to the Strauss pieces, and when I read up about the poem “lyrics” , it gave me a bit of inspiration to hang everything around. Glad you liked it. 3 days now with little badger damage….fingers crossed,
      best wishes

  3. Thanks for all the lovely autumn photos and the Strauss, also the image of you in nightshirt and longjohns, camera in hand!

    • Thanks Philip… one of the delights of the seclusion here is there are no issues about wandering around in this way…the long johns a necessity, because it’s easy to forget how long one’s been outside otherwise, and it then takes ages to warm up!
      Best wishes

    • Thanks Inese… I started to look for moths and try yo photograph them years ago thinking that most people had never seen most of them – they’re just so well camouflaged. So they could disappear from our world, and the vast majority wouldn’t ever notice…..and so indeed it seems to be happening,
      best wishes

      • Julian, you are so right about the moths. They are well camouflaged, but it doesn’t help them to hide from chemicals and other threats. This world is losing its rightful inhabitants at an alarming pace.
        Best wishes!

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