In a normal winter in the UK, the leaves come down before any significant snow falls – assuming any snow falls at all. This year there were still green leaves when the snow came in December. I’ve not seen snow sitting on autumnal leaves before, and I’ve not seen leaves coming down on snow like this, but there’s been a lot of it. The effect is pretty, the reasons less so.
This of course is climate chaos in action. It looks charming enough, but it represents problematic changes.
In theory, deciduous trees shed their leaves to be more efficient in the dark part of the year and to avoid the stressors of having snow fall on large leaves. I don’t know what happens to trees when they have to deal with this – I see a lot of leaves falling now, but even after the snow has melted in the last day or so, there are still plenty of trees outside my window who still have leaves.
I don’t really know what any of this means, for the seasons or for the trees, but it seemed worth remarking on.
One of the things I love most about autumn, is encountering windfall apples. The fruits themselves are of course pretty to look at, but it’s the decay process that most engages me. Apples that have fallen from trees get on with rotting and fermenting, and the smell of that is heady and wonderful. I have a keen sense of smell, and find scents deeply evocative – most people do, I think. Rotting apples are great.
They aren’t wasted. Many insects will feed on decaying fruit. So will wild mammals. Birds will eat the fruit, and the insects who were feeding on the fruit. Windfall apples are blessings for so many other beings. I have a particular memory of a winter when my then neighbours didn’t pick much of the fruit from their apple tree, and a great deal of apples ended up on the ground. This attracted an enormous flock of fieldfares who feasted there many times. It was wonderful to watch.
Humans are often too quick to want to tidy things up. There are blessings in messiness, in decay and in the fruit left to rot on the ground.
There was a time when I would have taken blackberries as a first sign of autumn, but more normally now they appear around my home in August. I think of apples as very much an autumnal thing and yet here we are at the end of August, and I’ve seen windfall apples. The stress caused by drought has turned some trees early – although not to many where I live.
There is however a crispness in the air first thing in the morning. It’s the uneasy taste of a new school term that reminds my body of stresses from the past. Which is a pity because of itself, that morning crispness is delightful and welcome.
I’m watching grass returning to life now that the days are less hot and we’ve had some rain. So while in theory the end of summer is supposed to be about harvest and things dying off, that’s not what’s happening on my doorstep. Climate chaos is impacting on the wheel of the year. I think it’s really important not to insist on those old stories about what happens when, but to be alert to what’s happening now. And anyway, the wheel of the year was always far more complicated than the stories Pagans like to tell about it.
No matter where you are in the wheel of the year, something is always starting and something is always dying.
Seasons seldom end in clear cut ways in the UK. We move from summer towards autumn and some parts of the day are significantly more autumnal than others. I noted recently about the way early mornings feel like autumn long before anything else does. Now the evenings are drawing in and the nights are colder, autumn is also here after dark.
In the daytime, it is still summery and can be quite hot. However, the days are much shorter than they were back in the summer, and this means we’ve reached the end of singing outside season. This has been an important part of summer for me both this year and last year. Amidst all the covid hazards and limitations, it’s been evident that meeting up outside is reasonably safe. I’ve run a singing circle in the park once a week.
When we started singing in 2020 the level of hazard presented by singing wasn’t clear, and there had been a lot of government restrictions on singing indoors. However, all the other evidence suggested that air flow seemed to be one of the biggest factors in people catching covid. In a well ventilated indoors space, the chances of catching it are low. A small group of people outside didn’t seem like a big risk, and we’re able to spread out and not sing into each other’s faces. We’ve all been covid-free around this.
Singing outside has been a major part of my social contact. It’s also not as demanding as socialising, because people can just bring the words for songs and take it in turns. Emerging from isolation, and most of us being either introverts or ominverts, it has been good to have that extra crutch and not need to figure out so much about how to talk to other people.
The evenings have been drawing in for some time. Darkness marks the end of the session, in part because the jackdaws come into roost and they aren’t quiet, and the key of jackdaw is challenging for human singers. Also it gets cold after dark. We’ve hit the point where this all happens too early in the evening to have a decent session, and it won’t be long before sitting out in the evenings is too cold anyway.
This autumn we may still be allowed to meet up inside. We may have some options for sheltered daytime singing sessions. I’m exploring the options. Singing has been a big part of how I’m sociable for a long time, and I hope I can keep it going through the winter without putting anyone at significant risk.
Where they spend the rest of the year, I do not know, but clearly it is autumn now because the spiders have started showing up. I found a massive one in the laundry bucket recently, and another large one turned up in the bath.
There’s a place on the canal near town where the canal and the towpath go under the road. There are lights in the ceiling, and this is always a popular spider spot in the dark part of the year. Here they grow to considerable sizes, and their webs fill with strange objects – crisps and other food items, perhaps offered as placatory gifts from the young humans who frequent the tunnel at night.
I rather like spiders – so long as they aren’t unexpectedly on my face, we’re good, we can be friends. They are in fact helpful members of the household, likely to eat the insects that might otherwise do their best to eat me, or my clothing. I’m enough of a goth not to be offended by having a few spiderwebs around the place.
For me, the first signs of summer’s end appear last thing at night and first thing in the morning. We sing in a local park most weeks, and last week we had to stop because the jackdaws were coming in to roost, and they are not quiet. The sun is setting that much earlier, and so the end of our session coincides with the start of theirs. The evenings are colder now, and what I might wear for daytime activities really isn’t warm enough for the end of the evening.
The sense of autumn creeping in is strongest in the morning. I’m awake early, when the air is cold. It reminds me of those back-to-school September mornings of my childhood, and more recently, getting James to school. I’m glad not to be doing any of that this year.
