Autumn blows my mind. It never lasts long enough for me. I think October should go on until Christmas.
The Tay at Dunkeld is a favourite haunt at any time of the year, but nothing compares to autumn.
I had decided to make its giant redwood trees the centrepiece of an expedition into prime autumn, but I was waylaid by a dead fish. Sometimes a nature writer’s day works out that way and you just go with the flow.
Just upstream from Dunkeld, the Tay is particularly colourful. Whatever the season, it is filled with solid blocks of colour, reflected abstractions of trees that line both banks. On these, the current works a subtle sorcery, bending upended trunks and canopies into wavering curves.
I imagine a landscape painter surveying them with delight. But as a writer who becomes tongue-tied and ham-fisted with a brush in my hand, why worry about reinterpreting them when nature has already done it – and all I have to do is write it down?
Some fluke of the current by the far bank of the Mouse Trap – as the salmon pools are quirkily named here – was drifting a cache of washed-out, tea-stained oak leaves upstream, until it slowed to a standstill.
It caught the edge of an underwater swirl that tugged it inevitably back into the mainstream, where it swerved and headed off at a leisurely lope for Dunkeld, for Perth and points east. But about that dead fish…
At the base of the far bank, a brain-verses-brawn battle was under way. Brawn appeared to have the upper hand.
A substantial piece of fish – though mutilated and missing both ends – lay on a flat shelf between two rocks, where I imagine it had been abandoned by an otter.
A young herring gull was in possession, but it had two ravens for company – watching and awaiting their opportunity with the patience of the river itself.
They stood a few inches beyond the lunging range of the gull’s troublesome bill. The gull was feeding well, but any one raven has more brains than any five herring gulls put together, and here there were two ravens, so the odds were that the gull was on a hiding to nothing. Besides, the ravens had a plan.
One moved towards the gull’s tail, a few sideways hops at a time, just out of range. The gull curved body towards tail and snapped at the raven. In the two seconds that manoeuvre occupied, the other raven darted in, grabbed a mouthful of fish, jumped backwards. The gull was rattled, no longer in control. It bent to eat again when the second raven grabbed its tail, tweaked it, let go, jumped back – all in less time than it takes to tell.
The gull screeched and spun in its own length on the attack – but the raven had seen that coming and was three feet off the ground. The gull snapped on thin air just as the other raven grabbed a sizeable chunk of fish.
It was all too much for the gull. It grabbed all that was left of the fish and attempted to fly with it. It flew all right, but the fish broke in two and the larger piece by far fell back on the rock where the two triumphant ravens now stood.
The gull retreated, swallowed its mouthful in a single convulsion and accepted defeat with a shriek. In nature, as in democracy, sometimes the other guys win.
So that was the diversion that briefly stalled my expedition to see the redwoods. They are, of course, Californian. Perthshire likes to advertise itself as Big Tree Country, but the phrase is blatant theft.
Long before VisitScotland was born and Scottish tourism started trading in sound bites, California had bestowed the name Bigtree – they spelled it as one word with a capital B – on the larger of the two species of native redwoods, the giant sequoia, and the slopes of the Sierra Nevada where it grows is called Bigtree Country.
To be sure, Perthshire has big trees. But the Californian sequoias and the coastal redwoods, these trees are altogether – what’s the word I’m looking for here – bigger.
The coastal redwoods reach more than 106 metres (350 feet), the giant sequoia a meagre 85m (280ft). However, as the size of trees is measured by their entire mass rather than height, the giant sequoias are officially the world’s biggest trees, hence Bigtree.
John Muir accorded them this tribute, “The majestic sequoia is here, too, the king of conifers, the noblest of the whole race. The colossal trees are as wonderful in fineness of beauty and proportion as in stature – an assemblage of conifers surpassing all that have ever yet been discovered in the forests of the world.”
Or for that matter, the forests of Perthshire.
Donald Culross Peattie, another fine American nature writer, developed Muir’s theme a century later, and described the giant sequoia as “the oldest and mightiest of living things”. He might get an argument there about the oldest from the Fortingall yew, but mighty the yew is not.
If your reference point for these trees species is – like mine – the Tay at Dunkeld or the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, then Peattie is about to knock your socks off, as they say in California.
He wrote, “The Redwoods inhabit the north coast ranges where they are maintained in a coolhouse atmosphere by long baths of sea fogs, unviolated by storms. In contrast, the home of the giant sequoia, lying between 6,000 and 8,000 feet altitude on the western slopes of the Sierra is Olympian…
“The winters have an annual snowfall of 10 to 12 feet, but drifts may pile up among the titans 30 feet deep – a mere anklet to such trees.”
At Dunkeld you encounter two giants – one of each species. They are giants at least by the standards of Perthshire, and you rather stumble on them because they grow in woodland of lesser trees such as oaks, beeches, hollies, chestnuts, that screen their presence until you eventually find them.
They grow within a few yards of each other, and at the same elevation, and miles from sea fog or mountain snowdrift, but even though there are only two instead of California’s thousands, they still brook astonishment. Your mind reels at the sheer girth of the trunks, at the sheer reach of them before they display anything like a branch.
The bark is soft – six inches thick – and I catch myself wondering if the treecreepers that roost and nest inside the bark appreciate the difference between the possibilities of redwoods compared to say, our own mighty Scots pine.
Surely, excavating a roost was never easier, but what do they make of their corkscrewing progress from the base of such a trunk that goes on and on and up and up? And when they reach a branch, it is no ordinary branch.
On the very biggest of the Californian Bigtrees, the first branch is more than 45m (150ft) off the ground, almost 2m (6ft) in diameter and at least 45m (150ft) long – held horizontally only by the tree’s incomprehensible strength.
Transatlantic travel is an unspeakable ordeal for me. I have only managed it once – the destination was Alaska. If there might be one other destination that could lure me back, it would be to see the redwood forests of California.
For the time being then, I wandered out along the banks of the Tay at Dunkeld, pausing to watch a tussle over a dead fish or an alive-and-kicking salmon thrashing the waters of the Girnal, welcome distractions both on my small pilgrimage to see the redwoods of Big Tree Country, and thereby to afford the imagination a glimpse of their transatlantic kin up to their necks in baths of sea fog or up to their ankles in 30 feet of snow.
Meanwhile, the Tay itself was filled in with solid blocks of colour all the shades of autumn fire, further enlivened by the current and by sunlight and shadow.
All of which helps to explain why autumn blows my mind.
Into the wild: jimcrumleynature.com
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