Summer died with the first grouse. A gradual, ambiguous shift between seasons suddenly resolved into a single moment of thrilling change.
The cream of the season’s young blood rose up from the heather, and they hung for a moment in breathless silence. I could have touched the nearest bird with the tip of my shotgun. The dog and I had been alone on a wide hillside, but now we were caught in a living cloud of flesh, feathers and panic.
During the course of what must have been a single second, I explored every tiny detail, from staring white eyelids to long, down-curved toenails. Each flaring shape was fundamentally rooted in the weeks that had gone before. This hill was a blank slate in April, and these birds had not existed. They had emerged in May into a galaxy of pink blaeberry flowers, and the slow ripening of fruit would run as a constant parallel to their short, active lives.
The gun came to my shoulder and the shots made my ears ring. Then the wind carried the survivors away together – dark shapes into the pink, flowering distance. The dog plunged on into the heather, stirring up drifts of heather pollen which rose like smoke from her tail. She found the birds and brought them both to me one by one, dumping them into my palm with a gentle plop.
Each grouse was as immaculate as an orchid, splayed gently by death. I folded them into a peaceful position and buried my nose in their feathers – a warm, rich smell of heather, blood and game. Suspended in a game bag and carried home over several sweating miles, this bloom would soon leave them, but for now they were beyond immaculate. They had flown in summer and fallen back to the heather in autumn.
The summer’s end was no surprise. The days crumbled into dust a fortnight ago. Growth which seemed lush and fresh in June now feels hard and weary. Spiders knit the grass together, and jagged blades of bracken saw at the sky. Swallows run in vagrant gangs above the yellow seas of grassheads, and the summer’s crop of thistleheads is being sifted and reorganized by teams of administrative finches.
The last twenty four hours have brought grey curtains of rain across the landscape, and freshly salted sea trout nose a passage upstream beneath a jungle of summer’s growth. Seasons are beautifully timed so that we never grow lazy. Of course I can remember last year’s glorious autumn, but the details are passing into haziness. Every year becomes a rediscovery.