Sunday, 3 March 2013

The Elusive Quality of Autumn

Autumn leaves in a forest pool...
I am enamoured of Autumn.

It is such an exciting time of year - a season of colour and contradictions; harshness and sensuality, sorrow and celebration. It is a time of fruiting and of dying - a season both "mellow" and tempestuous. It is a time of mystery - a transitioning time from the light and life of summer to the dark, bleak time of winter. As with all "between" times, it eludes definition, save through a poet's metaphors and an artist's brush. 

Mist blurs the boundaries of perception - autumn is a season of mystery...
When we think of autumn we tend to think in terms of images, sensations, emotional stirrings and stories. So I have found it, at least. In writing this blogpost I found my first attempts to describe and define my love for this strange and changeful time of year to be pitifully inadequate in their colourless generalisation;, and found myself recounting instead my vivid memories and perceptions of the season.

Autumn at Ashley's Cottage by Thomas Kinkade

Autumn can be beguiling and sensuous. It is  time when one has a pleasant excuse to stay indoors, wrapped in soft wools while it rains or mist envelopes the house. At this time of year we revel in the crackle, the light and the sharp, exciting smell of an open fire; and we taste the sweetness of stored summer sunlight in the taste of a ripe plum or bulbous, juicy berry and rejoice... Hot, filling, homecooked meals fill us with a contentment and comfort provided by a bounteous harvest.

The traditional harvest feast of Mabon
"Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may findThee sitting careless on a granary floor..." - Ode to Autumn, John Keats

Autumn's harvests have traditionally been celebrated with festivals of mythic, religious and communal significance. Though harvest festivals have been of recent years too often commercialised and trivialised in the Western World, I was fortunate enough to experience some of their traditional, mythic flavour when I was in primary school. I attended a Rudolph Steiner school, and in April we celebrated with a communal feast of light and song and story. Each family contributed homebaked food and fresh harvest fruits. The mudbricked ovens (built by children's hands) glowed from within, as hippie parents with long hair and colourful clothes baked pizza on handcarved paddles. In the amphitheatre, surrounded by bushland and decorated with paper lanterns painted with watercolour, the children acted out the mythic archetypes of hero, saint, princess and king. Music was provided by a group of children playing wooden recorders, while others chanted the narration. A drumbeat was heard. From the shadows of the trees came a horned and snakelike figure - a dragon with a dozen little bare feet, pounding joyfully on the dirt. 


Dark tales are associated with autumn; a season that is not merely about fruitfulness, but also dying...
Of course, there are darker rituals associated with autumn than the one in which I participated. Darker stories that, however legendary, hold a "truth" in the mind and shape my perception of the season. Autumn evokes for me stories of Samhain - images faces half-bestial and eldritch flickering in and out of shadows at the edge of firelight. The pages of an old book of tales evokes Old British spirits and superstitions, and eerie tales of witches and "ghosties and ghoulies and lang-legged beasties" told around the hearth. There are tales of blood and death and the things beyond the grave that prick the skin on the back of the neck, while outside the wracked trees claw at the stormy sky.

Mist is incredibly evocative...

Keats was right when he said autumn was a "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness", though that description of course does not encompass the whole. Many of my most abiding memories of autumn are of mist rolling into my garden, obscuring the valley and the mountains, beading crystal droplets on the leaves of trees and grass and clover. Some drops roll into the centres of nasturtium leaves, making me think of the pearly dew in the story of Jorinda and Jorindel. Mist also bedews the needle-like leaves of the juniper (blue-green, now taking on a reddish tint) and the golden fringes of the cypress tree. Mist encrusts the wool of my jumper, and my eyelashes and hair. It creates mystery, but gently. It beautifies, even as it conceals. 

Autumn rain
Autumn is also a time of rains - fierce, driven and torrential. Yesterday I looked out of my window at the harbour and marveled at the glory of a rainbow across the water. Five minutes later the entire harbour was blotted from my sight in a sudden flash-downpour that was so forceful, the roofs of the houses below me seemed to "smoke" from the spray sent-up with each droplet. After a minute of white near-blindness, I saw blue sky through the pouring rain. In another two minutes, the rain had completely stopped and the sky was clear again. 

But as well as being a season of darkness and diffuse dimness, Autumn is a season of colour and splendour. The very light is more golden; all colours are more saturated and the sky deepens to a rich sapphire. Most spectacularly the leaves of deciduous trees blaze forth in innumerable shades and hues.

