The blazing trees, bumper editions of fashion glossies, pagan parades and best of all, buying new school uniforms – how could you not love this season, asks Lori Anderson
Aye; the nights are fair drawing in. Depending on your mental state, the inexorable drawing down of daylight will inspire two modes of thought – imprisonment in a dark bunker with nothing but amorphous yabbling demons for company or cosy evenings spent cocooned in flickering candlelight, nuzzling with loved ones and dining from worn Le Creuset casseroles steaming with rich, unctuous stews.
My husband is a mournful sight at this time of year, equating autumn with death and decay while I skip towards what I view as a season of rebirth and new beginnings. Gardens are letting off their last fireworks with a show of berries, apples and plump vermilion rosehips and as Albert Camus once said: “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”
The late middle-aged months of September and October are among my favourites of the year. In Scotland they are not saddled with the hope of warmth and sunshine, like June, July and August, which often come handcuffed with bitter disappointment; autumn can usually be relied upon to deliver its promise, bright, cold, clear days where the air is perfumed with the scent of possibility.
The roots of my affection for this third season lie deep within my childhood, when autumn meant a fresh start heralded by a trip to Campbell’s School Outfitters for the requisite livery for the year. The visit was accompanied by an air of gravitas, formality and the smell of polished wood. While the uniform was proscribed, there was one small arena in which a personality could flourish and upon which I focused like a hawk on a distant mouse. Our gymslips and black plimsolls were required to be monogramed with our initials, we were allowed to sport but two inches of personality on the front of each foot and on the left breast, each pupil was allowed to choose the style of script, the choice of which took on the importance of a king’s seal. I favoured a gold embroidered flourish, others choose a more perfunctory Bauhaus etching. It may be more than 30 years since I last walked into a classroom but September still triggers the comforting feel of new hockey sticks, textbooks covered in brown paper. And it seems I’m not alone; Nora Ephron, the late columnist, author and film director of Sleepless in Seattle said: “Don’t you love New York in the fall? It makes me want to buy school supplies. I would send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils if I knew your name and address.”
Today a pile of pristine jotters has been replaced by that new harbinger of autumn, a towering stack of the September issues of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Tatler, each the size of a catalogue and twice as unwieldy, but each packed with the promise of a new seasonal outfit.
This autumn is set to be extra special. The hottest summer since 1976 has left us all one more treat, with experts predicting a “perfect autumn”. The sun has successfully stocked the trees with enough fuel to ignite into deep reds, flaming yellows and burnt brown dazzling enough to rival New England. This week Simon Toomer, director of the National Arboretum run by the Forestry Commission, said: “I believe conditions are right for a perfect autumn. We have had a good deal of sunshine and just enough rain. The pigment chlorophyll is green and is usually the dominant pigment. But as the chlorophyll breaks down because of weather conditions, the lesser pigments, which are normally masked by the green pigment, are allowed to come to the fore. This produces deep oranges and yellows.” And it could be about to get even better with, as we report today, the Woodland Trust Scotland telling us that to the naked eye, Scotland will experience two autumns.
The next six weeks or so are set to be perfect for “leaf-peeping”. This is a billion-dollar business in American states such as Vermont and New Hampshire, as well as in Japan, where the ancient ritual of going into the woods to witness the reds of autumn is known as momijigari, but it remains in its infancy in Scotland. It is steadily growing, though, supported by Visit Scotland’s successful Autumn Gold campaign, now rebranded for The Year of Natural Scotland.
Donald Rodger, an independent arboricultural consultant who travels around Scotland advising on trees, was also quoted this week as saying: “If we have a period of calm weather in the next few weeks we could be in for a particularly colourful year … I think you will see people getting into their cars and admiring the sights, particularly in Perthshire, where there are big plantations of colourful trees. Whole hillsides could look fantastic.”
The great Caledonian forests may have been diminished over the centuries but one-fifth of Scotland is still said to be covered in trees and there is no better time to wander among them than in September and early October. Among my multitude of seasonal rituals is an annual visit to the “big tree” countryside in Perthshire. I am not usually one to embrace the “big walk”, believing staunchly that this is what cars were invented for, but when nature has laid out a blanket of crisp russet leaves on which to tread in my LL Bean boots ( think Elmer Fudd), even I can’t resist.
Autumn days are to be treasured in a way which spring days are usually not. A bright day in April and September may share a temperature but while one has the promise of a door opening out to even better days ahead, the other sees it creaking shut. One can’t help but savour these stolen backward glances.
I feel the same way about the bounty of fruits and berries that Demeter, as the goddess of the Harvest, strews across the land before her daughter, Persephone, heads solemnly back into the Underworld to spend winter in the arms of Hades. We have an apple tree in our back garden and once the fruit has ripened and tumbled down into the grass I gather them up in my wooden trug and retire to the kitchen to make, depending on the size of the bounty, two or three large lattice-topped apple pies. I know it is a culinary cliche but no shop-bought pie could taste so sweet.
Later, when looking out at the bare trees with their thin spindly arms, I think of the pie and take some comfort that it is all part of the great cycle of renewal that will slowly rotate around, like a Chinese banqueting table, to next year’s apple pie.
For me, autumn’s end always comes among the cobblestones of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and the annual Samhain Fire Festival, when the Summer King, drunk on autumnal wines and spirits, is slain by his seasonal usurper the Winter King. I always find it a melancholy experience (as brutal murders should really be) – not because I’ll miss summer, but because it means autumn has been blown away for another year, to be replaced by the wind and rain of winter. November is a month, once the illumination of Guy Fawkes Night has passed, which must be trudged through but then there is the seasonal delight of December. It’s actually January, February and March of which I despair.
So we should all enjoy the weeks that lie ahead for, sadly, we cannot do what George Eliot dreamt of: “Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.”