I note that the local chestnut trees are doing a lot better this year. They’ve all had some kind of disease for some time now and most years it has meant autumn comes early for them. Their leaves start turning and falling about this time, normally. I think they’ve benefited from it being such a wet summer. There’s still green in their leaves, although they are starting to turn, and the leaves themselves seem a lot less disease-ridden than usual. It’s cheering to think there might be occasional benefits from the climate chaos – clearly not enough to offset the harm being done, but enough to create little pockets of hope.
November can be decidedly wintery in the UK. Yesterday we had the first frost, and I thought about the September in my late teens when I camped at a folk festival and had ice on my tent. Autumns are definitely warmer than they used to be.
Frost is, without any doubt, a sign that winter is on the way. However, we’re certainly not done with autumn. Many of the trees not only still have their leaves, but those leaves have a significant amount of green on them. While it is getting colder, it isn’t all that cold most of the time – I’m still not reliably needing to have heaters on at night, and coats are not always necessary during the day.
Climate chaos is confusing. We’ve had some absolute deluges, and the heavy rain is unpredictable. As someone who mostly walks for transport, this really impacts on me. I don’t have waterproof gear that is waterproof enough to stand up to the kinds of rainstorms we’re now getting. In the colder weather, being soaked to the skin is really unpleasant. I don’t want to be trapped inside. But sometimes, it seems that a dry suit designed for water sports is about the only thing that might stand a chance of keeping the rain out.
The journey into autumn has certainly begun in my part of the world. The blackberries were early this year. The hawthorn berries have ripened to deep red, and the somewhat diseased horse chestnut outside my window is getting into autumn leaf colours. The tree always does this, and has survived with its diseases for many years at this point.
I’m conscious of the changing light levels. I find the lack of natural darkness difficult around midsummer, and do better with sleep during the part of the year when there’s simply more darkness available. So I’m feeling my body ease into that calmer state of having more time in proper darkness. It comes as a relief.
The days are cooler, but that could change again, sometimes autumn is warmer than late summer. The feeling in the air is different in the morning – first thing in the morning is always the time when I most notice this seasonal shift. It coincides with back-to-school, although we are not back-to-school any more. We’re a few weeks from off-to-university, and another shift that is bigger than the seasonal process, but aligned with it.
This summer behind me did not feel like a summer at all – either so hot that I couldn’t be outside, or weirdly cold. Thanks to lockdown and my inclination to remain cautious, the summer had very little of my normal summer activities in it. This whole year has been weird on that score, nothing has felt rightly itself.
I head towards autumn feeling emotionally engaged with this season of loss and falling away. Whether that will last is another question. It’s important to me right now to remember that autumn is also when you plant some things – anything you want to have come up in the spring, for a start. Trees are best moved or planted in late autumn. Many creatures become pregnant in the autumn to give birth in the spring. The falling away is not the whole story of this season, and it is not the whole story for any falling away period in a person’s life, either.
I’ve never really paid attention to the shift from autumn to winter before. I don’t like the winter, so usually I’m trying not to engage with it. This year, being better resourced I’m more able to cope, and trying to change my relationship with this time of year.
I’m not sure what marks the edge between these seasons. The first frosts were some time ago. The leaves are still on the trees. The nights are long, and it is cold. I need my winter coat most of the time when I go outside now. I need thick socks in my boots and heavy gloves and still I struggle to stop my hands and feet going numb. This is more about my body than the temperature.
Today there is sun, and the colours on the trees are pronounced so it feels like autumn. Yesterday was cold and grey, and I was more conscious of where the trees are bare, and it felt like winter.
We’re not into frosty or frozen ground yet. I haven’t had to break out my microspikes. As someone with poor balance and a lot of anxiety, slippery surfaces are a seasonal nightmare. I put fell-runners crampons on my boots, and those keep me safe and radically reduce the fear. The point at which those come out is definitely winter. Which is a useless measure for those wet and grey winters where frost and ice are never really a thing.
I’ve spent most of my life measuring winter in terms of discomfort. I know this is the reality for many other people. As I work on changing my relationship, I’m conscious of the shift from insufficiency towards privilege.
If you live with deciduous trees, then late autumn is a time of shifting energy. When there are buds, leaves and other growth, trees are very sky orientated. Being amongst trees will tend to take your attention up into the canopy. What you see of trees from a distance will be dominated by their furthest reaches into the air. In summer, leaves are drawing energy from the sun, the tree is interacting with this energy in very literal ways.
Once the leaves start falling, that process will take your attention downwards. That might be in watching leaves come from the treetops and head for the soil. If you walk in fallen leaves, then the sound and texture of them may draw your attention downwards. Also, given how good fallen leaves are at hiding surprise poo, puddles and potholes looking down carefully is often a good idea! As the leaves come down, energy from the tree – energy that was in the sky – held in leaves grown from sunlight – is returning to the earth, where that energy will be released into the soil.
Winter exposes the roots. With undergrowth tending to die back, it can be a good deal easier to see the base of a tree in winter. Again, this shift tends to draw our attention and we may become more aware of trees as rooted beings, going down deep into the soil.
Autumn tends to be fungus season. In woodland this means that we get to see something of the life beneath the soil. Fungi live in vast networks, interacting with tree roots. Much of the life of a wood happens beneath the surface, where we can’t see it. The appearance of fungi in the autumn is a reminder of what’s there all year round. It’s easier to think about things and be aware of them when there’s some more tangible sign of them, and the fungi give us that.
It’s normal to talk about life pulling down into the Earth during the winter, but important to have a more specific awareness of what that means. Tree life certainly is more earth orientated at this time of year. Each living thing responds to the seasons in its own way. For the migrating swans, early winter is all about the skies and making huge journeys guided by the stars. For amphibians, the season can be all about retreating into water to hibernate. There is no one single, simple energy narrative for any given season.