The consolation of an autumn prelude to winter is the return to a poem I can never forget since I chanced upon it as a teenager.
‘Season of mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the retiring sun…’
Keats, so young, so unaware that his life would be tragically short, wrote these lines that console me every autumn. They speak of nature’s beauty that hurts because it presages the shiver of bare winter branches. They have their skeletal beauty too, but the warm beauty of the subtle array of autumnal yellows, browns, ochres and even deep reds is both a fanfare to the summer array of shades of green and profusion of flowers and a warning of deprivation to come.
I am curious here in the receding daylight, to ponder the meanings of shade: shelter from sunlight or the different tone of colours and the subtlety of feelings they evoke.
Every year I go in search of autumn colour and each time it is different. Last weekend I drove through the Yorkshire Wolds, the northernmost chalk area of the British Isles spreading from the famous white cliffs of Dover to the middle of the largest English county. Chalk soaks up rain, leaving the short grass to be closely cropped by flocks of sheep from the white cliffs to Yorkshire pastures. There, in North Yorkshire, granite takes over the landscape, changing the soil and vegetation.
The colours seem to embody the warmth one needs to bear the memory of warmer times.
Once upon a time, I used to look forward to autumn and, I am almost ashamed to write, to the start of the hunting season. I hasten to justify an activity now highly condemned, as one when no fox was ever caught, to the frustration of the Chiddingfold farmers (the name of their hunt) who seemed unable to ward off their wily raids on farmyard poultry. Oh, the sly fox! I saw one slinking across the far end of a small London back garden towards the refuse bins. Have the urban foxes been driven for their safety into urban areas or is it their choice for a dustbin dinner, easy to locate and slink away from into garden hideouts and lairs in urban parks?
Fox-shaped urban myths are multiplying; the most frightening is the one of the baby in a pram pushed out into the garden sunshine. A fox scented a young living creature and jumped into the pram, about to… elaborate it as you will. The event sped over garden walls, leapt hedges and fences until it was transformed into a fact and begat others. An emboldened, hungry or curious fox entered a house through an open door, sniffed round the room, then the kitchen and loped up the stairs to explore the bedrooms, perhaps scenting the baby, or perhaps another small child, a toddler who stretched out a hand saying, ‘Mummy, mummy, there’s a dog in our house!’ The mother, snatching a moment of respite, was lying on her bed reading the local newspaper or a novel, sees a russet form peer into her room, turn away and patter down the stairs, leaving her baby… with teeth marks…bites of flesh, mangled… It is only when she leans over the pram, her huge face so close that the baby is frightened by the huge eyes and pores in her skin and shrieks… Fear or joy? Take your choice. She chooses joy – it’s safer.