Helen Mark this week visits Perthshire, at the heart of Scotland, to admire the autumnal colours which, a little later this year than usual, light up the landscape on the shores of Loch Tay. But for those she meets here, autumn has a significance beyond its obvious beauty - it's the end of one year and the beginning of another, a turning point which marks the death of one season and the birth of the next.
Poet Kenneth Steven lives in the cathedral town of Dunkeld but chooses to work away from the "trotting of pilgrims" in the quiet of his mother's garden in nearby Aberfeldy. Autumn, for him, is a time of refuge, a time between times, and he says that he can sense a tilting, a change coming over the earth as the autumn arrives. His poem September was inspired by a train journey north from London, as he observed that moment when, for him, this year's autumn came to Perthshire.
Mervyn Brown has been a shepherd and farmer in Perthshire for 50 years, although he says it took him more than 15 to feel accepted as a local. The shepherd's year begins in November and Mervyn describes the signs that he recognises as the arrival of a new season. For him, once, autumn was sad, the death of summer and the advent of a bleaker time, but with age, he says he has learnt that it is nothing but part of a continuing cycle, reflected in life itself. And living and working on the land has taught him to spot the very first hints of change, something he feels is lost on most of us.
Just along the loch from Mervyn's farm is the Scottish Crannog Centre at Kenmore, where Barrie Andrean and her husband Nicholas Dixon, both underwater archaeologists, explain how this cycle was part of everyday life in the earliest days of lochside living. The crannog dwellers who once lived here needed a real understanding of seasonality, as their lives depended on it: analysis of bracken found on the loch bed provides evidence that they lived here all year round and gives us an insight into what they ate, how they managed the woodlands and even, to some extent, their social structures. The arrival of winter, with the disappearance of the sun behind the hills, would have been a very clear indication that hard times were on their way, and maybe that fear, based on a real danger that they might not live to see the spring, is echoed in our feelings about winter today.
The Scottish Crannog Centre
Mike Strachan is a woodland officer with Scottish Natural Heritage and takes Helen to stand below the Fortingall Yew, which lays claim to the title of the oldest living organism in Europe. Thought to be 5000 years old, the yew represents, for Mike, the continuation of life while the more obviously vivid trees around "close down" for the winter. And while the beauty of the reds and golds attracts the eye, he appreciates the part played by the evergreens, which serve as a counterpoint to the glorious autumnal colour and live on through the winter once that autumn glory has gone.
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