Are we there yet?


The clocks changed weeks ago. But is it autumn yet?

If I close my eyes its hard to tell. The warmth of summer holds on, dawdles into the end of April, seems to be making overtures to May. Like kids in the park just before tea, holding on as long as possible, trying to make the day last before baths and bed. Like teachers on summer holidays, trying to hold on to the calm of last week as the term begins, and calm is just a memory.

The weather may resist procession, but the tilt of the Earth cannot be avoided and the world will turn. The Earth clock of day length will change, the evenings will draw in; the leaves will change colour and we will arrive in autumn and still wonder what happened to summer.

I wrote the first two paragraphs of this a few days ago, and while the weather was still warm, but now the plants are voting with their leaves. Yes autumn is here. In the space of less than four days the pavements have gathered a covering of leaves, not deep yet, but sure enough. In a few weeks the ground will be covered in a coat of leaves as it readies itself for winter. As for now, the pavements sound to the pop corn crack of acorns and you can start to dunnock mouse rustle your feet through piles of leaves. Surely this must be one of the greatest free pleasures in the world. Piles of leaves to kick and wade through.

Soon it will be cold enough to light the fire. A guilty pleasure in a time of carbon austerity, but a pleasure for sure. You can gather in the cold blue glow of a television's light, but you seem to be just in the same place at the same time, with no real connection. Nothing beats the soft light of a fire. It calls for red wine and conversation: television calls for little more than silence. The light from a fire seems to blend with the darkness rather than banish it. It pushes the dark back into the corners, but allows it a place to survive. The value of light is that is not darkness, but you need the darkness to remind you of how good the light can feel. The bright light of electricity fights with the darkness, a fire's light flows into the darkness and embraces it.


Even if I remain unsure of the turning of the year there are signs that cannot be ignored. In the morning, flowers no longer turn their dawn faces to the sun, they have produced seed, made hay while the sun shone, and shut down for the year. Some flowers bloom in the autumn, but the fragile flowers do not last. Wind blown they become broken within a week. Currawongs have returned, with their bouncing flight and wind up toy voices. The grass on the back lawn, a poor choice to be sure, grows green again and the tropical grass on the front lawn, a better choice by far, yellows in the failing light. Fruit glows on the branches of some trees, hidden by fences by day , found by bats at night. One makes a mistake and lands on a live wire, and hangs like a fruit itself. Air dried. Fruit bat indeed.

The full colours of the fruit are more complete than the translucent leaves. Leaves show their colour best as light shines through them, fruit throws the light back at you, robust and solid. The leaves of the elm trees that grow outside work take on a more yellow glow. In spring they were pure green, now they blend with gold to make a pale colour that is neither green nor gold, but hovers somewhere in between. A colour of transition.

On the way to work there is more fruit. A taxidermist (a profession I would have thought long gone - maybe it survives by stuffing beloved pets!) has a large snake wound round the tree in front of the business. In its mouth is an apple. Mmmmmm….. tempting, but I resist. I walk on and am not banished.

On the nature strips mushrooms spring from the ground. Here today, gone tomorrow. They grow with the unseemly haste of young children, but take forms that are vaguely plant like. No wonder they confused those who sought to classify them for many years. When I was kid, back when there were only three Kingdoms, they were some form of plant. Now they are given a space of their own. Kids on the way to school kick them out, bursting the fruiting bodies - the mushrooms - into dozens of pieces. But underground the webbing fingers of growth continue. How many people know that we would be in real trouble without them, nature's recyclers. As the year gets ready to move into its sleepiest time, the fungi remind us that here there is no sleep. Round and round the atoms flow, through each of us and back into the world. All part of a carbon cycle we seem content to disrupt.

I think woodlands are the best place to be in autumn, but most Australian trees do not shed their leaves en masse like many northern trees. They hold on to them, too valuable to shed. The excess of winter not harsh enough to make them shut down the leaves and regrown them in the spring. Deciduous trees run the classic branch plant economies. Growing leaves in the boom time and making them redundant when the turning of the year renders them redundant. I have lived in parts of the world where businesses did the same thing, but it was people who were discarded, not leaves. We can look to nature for many lessons, but not all that nature does is a perfect fit for us.

We visited the Dandenongs this weekend, and walked in the soothing comfort of mud. It feels right that there is some give in the soil, not just the hard backed tracks of summer. Boots should be dirty at the end of a walk, not just dusty. I don’t like checking for leeches, but at least it adds adventure to a walk that takes you no more than a few kilometres from the car park. Here the trees tower above you, straight, mast like. Not the twisted and shortened forms of other forests. Some trees bear scars of fires past, others, mysterious carbuncles. Parrots call, and short rustlings in the bushes draw you to a halt. A lyrebird strolls on to the path and scratches in the mould. It runs off, and I am always reminded of the Road Runner by its looping gait. I check for Acme rockets and coyotes, but the coast is clear. Woodlands and autumn - an almost perfect mix.

In small corners and avenues of remembrance people have planted trees. Some to remember the places they came from, some to remember the people they have lost. Many of these trees suffer in the dry summers and may not last through the next few years. Trees that were planted so that some corner of a foreign field would seem to be England, or that death of Australians in a foreign land would not be forgotten, show their mortality. At the turning of the year history comes knocking at our door.

At night the smoke of the first fire taints that air - pollution I know, but so closely linked to this time of year as to be essential. In the past, as a kid, it would have meant the slow smouldering of piles of leaves, raked together in the corner of the garden and committed to the fire. The ash was spread on the vegetable beds. Leaves to ashes and ashes back to leaves. But now such things are frowned upon. The first frost would have knocked back the weeds in Embrough Pond and my thoughts would have turned to roach - wonderful fish, never very big, but each looking as if it had been newly minted that day. Like a bar of living silver.

Autumn is a time of colour and change. And yes, it has definitely arrived.

3 comments:

Garry said...

Stewart, you ought to be writing for a magazine. This blog is good enough to be published. Beautiful photos, keen observations, curious connections between the natural world and the world of man. Hope the blog is getting a wider audience. Cheers

Ian Le Page said...

I agree with Garry.
This meditation on autumn truly hits the mark!
Who was it who described autumn as the season of
mellow fruitfulness?
It is certainly my favourite time-a poetic time of transition... melancholic sure, but also gets the reflective juices going (a great time for good conversation, red wine and fellowship).
Stewart's mention of the Dandenongs reminds me of past autumns in that very same mountain range...in the time when deciduous leaves could be burnt off (doubly complicated now in the wake of the bushfires),twilight in the Dandenongs in autumn would be a miasmic haze of smoke and mist-invigorating..and memorable. You'd enjoy a bracing walk before retreating to the wood-fire and the afore-mentioned vino!!! All good stuff!

rhys said...

good writing Mr Monckton, i liked the pictures too but i was disapointed when there weren't any pictures of you reacting to the huntsman :)