It was one of those rare, precious days in autumn that unveil themselves gradually. The sky seemed to step out of the thick mists pooled in the lowlands and rise up, stripped of clouds: naked, glorious and astonishingly blue. Dark hillocks broke through a dazzling sea of white like a pod of humpback whales. Human habitation obscured in the valley below, the view had an eerie primeval feel.
But there I was, anything but prehistoric, powering along a smooth tarmacked road, in a fossil fuel-powered automobile, between russet beech-hedges that had been strimmed into uniformity by the local council, beyond which lay land parcelled into farmable plots where food – on silent stalks or on four legs and mooing – was being grown. There was no escaping humanity.
There were more humans than usual at Kingcombe, last weekend – brought into the countryside by the unexpected burst of fine weather. Several families sat in the sunshine at the wooden picnic tables, with dogs happily panting and muddy after their dip in the Hooke River nearby. Since I had been there the previous month, a long fence marking off the small lawn by the tea-rooms had been removed to create more ‘family-friendly’ space. “We’ll put some play equipment up here,” explained Sam Hamer, Dorset Wildlife Trust’s area manager. “We need to get younger visitors here – give kids something to do.”
He took me inside and introduced me to Elizabeth Sayers, a textile artist whose work was up on the walls: intricately stitched and layered treescapes made up of dyed and screen-printed swatches of silk, hand-stitched and sewn. Her exhibition traced the changing moods of Kingcombe’s trees, season by season. I was pleased to find a fellow traveller, a season-documenter – she with textiles and me with words – and we soon fell into easy conversation.
“I was a management consultant for years,” she reminisced. “You know: leadership training and all that sort of stuff. Lots of Excel.” A period of illness forced her to take some time off work, and then she travelled to northern Finland. “It was wild – truly wild,” she said. “It changed me.” She put her hand to her chest in a gesture to indicate that this was no simple change of career, but something far more fundamental – a shift in her soul, a change of heart. “I needed to re-connect to nature, I wanted to do something that was practical and physical,” she said, playing the silk through her fingers.
Kingcombe is not just a place for enjoying the natural world, but for changing the way we view it, for telling new stories about our relationship with it. The Centre provides a space for artists to engage in conversation with the natural world, as well as sparking conversations between people. “Everything’s interconnected,” as Elizabeth put it. “It’s all about connections – and that includes us.”
It’s common knowledge now that trees are social beings, talking to each other through a network of mycelium and roots that forester and author Peter Wohlleben refers to as a ‘wood-wide-web’. Our conservation efforts are less about preserving individual species and more about protecting entire habitats. We are now far more alive to the fact that the loss of one species has a ripple effect that changes the entire picture, and are becoming open, it seems to me, to a worldview that is founded upon what Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls ‘inter-being’.
“Do you know any myths?” I was interrupted in my reverie by a small human. About six years old, she had bright, enquiring eyes, green wellington boots and hair a shade of gold-blonde that Rumplestiltskin would have died for.
I was about to start up on the myth of human exclusivity when she interrupted.
“Do you know the one about Percy Fone?” she said.
“So. There was a girl called Percy Fone. She lived with her mummy, Zoose – I think it was her mummy. A man called Hades came along one day and the minute he saw Percy Fone he wanted to marry her so he took her to the underworld. And when she was gone, it was autumn for the first time. And Zoose was searching for her and it was winter-winter-winter. And then she found her and took her back. And then it could be spring.”
The small human turned out to be Sam’s daughter, Rohan, an altogether delightful young fledgling. I left her happily ensconced in her colouring book and went for a walk.
As I strolled up Mary’s Well Lane, I thought of earth’s very first autumn, up on Olympus. What did Demeter and Zeus make of these colours, never before seen on trees? Symptoms of sickness and inevitable death – or that the price of a beauty so astonishing could be nothing less than the loss of their daughter? To us mortals, enjoying a walk around the gorgeous Dorset countryside, the autumn is simply to be treasured, in all its poignant, transient beauty, safe in our knowledge of Persephone’s return come spring.