After a hot summer, there is hope for a warm and mild September. Roses are still flowering but hydrangeas are changing colour into muted shades of green and dark red. As expected, autumn arrives with subtle changes in the light, with overcast skies, longer darker evenings, and nights of easy slumber while chilly rain thrashes monotonously against the windows. Rain coming down with a vengeance adds a rejuvenating sparkle to fruits, leaves and grasses alike, and is most welcome. At dawn, just after the rain, the freshly ploughed earth of the furrowed fields, still warm from the stored heat of the summer, exudes mystic clouds of chalk-blue steam. Noisy groups of swallows swoop gracefully above the dusk-etched rooftops of the barns, preparing for their winter migration.
October approaches slowly, changing with each step the faded colouring of the woodlands into shades ranging from sun-bleached fawns, golden-yellows, beiges and flaxen straw-hues to vivid reds, russets, plum-purples and rich, velvety browns.
The fields are tidy and barren, their harvest already a thing of the past. The season will come full with the first frost and autumn’s brilliant colouring of treetops and hedgerows. It is a time for gathering and storing of fruits, a time of making beverages. It is a time of making chutneys, pickles, plum dumplings and apple pies. At sunset, a skein of geese fly low above the town and soon they will be no more since it is time for migration. Autumn was called in the 16th century the ‘fall of the leaf’, and rightly so; it is hard to imagine this time of the year without the rustle of a bright, ankle-deep carpet covering the ground. Children love wading through piles of fallen leaves, looking for chestnuts or acorns. There is an abundance of blackberries in the hedgerows and wild mushrooms in the woodlands. Often hidden under trees and among wet grasses after rain, are shiny ceps, sticky fawn-coloured fungi, are known to experienced gatherers as ‘butter cups’. My favourite, chanterelle as they are called in France, are rusty-yellow, oddly funnel-shaped agaric. Ceps are often strung onto cotton thread, and when dry, kept in the larder to flavour and season stews. Fresh ceps and other mushrooms are delicious tossed in hot butter which brings out their wonderful flavour.
The orchard fruit harvest of apples, plums and pears is a time of storing fruit and making jams and making of cider. When I was young, I loved to get up at the crack of dawn and go into the mountain forest to pick blueberries. These grew in sunny clearings on short dense bushes, hidden amongst a multitude of tiny, dark-green leaves. It would take a long time not only because the bushes were laden with blueberries but also because purple-stained hands would often stray to fruit-inked mouths. At home, blueberries were served with yoghurt or with creamy milk.
This is also the time of potato digging, a time of bonfires with their languid, wet smoke lumbering low over the fields and hedgerows, scenting the air with the incomparable aroma of field-baked potatoes. As it is such back-breaking work, a midday rest is needed to straighten up and to warm up cold hands. We diggers would sit around a fire on an upturned sturdy potato basket or a pile of sacks, rubbing our cold hands in anticipation. Oh, the sheer bliss of inhaling the hot, smoky scent of the tubers. The joy of tossing the skin-burning potato from one hand to another before squeezing it open, and then seasoned with salt and butter it would disappear, almost unaided, into a rumbling stomach. But I digress…
By the end of November, there will be no leaves on trees because they have to protect themselves before winter sets in. The trees shut down the activity in their leaves, drawing in the sugar and protein stored there, and not producing chlorophyll in the winter months. The colour that remains in the leaves for a short time is due to carotenoid pigments that were there all along but were concealed during the warmer months by the vivid green of the chlorophyll cells. Leaf fall begins when hormones stimulate a layer of cells at the base of each leaf stalk to die and form a seal between a leaf and its branch. As these cells die, they form a corky layer of dead tissue. When the seal is complete, it takes only a light breeze to separate the leaf from the tree and send it spiralling to the ground.
At this time, some birds will leave to migrate to warmer countries in search of food and sun. The migration of birds each autumn has long been among the mysteries of nature that are still difficult to fully understand and explain. There are many theories, and one suggested that it might have been a throwback to the ice age, when a severe climate over much of the world must have affected the birds’ life. Regardless of the reasons, it is obvious that migrations, although it may cost some of the species half their population in casualties each year, have logical advantages. The northern part of the globe is more spacious. There are therefore many more opportunities to nest and feed their young.
The longest known migration of any bird belongs to the Arctic tern, a relatively small (14 inches) colonial bird that breeds within a few hundred miles of the North Pole. It is also known as the ‘Sea Swallow’ as it has a similar colouring; a white body, black cap and red legs and beak. For reasons biologists have yet to fully understand, Arctic terns set out on a journey each spring and autumn that takes them literally to the ends of earth, from the Arctic to Antarctica. As they take the longest route, they may travel as much as 3 million miles in their lifetime, which could be 15 to 30 years. Now, that is some endurance and achievement.. What can I say but Autumn is a bountiful, colourful and interesting season, which I am very much looking forward to.
PS My potato digging experience was a result of the school trip to help the local farm and to learn how hard a farmer’s work is, and it left me with life-long memories.