The myriad colours of autumn
How many shades are there of red? Our language can describe crimson, scarlet, vermillion, carmine, blood-red, cerise, claret, puce, roseate, garnet, geranium, russet, rust and titian... And of the other flame hues: yellow and orange, the thesaurus provides us with: champagne, xanthic, creosote, aureate, aurulent, citrine, canary, fallow, flavescent, flavicomous, fulvid, lutescent, primrose, sallow, sulphur, xanthous, tawny, sunshine, ochrous, saffron, cadmium, apricot, bittersweet, carrot, coral, salmon, tangerine, titian and auburn. For  brown we have amber, auburn, bay, beige, bister, brick, bronze, buff, burnt sienna, chestnut, chocolate, cinnamon, cocoa, coffee, copper, drab, dust, ecru, fawn, ginger, hazel, henna, khaki, mahogany, nut, ochre, puce, russet, rust, sepia, sorrel, tan, tawny, terra-cotta, and umber. For green (and there is green in autumn) we have: apple, beryl, bice, chartreuse, fir, forest, malachite, jade, peacock, moss, olive, verdigris, viridian, pine, sage and sap.

Fallen leaves on wet stone - what image can do justice to the indescribable scent and colour of reality?
This is a mighty, and one might say, comprehensive list. But how many of these words are but the names of trees and plants and pigments, found in nature? And what of the myriad tints and gradations that cannot be written? A painter could better capture this iridescence with a brush, but the breadth and vibrancy of Nature's palette in Autumn is unrivaled by any mortal artistry. 

Autumn Leaves, by John Everett Millais
And oh - what are the words for the scents of Autumn? How can one do justice to the smell of wet leaves underfoot; the smell of sunwarmed blackberries or the smell of wood-smoke? And what about the emotions evoked in the soul by the sight of departing birds, flying in wavering arrows towards a warmer land; or the wildness stirred in the soul by the rising winds, until the feet and blood pull you pelting down the road to dance with the blowing leaves; or the state of peaceful melancholy evoked by the contemplation of yellow willows trailing in a slow-moving stream?

The wild winds of autumn stir the soul...

... and set one dancing with the leaves
Autumn seems to me sometimes like a beautiful, emotionally-volatile lover, who dazzles the eye differently in every changing hour; a lover who can be fierce and gentle and cold; generous and destructive; golden and pale and lowering storm all in one day... Infinitely fascinating; infinitely complex; infinitely beautiful. One who never lets you see their whole self - yet in the facets revealed to you is such a beauty that you spend the rest of the year musing on the mystery of their being. One who mocks you for your pitiful attempts at definition.

The Spirit of Autumn
Perhaps the wisest words belong to Robin Hobb, who wrote in her beautiful novel Golden Fool:

"Words do not contain or define any person. A heart can, if it is willing."

I think the same could be said of a season. 

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun...


  1. In may part of the world, up here in the Northern Hemisphere, it is of course just moving into Spring.

    However, what a rich and wonderful post you have written here about Autumn, which fully transported me in heart and memory, to that great season once again.

    We have a song that our clan sings in Autumn, at the Samhain celebration. I'd like to share just a few lines of it with you.

    "In the season of dying,we who are living,
    Call all the ancestors,home to the hearth.

    Share in this Cup with us,
    Join in this Feast with us,
    Dance, dance the round with us,
    Welcome once more."

    The spirit of Autumn is indeed a complex and beautiful one and among the nuts and fruits and crackling leaves, great treasures may be found.

    Thank you for this post - and the delicious choice of art work, too!

    1. It's scary. I think you are Me In Another Body. :) Almost everything you write, I feel and think too, very strongly.
      Thank you for giving us this lovely page on Autumn - I feel like moving into it and living there.

    2. Thank you, both Austin and Violet for your lovely replies!

      Austin - I'm so glad my post was evocative for you. Thank you for sharing the Samhain song with me - it makes me feel the truth that death and life are interconnected and the feast brings the two together.

      Violet - your words warm my heart. I am delighted to meet you, and I would love to get to know you better, as you seem to be a kindred spirit.

    3. P.S. Cecilia - I am an idiot. Forgive me for not recognising you. *bows to the queen of the Faeries* Thank you again for your lovely comment. I feel so blessed to know such a kindred spirit.