There’s a hint of it already. The first sign of the seasonal turn. Look up and you’ll see it, for in those summer leaves above our heads, hidden deep in the foliage but beginning to peep through here and there, green is giving way to gold. Yes, autumn is just around the corner.
Every morning I walk along a road that’s lined with ancient trees – huge horse chestnuts with those peculiar five- or seven-fingered leaves, tapering to a point.
I love horse chestnuts, love the way they have so much to offer. Not for them a quick, now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t flurry of beauty like the magnolias or the azaleas of this world.
Rather the Cnó Capaill tree, as it’s known in our native language, gives us two bites of the cherry, its lovely white blossoms bursting forth in early summer and then, come autumn, it’s time for that profusion of roundy-brown delights to make their appearance as the trees begin to cast down their crops of conkers.
For me, autumn is the best of seasons – the gorgeous russet colours, the early morning chill, the crunch of leaves underfoot, the whiff of burning peat in the air, the slow dying of the evening light. It’s a bridge of sorts, a stepping stone that carries us from the great outdoors of summer to a more internal world, to a place that helps prepare us for the colder, harsher days of winter that lie ahead.
It’s a comfort-blanket time of year. Cosy jumpers pulled on for the evening walk, boots dragged from the back of the wardrobe. It’s time to park the Sauvignon Blanc and reach for the red, liquid-velvet of the Shiraz. Time for cabbage. And bacon and turnip. For pumpkins and broccoli and blackberries.
Only last weekend, walking the woodland paths of the Wexford Lavender Farm, I found myself picking blackberry after blackberry as I walked along, crushing the delicious sweetness of them into my mouth, my fingers left coloured from the ripe, purple-redness of the fruit.
Maybe it’s simply that the comfort of autumn is a throwback to earlier times. So many things are as we get older.
Like the echoes I hear right now from my church-going childhood – the Harvest service, the church festooned with apples and nuts and all kinds of autumn bounty, the singing of a particular seasonal hymn, with words and a melody I’ve never forgotten:
Come ye thankful people, come,/
Raise the song of harvest-home,/
All is safely gathered in,/
Ere the winter storms begin.
What’s not to be thankful for when it comes to autumn?
The sheer comfort and safety of it. Gathered in. Who wouldn’t want to be gathered in?
There’s a melancholy too, of course, with that dying of the light, with the leaves falling and the stripped-bare trees left standing sentinel against the winter ravages to come.
But there’s also hope in the knowledge that as autumn fades and then winter passes, the spring will come, and all those bulbs – planted and protected in the autumn earth – will push their flowers to the surface, heralding new life and the arrival of another season of plenty.
And just as the swifts and the swallows are now readying themselves to leave our shores, to travel on the wing all the way to the southern shores of Africa, so, too, the Canadian geese and the whooper swans are packing their bags to come here to balance the loss, and inject into the season that’s in it some kind of harmonious equilibrium.
Yes, John Keats’ “season of mists and mellow-fruitfulness” is almost upon us. It’s time to slow down. To gather in. To welcome and embrace the dying of the light.
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