Saturday night, 15th October, the first cranes decided to noisily fly south, later than usual, passing over our heads in skeins of uncountable numbers. But their message was clear: the future weather here would no longer please them, it was time to go to Southern Africa. This is a message for which we can only be grateful – if it means rain.
The duck pond is now one drying mud puddle, the Black Pond in the woods has the bare minimum of water to enable us to irrigate the greens, the same goes for the pond in the lowest point of our valley. The spring at the twin oaks, even in the driest years has had a certain dampness about it - it is now just dried mud.
Acorns and chestnuts have been falling earlier than expected, indeed the whole summer has been punctuated by signs of autumn. Night-times have been disturbed by the sound of acorns hitting the plastic covering the drying wood cut the previous winter. The lime trees at our main gate shed leaves all the time, there never was a moment when brown leaves were absent. Everywhere one walked, acorns or chestnuts were scrunched under foot – how many oak saplings does it make to substitute for a lawn?
Forestry magazines and articles earnestly urge the tree owner to save his best acorns now for planting in the spring with a view to creating new oaks. First you have to select your best oak tree, then the best acorns around its base. This is likely to be the tree where you most often see the squirrels doing their flying leaps from branch to branch. So you have to compete with the squirrels for the acorns.
Your selection should be put in a bucket of water for 24 hours so that the bug ridden ones rise and the whole ones sink – because of the holes in the former. You keep the whole ones and then treat them as any other large nut from which you wish to grow a plant. It is very difficult to get one's head round the idea of growing an oak tree from an acorn, not least because one is not likely to be on earth for the duration of the project, nor more than two generations of one's offspring.
The oak seedling has many enemies – the mower on what is supposed to be our back lawn, for one. In the woods, the deer are particularly fond of tree saplings, possibly rabbits, too, had the local chasse not dealt with them all. In the fields the sheep greatly appreciate acorns (as well as chestnuts) even the ones with bugs in them. In seriously poor times, humans used acorns as flour or coffee substitute, a tedious process and not always successful. And we must not forget the pigs: Spain's famously expensive 'pata negra' pigs are fed on a diet extremely rich in acorns, France's wild boar just help themselves.
There is one acorn based art that seems to have died out that I learned at my maternal grand-father's chair. The Colonel was a frightening, not terribly child friendly man who had spent most of his military career on the island of Aceh, one of the myriad islands in the Indonesian archipelago. In the dark shadows of this island he learned to be very still, so still that in his planter's chair, on the terrace of a small Dutch suburban house, sparrows would eat from his right hand. Even lifting his left hand for his jenever barely disturbed them.
But the great joy for me was when I presented him with a collection of different sized green acorns, some still with their stalks and 'hats' on, most without. Then I had to get the sharp, pointy knife and a box of matches. And he would create for me acorn dogs, acorn men (acorn women were more difficult, a problem of skirts), sometimes even acorn tortoises. The difference between an acorn horse and an acorn giraffe was the length of the matchstick legs and neck, acorn dogs could be any size.
This summer I made acorn toys for a friend's grandson – a great success.