Friday 17 September 2021

To Autumn: a celebration of nature’s golden season. By Caroline K. Mackenzie.

© Caroline K. Mackenzie

‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’. So begins Keats’ beautiful ode ‘To Autumn’, the first poem I ever learned by heart. Our English teacher at school had asked us each to choose a poem, learn it, and recite it to the rest of the class, with a short presentation of what it meant to us. Flicking through a poetry compilation from the bookcase in my bedroom, Keats’ poem immediately struck a chord. I have returned to the poem every year since, and not just in autumn.

Autumn is, quite simply, my favourite time of the year. Although many people understandably enjoy the ‘new birth’ of spring, or the hot weather and long days of summer, I have always favoured what tends to be one of the two cooler seasons of our year. Some of my friends cite winter as the better, thanks in part to the excitement of Christmas and the prospect of a New Year. However, I particularly enjoy the anticipation and rejuvenation of a new year not in January but September (of which more below).

If you are not familiar with Keats’ poem then I urge you to read it. I shall let his enchanting words speak for themselves. In this blog, I should like to set out just some of the reasons why I believe autumn is so special and, if you are a summer lover, perhaps this post will help you look forward to the days and months ahead rather than feel disappointment as your favourite season draws to a close.

Autumn leaves

© Caroline K. Mackenzie

Watching the leaves on the trees change from green to golden to flaming red is a visual delight, matched by the audible joy of the crunch of fallen leaves underfoot on a brisk autumn’s walk. Who can resist the childlike urge to kick a pile of these giant cornflakes and then watch them as they tumble silently, twisting and turning, to the ground again? Paths which would otherwise simply be muddy brown trails are transformed into golden patchwork quilts lining the way ahead through woods whose trees generously and gently drop their jewels until their branches are bare and ready for winter.

If one of these walks is blessed with a blue sky and gleaming sunshine, then that is a recipe for a perfect autumn day. Sunshine is always welcome but in the height of summer when the temperatures soar, I often find myself seeking shade or even staying indoors (not least to avoid the dreaded hay fever symptoms). However, sunshine on an autumn’s day feels like a surprise gift and makes my soul sing.

Log fires

© Caroline K. Mackenzie

The best experiences enlist all our senses and, together with a feast for the eyes fit for Midas, autumn brings its own aromas, one of the loveliest of which is the welcoming smell of a log fire. Watching the wisps of smoke whirl out of a chimney pot is surely one of the most enticing invitations and a promise of cheer, homeliness and comfort. Once inside, sitting by a fire provides warmth in a way that no central heating can rival and a cosy glow that turns everything in the room golden, mirroring nature’s colours outdoors.

Crackling logs are accompanied by a mesmerising dance display as the flames lick the wood, pirouette above, and showcase a whole rainbow of reds, oranges, yellows, even purples and blues. I find myself hypnotised by the constant movement which is ever-changing and yet supremely calming.

Even a stack of well-arranged logs can create that snug feeling with the promise of hours curling up by a wood-burner or inglenook.

© Caroline K. Mackenzie
Cosy evenings

Log fires are a treat at any time of day but perhaps the most indulgent time is late afternoon which almost unnoticed turns into evening, the hours slipping by as mugs of hot chocolate are grasped with grateful hands chilled during an invigorating stroll. Soon thereafter, it is perhaps time to crack open a favourite bottle of wine (mine is a ‘Bacchus’, of course) and curl up with a good book until bedtime.

© Amanda Short Design.
From ‘A Latin Lexicon: an Illustrated Compendium of Latin words and English derivatives’ by Caroline K. Mackenzie.

The soporific seductions of autumn need no hard sell, but to illustrate this part of the blog, I could not resist including the gorgeous illustration created by Amanda Short for my Latin Lexicon (the subject of a previous History Girls post, A Latin Lexicon). This lovely image accompanies the entry in the Lexicon for ‘dormio’ (I sleep) from which we derive dormant, dormitory and, of course, dormouse.


