The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Month of Colours.
by the late Dr. J. E. Taylor, F.L.S., F.G.S.
[John Ellor Taylor (1837-1895) was F.L.S. (Fellow of the Linnean Society of London) and F.G.S. (Fellow of the Geological Society of London) Initials on Wikipedia His articles from Volume 1 of The Parents' Review were reprinted in Volume 13.]
The rapidly-shortening days which closed the glorious month of September prepared us for the signal approach of the latter end of the year. The harvest is past, and the summer is ended! One cannot realise the fact without a feeling of melancholy, although we know that to indulge in such a feeling is selfish. We would all of us like to have our cake and eat it, too. We cannot logically enjoy the beauty of our English summer, and then murmur when it is over.
The "R's" are in the months now! Who ever first thought of that simple form of seasonal etymology? It is one of the luckiest and least-founded of conclusions. But oyster-eaters, and lovers of many other fish, know that a close season extends all through those summer months when there are not "R's" in their names. The summer flowers, summer insects, birds, etc., make their appearance when May draws in, and disappear, or show signs of doing so, when September brings in the first "R," to occur in the name of every month till summer doth come again!
The winter migrant birds begin to come when the "R's" are in the month and the summer migrants to depart for summer climes. Salmon and trout fishing are over, for those fish now begin the serious business of their lives. We lose sight of many well-known winged companions as we stroll through the lanes, which are still rankly green, and where the hedges are sheeted with fruits -- glistening blackberries, red haws and hips, crimson berries of briony and bitter-sweet, with the scarlet clustering spiked fruits of lords and ladies (Arum maculatum) staring stark forth from the bases of the hedge-rows. On some of the lovely summer days which come together in early or mid-October, and which have earned for the brief season its name of "St. Martin's Little Summer," hybernating butterflies will wake up from their short, preliminary autumn and winter nap, and gladden us with their presence -- red admirals, tortoiseshells, peacocks, brimstones, blues, and other butterflies. On dull days (and they begin to succeed each other too fast and suggestively now) there is no butterfly life abroad, and hardly any birds, except the multiplying race of ubiquitous sparrows and the social rooks. The female chaffinches begin to cluster together, for they enjoy each other's company during the winter months more than they do that of their male companions. All sportsmen know this is the month when the woodcocks arrive, and they are looking out for them. A well-known winter thrush, the red-wing (Turdus iliacus), puts in an appearance for the winter season. The Royston crow (which had left us for a short period) also returns. All our summer migrants have departed before October merges into November.
The flowers too, are gone, or nearly so. A few faithful Abdiels linger among us, feeble daisies, an occasional butter-cup, a red or which campion, rag-wort, field speedwell, or white deadnettle. On chalky soils, or where the heavy lands contain much limey matter, the hedge-rows are festooned with the still green and dense foliage of traveller's joy, whose feathery seed vessels form a down as light and airsome looking as anything in the vegetable kingdom.
Let now a young naturalist think that either October or November (but especially the former month) are deficient in outdoor materials and subjects for observation and study. On the contrary, there is ample room and verge enough. God is blessing the world with such a benediction of colour as it has not even received during the summer. Tree, and shrub, and creeping plant are sharing in it. It comes to use all the more strikingly because of the dun and olive-green like hue of all kind of foliage during September. Now each tree and shrub dons its own autumnal tint. These changes from the green chlorophyll condition are tokens of disease and approaching death. Each tree assumes its own individual mourning garb, just as we English people do black, and the Chinese yellow. What magnificent colouration is there now in even an English wood when the mellow morning sunlight falls upon it. The sombre green of pines, the russet of oaks, the variegated greens and yellows of horse-chestnuts, the bronze-gold of beeches, the brilliant yellows of poplars, the dull red of the dog-wood, and the bright orange of the maples; whilst the foreground is perchance occupied with a picturesque colourment of bracken ferns in every stage of decay, from the light-green, greenish-bronze, copper-colour, to the dried up drab of the altogether dead plants.
Then again, we begin to notice other facts as the autumn proceeds, and the decaying leaves drop down to the ground whence the roots of the trees draw up the materials which helped build them. Not a leaf falls before it has assisted in the birth of its successor. As the leaves fall, and the twigs grow bare, you will observe that the leaf-buds are already embryonically formed which will break forth into next summer's foliage. Vegetable nature always keeps by her a year's banking account -- perhaps enough for more than one year to come. You see these already prepared leaf-buds most plainly in the horse-chestnut, beech and lilac trees; but all woody trees and shrubs posses them. They might readily be used to point a moral on thrift, foresight, and altruism.
