Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, begins Keats' To Autumn, Close-bosom friend of the maturing sun / Conspiring with him how to load and bless / With fruit and vines that round the thatch-eves run; There are no thatched eves in the surrounding area, and this bucolic 1819 evocation of the autumnal may seem more suited to the poet's native South, as indeed may his vision of the season as a subtle continuation of the summer, with its later flowers for the bees / until they think warm days will never cease, but as we look around the valley amid the whinnying wind and hazel-shells, Keats' blending of the seasons, cold and warm meeting in uneasy beauty - barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day, And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue - is more recognizable.
...full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn
Hedge crickets sing; and now with treble soft
the red-breast whistles from a garden croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
Swallows are much in evidence locally. All through the evening, they will twirl and pirouette above the river, or tip-toe on the telegraph wire, as if in preparation for their imminent flights to Africa. Further down the Calder Valley, at Mixenden Reservoir, is where I first laid eyes on sand martins, a species of swallow that makes its home in sandy hills, etching out holes and swooping over shallow waters in search of invertebrates. Skimming the surface on that murky evening, October wind slicing harshly through the air, they seemed balletic, their wings like sails, and were hard to capture in full view, as they looped and dived in and out of trees and hills. Sand martins (Riparia riparia) are one of over eighty species in the swallow family, which is so well distributed that its representatives are found in every continent except Antarctica. Plucky survivors, the birds will take food on the wing, will nest in cavities and nests abandoned by other birds. Their associations combine the fortuitous - in the Bible, their habits of building homes in human residences is commended as an example of adaptability (in Welsh folklore, a swallow nesting in your home is a sign of good luck), and owing to its wide-ranging flight the animal is called "the bird of freedom" - with the foreboding - in Europe the creature often portends death owing to its sombre colors; in Greek mythology, dead children were said to re-visit their homes and families in the guise of swallows. However, perhaps the most touching tale of the swallow is the Danish legend depicting the crucified Christ being comforted by a swallow, which finds him dying on the cross.
The ambiguity of these birds' depiction in art and folkore is summed up perhaps nowhere better than in Richard the 3rd:
True hope is swift, and flies with swallow's wings;
Kings it makes gods, and meaner creatures kings.
The frosty whites and gun-metal greys of autumn-flocking swallows paint a pastel-shaded melancholy upon cloudy skies, but they are not alone: bouncing across grass and buffeting through branches, corvids up their numbers in the autumn months: like fat black bullets they shun among the boughs of oak trees, roosting in large numbers. Jackdaws join them, rooks also, sometimes even ravens - noisy, jagged congregations, sable-clad and synonymous with death and Gothic superstitions. From their role in Celtic folklore as harbingers of war, to their sinister synonymity with the ghoulish tales of Edgar Allen Poe, the corvids are a family almost always tainted with the imagery of danger. In Dickens' Barnaby Rudge, it is a raven that sits atop the shoulder of the central character, a plot device that directly inspired Poe's poem The Raven.
It is easy to see how artists, philosophers and the creators and developers of myths, beguiled or unnerved by the stark blackness of these birds, the eager greed with which they hunt and eat, and their jarring, often cacophonous calls - together with a strangely ghost-like habit when solitary - came to cast them as ill-omens, and in more modern times this tradition has continued. Locally, the corvids have been significant in the work of Ted Hughes. Crow: From The Life and Songs of The Crow is one of the poet's bleakest works. Published in 1970, after the decade which saw the suicides of Hughes' first wife, lover, and the death of his four-year-old daughter, the collection frames the bird in settings much in keeping with its mythological representations, but brings it into a brutal, real-world focus, as God bled, but with man's blood. Amid the mutual "disgust" of God and Man, it is the crow flying the black flag of himself which nails heaven and earth together, but only in so far as the joint of the two dimensions becomes gangrenous and stank - A horror beyond redemption.
