Under crisp blue skies, this autumn is turning into a vintage one. The equinoctial gales came early and the leaves still had a firm enough grip not to be wrested from their branches by the wind. Now the hillsides of Perthshire are on fire.
In the car this afternoon my daughter Anna looked out and said, ‘It makes me feel fully alive.’ So it should. In the days when we properly inhabited the landscape, this season was the cusp between plenty and privation. Our bellies were still full from summer’s bounty and we were squirrelling away stores against the cold to come, the flame of turning bracken, larches and beeches a reminder that fire would be our friend in the months ahead. We were quickened by the imminence of winter.
I count myself lucky to live in this landscape of my upbringing and to feel so strongly connected to it. Much has been written about the sickness of spirit that results from our modern disconnection with the natural world; and when I think of how long we lived, if not entirely at one with it, then at least deeply embedded in it – a period of hundreds of thousands of years, it’s no wonder that the sudden severing in the short centuries since the industrial revolution should have wounded the human psyche.
Even before this year’s autumn spectacle burst into life, landscape, and particularly wilderness, had been on my mind. Having recently finished Sightlines, Kathleen Jamie’s second volume of exquisite essays on the natural world, I’m now reading an equally beautiful book by Robert Macfarlane entitled The Wild Places. Macfarlane is a latter-day Thoreau who seeks and finds wilderness in the marshes and dunes, on the moors and mountaintops, the islands and headlands of Great Britain.
He writes of the importance of our relationship with wild places; of how they inform the way we look at the world, and of how we in turn help to form them. For the Victorian notion of wilderness as something ineffable and pristine is starting to unravel as we come to understand that the hand of man had previously been present in much of what we used to consider to be the truly wild places – the American northwest and the Amazon forest, for example. Men, we now know, were there during those long early millennia, and just as nature shaped them, so they shaped nature.
It was my father who unlocked the connection with nature for me. He didn’t often talk about it directly, but he took me out into it, mostly with a gun under his arm. Today I dug out the words I spoke at his funeral, five years ago. ‘On my last visit, six days before he died,’ I wrote, ‘we reminisced about the shooting expeditions of my childhood. Of pigeons curling into the wood at home on a high wind, of evening flights on the Earn, with the geese sailing up river under a full moon, duck whirring past in the shadows. And I realised that whatever our other similarities – and differences – my true deep connection with my father was through the natural world that he taught me to love so much.’
My stepmother had described his last hours to me, so I was able to continue: ‘Peaceful, composed, pain-free and conscious to the end, he died at dawn; a summer dawn. Outside his bedroom window, in a half-circle, stood a roe deer, two rabbits and three jackdaws. They had approached to within a few yards of the house, watching and waiting. They understood that death is nothing more than the natural conclusion of physical life. I understood, in the days that followed, that death releases love among the living. And a good death, such as my father’s, releases love in abundance.’
At the time this seemed a revelation to me. Now, looking back, it seems as natural as the turning of the seasons.