Not unfrequently, nature goes a step further, and prepares the flowers for another season beforehand! This is notably the case with the trees and shrubs which are monoecious and dioecious --that is, those which have the male and female flowers separately on the same plant, or on two different plants altogether. I have been frequently amused by having had sent to me, even by highly educated people, specimens of the common hazel in August and September, on which densely clustered catkins were pendant. Those people did not know that this was one of the cases in question, in which thrifty nature prepares for a season to come. The flowers which will help to form next year's nuts are fashioned before this years nuts are ripe -- the leaf-buds for next summer, long before this summer's hazel leaves have shown signs of decay! So it is with poplars, alders, and many others that people wot not of.
October is, par excellence, the month for studying the attacks of parasitic fungi on the falling or fallen leaves of the tree and shrubs. Notice the ink-black blotches on the leaves of sycamore, the smaller and rounder dark spots on the leaves of poplar, ivy, etc. In every case these are due to active microscopic fungi which are living within the substance of the leaves, and which are, in most cases, arranging for winter rest there. Next summer these minute fungi will assume quite new shapes and habits. By teasing out these dark spots upon a glass slide with a fine needle, and then adding thereto the smallest drop of water, after putting on them a thin cover-glass, and examining, with a half-inch magnifying power, these different leaf-fungi can be plainly seen.
Now, also, is the time for collecting and studying those larger fungi we know by the wide term of toadstools and mushrooms. Many of them are poisonous -- notably the bright-coloured ones as a rule. To us, these partake of the character of "warning colours." Usually, they are so acrid and otherwise disagreeable, that few people would partake of enough of them to be poisoned, and those who do, are generally children or thoughtless people. But there are many kinds of fungi abroad which are really excellent eating, and which possess very delightful flavouring properties, besides the well-known edible mushroom. Singularly enough, in Italy, that land of fungi, this is almost the only kind regarded with suspicion. It needs little more care to diagnose between our British poisonous and edible kinds than it does to distinguish between mutton and beef, or pork and veal. The coloured sheets of edible and poisonous fungi prepared by one of our best fungologists, Mr. Worthington Smith, ought to hang in every nursery and school-room, where their specific differences could easily be pointed out.
Of recent years, I am glad to note, we have learned to recognise the beauty of many even of our poisonous fungi. Some are a bright green, others a brilliant crimson (like the fly agaric), others again a beautiful plum colour, or russet, yellow, drab, or ivory white. Some that are edible have not much beauty about them for us to admire, but they are even more savoury and safe than the common mushroom, such as the boletus, with its dirty yellow cap and greenish under spongy surface, or the densely-growing masses of cantharellus cibarius. We do not take the slightest notice of the crowds of little yellow fungi which cause the "fairy rings" in the fields; and yet, in the young state, these are the "champignons" we import in hock-shaped bottles from France! Again, how few people (on account of foolish prejudice) ever gather and cook the puff balls, some of which are as large as a man's head, so that one specimen would furnish sufficient food for a family. No better or safer food can be gathered, the only care required being to see that the specimens are white throughout the flesh. Then, cut in slices and gently fried in butter or dripping, or stewed in stock with a single shallot, and flavoured, after the gravy has been thickened, with a glass of Marsala, or Madeira, you have a simply-prepared dish for the gods.
As I have just remarked, many even of the most poisonous kinds form beautiful adornments for the table when gathered and placed in plates or glass dishes of fresh moss. Some of them are exquisitely frail and even seem transparent. In their beds of moss they look as brilliant as flowers -- orange and scarlet pezizas, clear white agarics, dead twigs crowded with crimson Nectria, or festooned with semi-pendant stalked agarics. It is simply astonishing what prizes of colour and shape can be gathered for ornamental purposes in damp hedge-rows and meadows.
During October our lanes and fields are crowded with myriads of Daddy Longlegs, each engaged in depositing its eggs in the soil at the base of the grass roots. How admirably those long legs enable it to get about among the grass! They are like the fabled five-league boots. On warm sunny days the winged ants or emmets gather in swarms from their nests below ground. Their wings grow all on a sudden, and for the purpose of enabling the insects to migrate to other localities. When a suitable spot is found, these migratory wings will be bitten off, and the sagacious creatures will retire underground, to hybernate till the heat of next summer stirs them up into that vigorous activity which caused the wise man to direct the attention of sluggards thereto. Just when the sun is going down on a warm afternoon in late October, clouds of winter gnats begins their marvellous and automatic vertical dances, and we know then that next day will probably be a fine one.
Although the Lepidoptera, diurnal and nocturnal, have so generally disappeared during October, this month is not without a few special kinds of its own. Among them are the Marvel-du-jour moth, whose larva were feeding on the oak hardly more than a month ago; the Angle-shades moth; Bearded Chestnut; Ealing's Glory; Mallow moth, whose larva feed on the leaves of the plant whose name it bears, in August and September; and one or two others.
October is of all months that when we begin earnestly to winter evenings' work. What a boon and a blessing to a family circle then is a cheap microscope!
Typed by Amy Garcia, Feb. 2021; Proofread by LNL, Apr. 2021
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