If Hughes' grim poem reflects the crow's mythological morbidity, Sylvia Plath had turned some years earlier to one of its relations - Corvus frugilegus, better known as the rook - to construct a slightly different metaphor. Her Black Rook in Rainy Weather is a quintessentially innocent bird, simply Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain. While Hughes was apt to see - or re-impose - his own violent visions onto nature, perhaps rationalizing a once suppressed habit, resumed after the death of Plath, for trapping, shooting and otherwise killing wild animals by means of an all-encompassing idea of nature as "red in tooth and claw", Plath's poetry is more chaotic, more rooted in emotion, less structured and without the sense of purposive anthropomorphism present in her husband's. Though relaying the neat image of the bird ordering its black feathers, she is keen to establish that I do not expect miracle / Or an accident. Plainly disavowing all suggestion of Creationist or spiritual design - this poet sees the heavenly and miraculous in earthly, everyday things: the light on a chair on in a kitchen, an incandescence in the most obtuse of objects. The sight of such a bird, though, still grants a brief respite from fear of absolute neutrality as, in departure from its usual employment as a token of impending doom, the rook is suggestive of good luck: it is like-affirming, "stubborn" and reminds her that
If you care to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance miracles
But the autumn months are as well known for what appears on the ground beneath our feet, as they are for avian activity above us. Every leaf speaks bliss to me, wrote Emily Bronte, falling from the autumn tree. Crossing the bridge over the Calder en-route to the railway station at Sowerby Bridge, one is confronted on either side by mounds of russet, rubicund and lemon-yellow leaves, a multi-hued miscellany of shapes and sizes.
Of course, much of what is seen is crumbling, fading, the wrinkled leaves are often dully coloured, soggy and shriveling in drains or on dirty roadsides. Let us be clear - autumn is in many ways a time of death, a time of loss - a time of ugliness. The rotting, uneaten fruits that dangle from decrepit twigs, the sodden ferns now withering into matted, rain-pressed decay. In Sonnet 73, Shakespeare is unequivocal, when the season lends its self to realizations of
resigned acceptance of unhappy fate:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs, which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
Yet there is much colour to be found even as we scan the twilight trajectories of desolation - as Virgil delightedly proclaimed in The Eclogues, telling of how Pigs return elate with acorn berries ... Autumn drops her varied fruits at our feet.
An understated flourish of late magnificence is currently on view - a free exhibition to add cheer to this end-of-year slide into dark nights and decrepitude.
It is a time of late blooms, of surreptitious animals such as hedgehogs snaffling through shadows, stocking up and biding time. Even the hardest of autumnal fruits, the conker - that spiky-shelled tough-nut, product of Aesculus hippocastanum, the Horse Chestnut - is a source of nutrition for mice, who nibble patiently and gnaw holes in the sides, and deer, whose digestive systems enable the breaking-down of the nut's alkaloid and glucoside toxins.
Yet none can doubt that autumn presents us with a colder, at times harsh landscape, as storm clouds gather and, as Philip Larkin put it, the leaves suddenly lose strength:
And now the leaves suddenly lose strength.
Decaying towers stand still, lurid, lanes-long,
And seen from landing windows, or the length
of gardens, rubricate afternoons. New strong
rain-bearing night-winds come: then
Leaves chase warm buses, speckle statued air,
Pile up in corners, fetch out vague broomed men
Through mists at morning.
And no matter where goes down
The sallow lapsing drift in fields
Or squares behind hoardings, all men hesitate
Separately, always, seeing another year gone -
Frockcoated gentleman, farmer at his gate,
Villein with mattock, soldiers on their shields,
All silent, watching the winter coming on.
The autumn's swelling fruits, and mellow mists, the glow of berries on the roadside bushes and the gathering darkness of the evenings, emblemise the duality of this most contradictory of seasons - heralding the end of the Georgian calendar, the commencement of the Jewish year; the exile of sun-seeking birds, and the appearance of rutting deer, ground-dwelling creatures and fungi, sprouting from trees like the colourful stuff of fairytales; the decline of much natural scenery, and the emergence of a multitude of flowers.
It is beautiful, it is painful. It is the time when nature's powers are in manifest conjunction with Her cyclical mortality and the passing of time. Wild is the music of autumnal winds, wrote Wordsworth, amongst the faded woods.