Crisp leaves orbit in hypnotising flares of gold, crimson and velvety brown. They form carpeted forest floors at my feet. My favourite time of year: autumn. Autumn always outstrips medals from the other three contesting seasons, without fail.
It is the sensory overload — the chill breeze that cools after heady sun-filled August days. Its tones lace around wrists and ankles like whispers, building momentum until there are splashes of life everywhere, like a messy canvas. Its hues are sublime, phenomenal, enticing me with elfin charm.
It is a love that endures with each changing fragment of the season: its individual selves that I’ve come to know, cherishing them like the changing faces of loved ones across a lifetime.
So I wondered how best to enjoy this praised, highly favoured season. It came to me relatively quickly: to camp, drinking in autumn’s mead-like scents. Keats and the Romantics had devoted years wondering at its magnetism — its ebbs and flows, its bounties and pitfalls. Inspired by the poets, I too longed to spend more time getting to know this fiery, auburn-haired sibling of summer.
I was joined on the camping trip by my husband, Alistair, and daughter, Molly. Our newly bought tent from Mountain Warehouse is our next challenge. Droplets of rain start to patter. Molly hates getting wet. I actually find it refreshing. My favourite time to run is in a light shower — so much better than dry, hydration-draining heat. I was definitely more of an autumnal creature, at one with the russet squirrels and caramel-flecked hedgehogs scurrying to cool dens.
A few hours later, and with the tent assembled, we make a campfire. The smell of toasted marshmallow is warming. I cannot stop staring at the toffee glimmer of the marshmallow’s skin. The crack of wooden logs splintering causes Molly to jump. She hears each crackle as a mischievous dragon roar, and springs from her seat in anticipation of every adrenaline-filled sound: the splintered-selves of the logs forming new identities.
Chargrilled bbq burgers follow, the reverse of a normal dinner; marshmallows are a quicker fix. Stomachs full, satiated, we began to doze into the lure of the hypnotising marmalade flames of the campfire; its climbing tongues near to licking the tree edges.
The sky ebbs to dusk — a wholeness which proceeds to fall above the downturned heads of the trees, ready to slumber. Drips fall from oversaturated leaves, over-spilling splurges, bouncing on the blue pyramidal sides of the canvas tent.
Woodland twittering builds in waves as creatures borrow boldness from the velveteen black cloak of night. In the cover of the dying light, hedgehogs scamper to new ground. They dare to tread a little farther, climbing to new earth, scourging for jewel-like morsels.
I tell Molly a few fireside bedtime stories — her favourites. She succumbs to the sweetness of rest and nods off, snuggling into me. I carry her gently, tucking her into her sleeping bag, cosy as a bug. As I stroke her hair, sleep pulls her deeper into the forest’s quilt-like eiderdown.
I return to the fireside, rekindling myself with a large glass of Shiraz in a plastic tumbler. Its warmth creeps down my throat, helping me to relax. Alistair joins me and we reminisce about camping trips as teens. The silly pranks, late night shenanigans, muffled laughter, sleepless dreams, and for me, most poignantly, the elf-like charm of the woods.
I am embedded within its roots; tendrils of me lie within the spongy, dun-hued soil, and percolate like ground coffee to its stony depths.
I muse back to childhood, recalling vivid, hallucinatory dreams. They were the best part of camping. I never slept like that at home. How strange. Why had I forgotten those dreams? Had I pushed them to one side to make way for motherhood?
Alistair holds his cup to mine and they gently clunk together. We toast to more woodland adventures. I don’t mention the lost dreams. I keep them close and locked away like personalised, prized treasures. Instead, we focus on camping trips in the future; we have all the kit now, so no excuses.
Made drowsy by the dancing flickers of the campfire flames, and the heady influence of the Shiraz, my head starts to tilt. I nod myself awake. The soft skittering of wildlife alarms me, reminding me where I am. I wander to our shared tent, unzip the closure slowly, so as not to disturb Molly. She rests — floating upon downy feathers.
I snuggle into my caterpillar-green sleeping bag, feeling like a chrysalis waiting to bloom. I wonder if Molly dreams of The Hungry Caterpillar and its mountainous realms of food as she snoozes in her sage-green outdoor duvet.
After reading under torchlight, my eyelids droop. I allow myself to sink beneath the edges of sleep’s silken folds. My limbs start to numb, letting go of camping-induced adrenaline and the novel buzz of the first night. I lightly touch the canvas of the tent, running a finger across it, sensing the cool air beyond. Sleep slowly envelops me into its drowsy, honeyed nectar.
“She’s asleep,” whispers Greta. “I can hear her breaths through the canvas. It is the same as when she was younger.”
“Let’s make ourselves comfortable, quietly so,” replies Handel.
The fairytale wood-sprites enter my lucidity; I hear their soft, dulcet tones, vibrating nostalgically as my brain matter reminisces to childhood. I know and warmly recognise golden-tinged voices, magical like potions: a witchcraft.
I reach out to hold Molly’s hand, a motherly instinct even in sleep, to check her safety. She gently squeezes my hand in recognition, her fingers knowing. I see, in my mind’s eye, a playful smile quiver on her lips.
She hears them too, breathing in their phantasmagorical magic.