The Guardian view on autumn: as summer ends, fresh starts abound
Though the days turn cold and the night draws in, we should not mourn; this time of year is full of richnesses and new beginnings too
So, after a late short blaze of summer, autumn is here. The leaves are turning, the blackberries are mostly eaten. So much of our approach to the season in literature and music has a dying fall: “Nothing gold can stay”, as Robert Frost put it. Not that summer was especially golden in the UK this year. Many, deprived of the long warm days of beach-going and picnics they had hoped for, feel it never happened at all. And now there is a rising drumroll of warning about winter infection rates, NHS overwhelm and rocketing heating costs.
True, the swifts are leaving, and geese honk across the sky. The mornings are darker and evenings shorter – one definition of autumn is that it begins on the equinox, 21 September, when dark and light are equal; another is based on average temperature, and kicks the season off on 1 September – but a flock of swallows waiting for the signal to go is a wonderful thing. And other birds, including knots, waxwings, fieldfares, light-bellied brent geese and redwings are just arriving.
The trees will soon be in their autumn beauty – so beautiful that tourists travel great distances, to Canada, the eastern US seaboard and Transylvania, to marvel at the sight. Scientists believe that climate change will gradually drag leaf fall earlier, but they don’t seem to suggest that the cycle itself, of green giving way to golds and russets and reds, will cease. Forest bathing – or simply being, with attention and sensory intent, in the nearest wood – has such health benefits that the Woodland Trust has argued it should be prescribed on the NHS.
Abundance is everywhere: berries (rowan, bryony, hawthorne, dog rose); a smorgasbord of fungi; apples, pears, damsons, pumpkins, squashes, all the grains. The ultimate celebration of the season in English is arguably Keats’s To Autumn – “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness/ Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun” – which was written after a Sunday walk in harvest-time. “How fine the air,” he wrote to his friend JH Reynolds, “I never liked stubble-fields so much as now – Aye, better than the chilly green of the Spring. Somehow, a stubble-field looks warm – in the same way that some pictures look warm.” There is something about noting that contradiction, between stubble and warmth, the simultaneity of death and life, the days dwindling down to a precious few, that catches at the essence of this time.
Autumn is more subtle than summer, less overdetermined. It is full of beginnings, too. Even for those who now have nothing to do with schools there is a sense of starting again – new books, new clothes, new thoughts; cooler, brisker air. Berries are food for wildlife – and then seeds on the ground, to grow into new plants next year. Leaves will return to Earth, and feed more trees. Hibernation is sleep, a conservation, and a promise. What feels like falling (pine cones, acorns, conkers, leaves) is also about starting again, a kind of – to use Alice Oswald’s lovely phrase – falling awake. So yes, autumn is here. And that is cause for celebration.