Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To Autumn by John Keats
As the days gradually get shorter, and the nights longer, autumn brings a variety of associations with its transition from summer into winter. Trees begin to shed their leaves as children start the new school year, and for many, the end of the summer holidays can result in feelings of gloom. I believe, however, that there is an abundance of beauty to be appreciated with the arrival of autumn where both flora and fauna are concerned, and lots of fun things to do; all you need is a pair of wellies and some waterproof clothing!
For many children (and adults too), autumn wouldn’t be the same without conkers. Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) is not in fact a native of Britain, but was introduced from southeast Europe in the 17th century. The name chestnut derives from the resemblance to the true, edible Chestnut, whereas Horse Chestnuts are inedible but very hard. A quick and easy way to select your perfect conker is to collect a few and take them home then place them in a bucket of water. Those that float have internal damage and should be discarded; those that sink are solid and worthwhile keeping!
Another popular reminder of autumn is the abundance of mushrooms evident in woodlands as well as in our gardens. The appearance of a ring of mushrooms on the ground after heavy rain is long associated with the presence of fairies, and the circle must not be entered for fear of upsetting the fairies or falling under their power. Recently I was very fortunate to spend the day with mycologist John Wright, who is not only a forager but a regular contributor to The Guardian, as well as an author of three foragers’ guides for the River Cottage Handbook Series: The Edible Seashore, Hedgerow and Mushrooms. With the permission from Forestry Commission Scotland, John led our group of intrepid fungi-fanatics around Fearnoch Forest near Taynuilt, alongside Monica Wilde, who is a forager, research herbalist and ethnobotanist. I know that many people are curious about the difference between a mushroom and a toadstool, and the reality is that a toadstool is actually a poisonous mushroom!
The epitome of a fairy toadstool is the Amanita muscaria, otherwise known as the fly agaric, whose red cap and white spots is often symbolised with fairy folklore. The fly agaric is renowned for its toxicity and hallucinogenic properties, and historically would have been reserved for shamans or priests who served as intermediaries between the common folk and the spirit world. To minimise its toxic effects, the fly agaric would be processed in some way, for example dried, or made into a drink, smoked, or made into ointments. More recently it has been suggested that the Siberian use of fly agaric may have played a part in the development of the legend of Santa Claus too. At midwinter festivals the shaman would enter the yurt through the smoke hole and down the central supporting birch pole, bringing with him a bag of dried fly agaric. After conducting his ceremonies he would leave the same way he had come. Ordinary people would have believed the shaman could fly himself, or with the aid of reindeer which they also knew to have a taste for fly agaric. Santa is now dressed in the same colours as the fly agaric, carries a sack with special gifts, comes and goes via the chimney, can fly with the reindeer and lives in the Far north!
If you are interested in foraging, please make sure you follow The Scottish Wild Mushroom Code at http://www.snh.gov.uk/docs/B716565.pdf, and the best advice I can give you is, if you aren’t sure, don’t pick it.
In other news, I have been steadily collecting footage of a fox and some deer from my wildlife camera; I hope you enjoy them as much as me!