© Caroline K. Mackenzie

Most of my days are spent at my desk, researching, writing or teaching (currently via Zoom). As the days draw shorter, a scented candle flickering by my papers and books helps make my study a relaxing and pleasant environment. I would happily spend all my days in here so the lure of an autumn ramble ensures I keep moving and achieve some sort of physical as well as mental workout each day (or as the Roman poet Juvenal so succinctly wrote, ‘mens sana in corpore sano’).

Autumn fruits

Another of nature’s gifts at this time of year is the surplus of delicious ripe fruits growing in abundance on trees and in hedgerows - a healthy, sweet treat! Apples, blackberries, plums, and damsons make for comforting crumbles and warming pies (with plenty of cinnamon for good measure) or can be simply eaten straight from the branch. The fruits add rosiness to a garden or country lane - a form of second flowering when many plants have dropped their colourful petals - and contribute to the kaleidoscope of autumn arrays.

© Caroline K. Mackenzie

If you are fortunate enough to be outdoors just after a rain shower, nature also kindly washes the fruit for you - it is such a beautiful sight to see a juicy plum, perfectly ripe and decorated with a glistening rain drop like a crystal of sugar. Green leaves positively radiate when wet and reflect the sun’s rays, as if thanking the skies for the combination of ingredients which help their host produce its best crop. As for the sweet smell of fresh rain and cut grass, I just stand and take deep breaths and feel the benefit with each one. If I could bottle this air, I would.

Back to school

I realise that I may be biased, being a teacher, but autumn heralds the excitement of a new year. Or, to look at this another way, I have often thought that one of the reasons I took up teaching is because I enjoy the structure of the academic year so much. September brings a new start; as a child, of course, that also meant new pencils - such a thrill! Refreshed and recharged by the summer holidays, the return to school meant new teachers, novel subjects and after-school clubs, sometimes additional classmates, too, and there was always the optimism of unknown adventures ahead.

© Caroline K. Mackenzie

Later, as a student, cycling along The Backs and marvelling at the autumn colours in Cambridge, I contemplated the choice of new courses on offer: Homer, Classical Art and Archaeology, Food and Drink in the Ancient World (and daytimes spent in the Faculty would be punctuated by plenty of parties by night) - what a ball I was going to have! Embarking on my postgraduate studies in York, I remember vividly walking along the River Ouse lined with trees putting on their autumnal attire with the Minster towering majestically in the distance. That autumn reminds me of the excitement of a new chapter and a new challenge. 

The Library at Pembroke College, Cambridge in autumn.
© Caroline K. Mackenzie

This September, I have welcomed a new crop of tutees in Latin and Greek (of all ages and stages of life), whose enthusiasm is infectious and some of whose academic journeys are just beginning. But it is also lovely to welcome back students who have had a summer break from their studies and are returning re-energised and focused, whatever their goals. Happy New School Year!

September in the city

When I commenced my career in London as a lawyer, I was introduced to the joys of a city in autumn including the delight of diving into a cosy coffee shop on a rainy day en route to the office. City breaks are enchanting in autumn - it’s not too hot to explore the streets on foot and European cities like Paris, Bruges and Vienna are even more magical at this time of year, their beautiful buildings radiant in the golden sunshine, and their rivers sparkling like diamonds. New York always looks particularly stunning 'in the Fall' when Central Park comes ablaze with russet trees whose reflections bounce back in the Lake, offsetting the grey, geometric and grid-like mirror images of the city's architecture.

Literary inspiration

To conclude my case for autumn, I leave you with a couple of quotations which pay fitting tribute to autumnal offerings. In the meantime, I shall pour myself a cider and raise a toast, ‘To Autumn’.

‘Her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn, that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness, that season which has drawn from every poet worthy of being read some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling.’ Jane Austen, ‘Persuasion’.

‘Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.’ F. Scott Fitzgerald, ‘The Great Gatsby’.

© Caroline K. Mackenzie


Sue Purkiss said...

You make an irresistible case for autumn - lovely!

Caroline K. Mackenzie said...

Thank you, Sue. Glad you enjoyed it!