Seasons of sighs and mournful wistfulness

The autumn colours are starting to shade the trees as if some unseen painter’s brush was choosing a change of palette. The chestnut in the garden pot is already a mixture of yellows and russet brown while the hawthorn leaves in the country hedges are still green with bright red berries. In the streets, a thin layer of brown leaves is accumulating, with little mounds in corners where the colder winds have swept them.

Autumn brings in for me a swathe of mixed emotions: thankfulness for the summer past and the autumn bounty of fruits, nuts and gathered harvest, but is tinged with sadness for the dying year and the inevitable disappointments of unachieved hopes. Acknowledging autumn has arrived means accepting that we are in the twilight of the year and that we have to prepare for winter and wait for spring.

Reacting to autumn varies so much from year to year, and often we are looking to nature to reflect our feelings. In a year when the world has been paralysed by Covid and our everyday lives not only restricted but changed in many ways, some irrevocable, it is perhaps natural to focus on autumn as a period of decay and dying. People who have lost a parent or a partner in autumn often feel sad and depressed every year in autumn due to the close association between autumn and loss.

This year, reading some of the many accounts of the difficulties faced by young people, I wonder how they will look back on this autumn. Those leaving school and starting at university have suffered on several fronts: loss of their last term of school, the exam fiasco and anxiety about entrance to university. Now they  have made it to university many are in self-isolation and all are living under conditions they had not expected . Over 50 universities have confirmed coronavirus cases, the latest with multiple cases being Northumbria University and Edinburgh University.

Students have expressed feelings of being not cared for, resentment at having to pay accommodation fees and frustration that they are missing out on a once in a lifetime experience. While meeting together in large groups to dance and drink is not sensible in terms of the potential spread of Covid, it is  understandable that young people away from home for the first time want to meet other people and enjoy themselves. It is part of the process of settling into a new environment. Many students complain that they have been “cheated”, with teaching online and being confined to their flats.  If they had known what it was going to be like they would have stayed at home and saved the money for accommodation. In addition, the nature of much university accommodation is shared flats, and kitchen facilities shared between 6 and 10 students; students rightly worry that their chances of catching Covid are increased by this. All this has been exacerbated in some universities by poor planning in terms of ensuring food and laundry provision.

Autumn: a time for reflection. Photo credit: Harrison Haines (Pexels)

Equally there are autumnal woes for those in the 16–24 age group seeking employment. While furlough has certainly helped, there have been redundancies throughout the furlough period and across a variety of sectors. This is likely to accelerate sharply despite the Jobs Support Scheme, which is reported to be both complicated and not generous. The forecasts for employment are not good and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has warned that without drastic government action there will be a tsunami of unemployment. Unemployment has crept up from 3.8 to 4.1%; there are 5 million people registered as being “temporarily away from work with 2.7 million of them claiming benefits (Universal Credit).  The UK government has introduced a KickStart scheme to encourage employers to take on 16–24 year olds ) but at the same time there are reports circulating that the government expect a figure of around 4 million people unemployed because of the Covid crisis. Grim news indeed.

So, are there reasons to look on the positive side? For those not struggling, either financially or mentally, this year has been a fruitful one, both at home in the garden and out in the countryside. With more time on their hands many people have found a new affinity with nature, a keener observation of the turning seasons and a sharper observation of the natural world surrounding us. There has been a simple but satisfying joy in the succession of fruits and vegetables in the garden. Aided by an unusually balmy Scottish summer, our own vegetable patch has yielded broad beans, potatoes, courgettes, runner beans and beetroot, with leeks and parsnips still to come. We have even been able to grow tomatoes successfully outdoors. The plentiful supply of plums and apples have been used for deserts and turned into chutneys. Perhaps most satisfying of all are the small pleasures: picking strawberries or blueberries in the morning to go with breakfast cereals or gathering blackberries from hedgerows during our walks, for blackberry and apple crumble.

All this has reminded us strongly of two things. The first is the natural seasonality of food, often obscured by the ability to buying strawberries and other fruit from the supermarket all year round. The second is that growing vegetables gives an appreciation of nature’s bounty as a crop comes to maturity. Even being at home and unable for several months to travel anywhere, at times we were overwhelmed by the peaks of ripening, particularly for the runner beans and the plums. However, the advantages of freezer preservation have not been spurned and plums in syrup await enjoyment in winter (I can remember my mother having to salt green vegetables for the winter). 

The gifts of autumn have been expressed wonderfully for us by Keats in his poem “To Autumn”, written in 1819 at the age of 23 and just two years before his death:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.
(For full poem follow link)

Walks in parks and the countryside have helped to keep a “feel good factor” going in lockdown despite gloomy worldwide news. While we have not managed to walk every day, our frequency of walking has increased dramatically and with it our enjoyment of the trees and flowers. For example, whilst visiting grandchildren for the first time since February, we admired the plentiful figs and walnuts on the trees in the neighbour’s garden. I have made a few  additions to our walks: the first to take a camera with me,  the second to use online apps for identification of trees, flowers, insects and birds and the third to use the NHS Active 10 app to monitor how much brisk walking we have been doing (the downside is that scrolling back can bring a guilty feeling for those blank gaps!).

However, it is the watching of the turning of the seasons that has been the greatest benefit. Over the summer we saw the cygnets growing and developing and enjoyed the hedgerow and meadow flowers, but more recently it has been the signs of autumn in the hedgerows and the abundance of different berries like  rosehip, blackberries and sloes. The hawthorn we saw flowering in May has now set red berries while the holly berries are slowly turning from orange to red.

Traditionally the autumn bounty has been celebrated in Harvest Festivals all over the world. As a child attending church in the UK this was always a fun occasion, with sheaves of wheat, vegetables and large, decorated loaves piled up at the front of the church. The hymns tended to be the same year after year such as “We plough the fields and scatter”, “All things bright and beautiful” and “All creatures of our God and King”. After the service, the food was distributed in the parish.

This tradition continues within and outside churches and the need to help others has increased since the start of the Covid pandemic. The Trussell Trust in the UK reports that 2 in 5 households  need to access food banks and  forecasts needing to give out 6 emergency food parcels very minute this winter. Just in the UK it is estimated a further 670,000 people will be destitute by the end of the year. Globally, hunger has been an issue for many years, with charities like Action against Hunger, Bread for the World, Freedom from Hunger and the Hunger Project battling to alleviate hunger worldwide.

Amidst the autumn bounty there is also undernourishment. In 2000, the United Nations and world leaders committed to achieving to meet eight goals by 2015: the first of which was “to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger”. In 2015 a new set of Sustainable Development Goals were developed, including  one to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture” by 2030.These are lofty international aims but we all have the opportunity to contribute by supporting the work of specific charities and caring for others.

In considering the ups and downs of autumns, one image has caught my imagination: at the centre of each cluster of the decaying leaves of the chestnut tree , a small sticky brown bud has formed and is lying  dormant just waiting for  spring to come again.

September 30th -October 3rd

Addendum.

To any reader who has followed me, I offer sincere apologies for the long gap between blogs. In one of my early blogs “Destinations and paths” I wrote about mazes. Well I certainly got stuck in a dead end for some time and my energies got diverted. Hopefully I will learn from that lesson.

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