A month in the countryside: connecting with nature in November
In her latest exclusive monthly column for CPRE, Susie White gives us her tips on what to look out for in nature – celebrating what makes the North Pennines so special, as well as the everyday beauty that can inspire us all.
Autumn leaves have been cascading down from the trees round my garden, collecting on paths and amongst lavenders, lining up against box hedges and walls. Raking them up feels meditative, the calm repetitions of the movement soothing in their rhythm. I put all of them onto the shaded border to rot down into crumbly leaf mould.
November is a month to celebrate trees, to go to parks and joyfully kick up piles of leaves, to collect pine cones and watch them open with indoor heat, to find conkers beneath horse chestnuts, their mahogany skins gleaming inside spiky cases.
Five ways to connect with nature this November
1. Revel in bark
If you run your hands over a tree trunk you can feel the sensation of its different textures through your fingertips. Bark changes as a tree grows; the ash is smooth and grey when young, creasing into diamond fissures as it ages. As silver birches grow, they transform from smooth silver or white to become rugged and deeply grooved.
The trunk of a mature oak is craggy and grooved, yews are a flaking mix of rich reds and browns, willows are criss-crossed in ridges and beeches are smooth and grey. Cherry trees have shiny bark striped with horizontal lines, the most spectacular being the Tibetan cherry, Prunus serrula, often planted in parks and gardens. You can make a collection of photographs of different bark textures to form a collage so that you can revel in their wonderful variety.
2. Find patterns in nature
If you clear the ground in a flat place beneath trees you can use it as a canvas for nature art. It’s a way of seeing the glowing range of colours in autumn leaves, of focusing on their different shapes. Circles and spirals work particularly well, with kaleidoscopic arrangements of graded colours using browns through oranges to yellows in the centre.
Children enjoy making art with the finding and choosing just as exciting as the laying out of pattern. Very simple shapes can be made using just one material such as these spiky four-lobed cases that held the dark brown triangular nuts of a beech.
3. Listen for owls at night
It’s noisy outside my house at this time of year. November is when tawny owls, Strix aluco, are particularly vocal when they are either holding a territory, or when a young owl is trying to establish one. This leads to plenty of disputes. Male owls hoot from the sycamores outside the bedroom window or even at times from the roof above. If one hoots it can set off echoing calls from nearby woodlands and I love to hear this back and forth in the dusk.
The classic ‘too-wit, too-woo’ is not made by a single bird but is a duet of calls from male and female owls. The female makes the first note – more of a ‘keewick’ sound than ‘too-wit’ – and the male answers with a long, drawn-out and tremulous hoot. Tawny owls can often be heard in urban areas where there are large trees, such as parks and cemeteries.
4. Savour feasting thrushes
I’ve seen the first flocks of winter thrushes. There’s a long line of hawthorns above a curving field near my house where I know they will gather to feed each year. A flock of 80 fieldfares feasting on the dark red hawthorn berries; it’s one of those seasonal sights that brings a rhythm to my year. They will stay until they have stripped the trees of their bounty and then move on somewhere else.
Along with redwings, fieldfares are winter migrants that breed in Scandinavia and Europe during the summer and they feed on hedgerow fruits and worms unless snow drives them into our gardens in search of food. Fieldfares are the size of a mistle thrush, redwings a bit daintier, with a rusty colour under their wings that gives them their name.
5. Catch thrills by the river
Until late October my local river, the East Allen, was quite low but with several days of rain it started flowing stronger. This was the trigger for the fish migrating up the river to leap the weir, heading for their spawning grounds higher up the river system.
What is especially thrilling is being able to watch sea trout working their way up the smaller tributaries, thrashing through gurgling pools, leaping waterfalls, slithering half out the water in the shallower places. I’ve watched a female sea trout make a redd (spawning bed), using her body to carve out a depression in the gravel to lay her eggs, then seen the male wriggle beside her to fertilise them. It feels very special, witnessing something like this.
Susie White is a writer and naturalist who lives and gardens in a small valley in the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Its diverse mix of habitats and landscapes provides a rich variety of wildlife to observe and record – including through her regular Country Diary entries for The Guardian.
Read more of Susie’s observations and enjoy her great photos on twitter @cottagegardener and remember to look out for her next CPRE column in December.