If this is autumn… (part 1)


We’ve had school holidays, and visitors, and for me, a two-week embargo on writing while ideas burn impatient holes in my head. The house has stood up brilliantly to guests and we’ve relished the advent of treats – luxury foods, alcohol, good company. We snuck in a swift trip to Aoraki Mt Cook during a clear break in the weather, roughing it in the Mt Cook youth hostel, loving getting up close with mountains and glaciers. On balance, the kids have been more good than bad; on balance, a good holiday.

But the new school term means a welcome return to routine (school lunches notwithstanding), though tipping out of bed in the frosty dark of 7am is a brutal shock to the system. As the temperatures continue to creep lower – minus four, minus two, zero the last three mornings – the log burner becomes the fifth (and quietest) member of the family. Lit first thing in the morning, fed lovingly at hourly intervals, it glows and crackles gently in the background all day. Long johns, multiple layers of merino, gloves (I can type in these fingerless ones), beanies, hot water bottles and electric blankets are all part of the daily routine.

We’re disproportionately excited at the first dustings of snow on the nearby hills, including Maude and the Grand View range, which disappears and reappears as the weather cycles from cloudy and snowy to frosty and sunny. As they say round these parts: ‘Snow in May doesn’t stay’. For a couple of days snow down to lake level is tantalisingly predicted, but, like 90% of our forecast rain, doesn’t eventuate.

Just as when we first arrived I was transfixed at every window by the golden light and rich shadows on the mountains – every angle unique, every time of day different – I’m transfixed all over again by these new wintry moods of the landscape. On overcast days, the soft grey light, the dark hills with their tonsures and sideburns of cloud, the near mountains pale under their sifting of white, the occasional shaft of sunlight setting distant snowfields alight. On clear days, the milky drifts of fog across the flats in the early morning, paddocks and trees ghostly with frost under an icy blue sky, the sunlight on the snowy peaks soft pink in the morning and pale gold in the afternoon. The distraction factor makes all my household chores take forever.

But while it feels plenty like winter to us soft-cock northerners – highs of 7ºC, overnight lows in unnatural numbers – the trees are still looking resolutely autumnal. I’m surprised that I don’t find the famed seasonal showiness quite as beautiful as I expected. Many trees in transition are a discordant sodium-vapour mix of pale green and orange; a colour that reminds me of the muddy orange-purple of a city night sky. A few wild deciduous trees reveal themselves on the scrubby hills in unexpected patches of pinky-orange, mangy holes in the green bush cover.

There are, of course, many stunning autumn-leaf vistas: the best are windbreak rows of poplars when they’re all at their true-gold peak, or the stands of trees around Tarras which display an artfully balanced mix of brilliant greens, yellows, oranges, crimsons and browns; or those few large oaks richly gradated from gold to orange to a proper burnt umber.

But while some of the colours are certainly head-turning – the fiery orange-red of the roadside rowans, the improbable synthetic crimson of something spindly I can’t identify – I can’t help feeling that the flirty high-camp colours don’t suit the ruggedness, the butchness of the landscape; that they’re somehow slightly silly, like putting a pink bow on a Great Dane.

And of course, they are exotics: maples, rowans, poplars, oaks, willows, apsens, planted by settlers for shelter on treeless plains or as nostalgic ornamentals around homesteads. But because ‘The Colours’ have become part of the regional identity, these same incongruous trees continue to be planted in the new subdivisions and development programmes; so you get the odd effect of rows of comically puny saplings dotted along roadside verges, decked out in shouty crimsons and oranges.

Wilder, and therefore slightly more appropriate, are the ubiquitous hawthorn bushes that line the roadsides, covered in the reddish haze of a billion scarlet berries. Based on the principle ‘if it’s free we’ll eat it’, I investigate hawthorn-berry recipes online, finding only a completely pointless recipe for ‘hawthorn wine’: ‘Buy a bottle of red wine. Don’t make it too cheap, because you want to enjoy drinking it. Add hawthorn berries and shelve until the berries turn white and sink. Drink.’

Enough. This post is long enough. To be continued, with more tales of wild food and wildlife, shortly…

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