I was at my first meeting of a local poetry group and after a very enjoyable session reading from and discussing Northern Irish poets the conversation turned to what the next session should focus on. Someone suggested ‘autumn’ as the trees are starting to turn and the days are turning chillier – the reply to this suggestion set me thinking – someone said “once you’ve said “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” you’ve just about said all there is to say about autumn”. This seemed to me to sell, not only John Keats’ poem ‘To Autumn’ short, but also this season too. Keats writes about the bounty of autumn and the third stanza of his poem celebrates the “songs” of autumn; lambs “loud bleat”, “Hedge crickets sing” and the “red – breast whistles from a garden croft”. The poem may say all there is to say about autumn but it can and should give pause to think about where this season sits in the landscape of the year.
Hereabouts it has recently been Harvest Festival time, a time where congregations have to be gently diverted from nostalgia for a vanished agrarian paradise towards a proper theological consideration of stewardship and thanksgiving in this threatened world. Also it seemed like only yesterday that local beaches were packed with holidaying families and their cars but now the scents of many barbecues have been supplanted by the sharp, stinging salt smell of the incoming tide. The trees are beginning their journey from almost uniform green to shimmering browns and golden ochre, it is strange and a little ironic that it takes the arrival of autumn to reveal the sheer beauty and variety of what look like commonplace trees. I think that Tolkien had it right when he created the Ents in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and gave trees a life and a spirituality of their own – there is a deep life here that we often only glimpse as autumn moves in. There is a subtlety in autumn that the heat of summer cannot convey – the autumn sun seems more refreshing because its heat has a sharper, more astringent feel to it. I also think that autumn brings in its wake an opportunity to ‘see’ what is going on around us instead of simply ‘looking’ at the world. From the shiny conker on my bedside table to the small mushrooms in our back lawn, from the sharp, smoky breath of morning to the condensate fog on our windows – early autumn preaches bounty and change. The herald of winter with a voice of its own the season has much to say and carries, as do all seasons, a reminder of our responsibility towards the earth as stewards and givers of thanks.
The words ‘Early Autumn’ also remind me of the song of the same name, originally recorded by Woody Herman in 1949 and later given lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Herman’s recording gave an unforgettable solo to tenor player Stan Getz. Like this season there is a sort of bracing hesitancy in this solo, as Getz demonstrates his talent for playing light and heavy almost at the same time. Gary Giddins describes this sound as “like a cool, burbling stream, disarmed – almost feminine – but sure”. In Stan Getz’s sound this is a signal of transition from the harder bop of his early playing to the mature styles of his later career. But like all artistic transitions it can be savoured for the delights it brings. Autumn may well be a signpost on the way to the chillier embrace of winter, but it has delights of its own to be savoured and enjoyed.
The last words here go to another poet writing about autumn. This is Mary Oliver’s poem ‘Fall Song’;
“Another year gone, leaving everywhere
It’s rich spiced residues; vines, leaves,
The uneaten fruits crumbling damply
in the shadows, dampening back
From the particular island
of this summer, this NOW that is nowhere
except underfoot moldering
in that black, subterranean castle
of unobservable mysteries – roots and sealed seeds
of the wanderings of water. This I try to remember
when time’s measure painfully chafes, for instance when autumn
flares out at the last, boisterous and like us longing to stay –
how everything lives, shifting
from one bright vision to another forever
in these momentary pastures”.
(My daughter Rebecca suggested I should write about the current season, and introduced me to Mary Oliver’s poems – something I feel deeply grateful for. John Keats’ ‘To Autumn’ is much anthologised and Gary Giddins’ comment on the artistry of Stan Getz comes from his essay in the book ‘Visions of Jazz’ published by the Oxford University Press in 1998. ‘Early Autumn’ by the Woody Herman Orchestra is also widely available).