August 05, 2013


Because it was the only month of the year in which we never went to school, because it was when we usually went away on holiday, August has always seemed to me to be the year’s apex, all about summer and sunshine and life – and I suspect I’m not the only one to see it that way.

Yet in natural terms, by August nearly everything is already past its prime. In May and June the sap is rising, our native plants froth into flower and the warm air teems with pollen and sex. By August the grass is spent and faded and the trees’ leaves are a darker and tougher green, no longer fresh. 

In Dorset, where I spend two weeks every August, the year’s fulcrum can be felt more clearly than in the city. Although the field margins dance with butterflies, the hedgerows are dressed with  tiny, bitter sloes and the brittle architecture of umbellifers drying slowly to brown.

Mating season is over for most of the birds, and they are beginning to fall silent. In August many go into moult and are nowhere to be seen, and as they mature there is no longer the insistent peeping of chicks from the trees and hedges, begging to be fed. The swifts have already flown south for another year, taking their high screams with them, and the swallows and martins won’t be far behind. 

Yet it is merely an interval, a chance for the cast to change. Soon our winter visitors will arrive: not just waxwings and fieldfares but raptors and familiar garden birds from Northern Europe, albeit shyer individuals than our own. Soon, too, the ancient rookeries will start reforming, and the sky will fill with skeins of geese; and when winter comes the starlings will begin their murmurations, their black shoals folding and bellying like blankets on the foreshore of each night.