The not yet of autumn

Still looks like summer to me

My kids ask when each season starts. I think I’m right in saying that astronomically, they begin on the solstices and equinoxes – that is, summer begins on the longest day of the year, winter on the shortest, and spring and autumn on the days in between when day and night are of equal length.

Most years that makes the first day of spring the 21 March, summer begin on 21 June, autumn not until 23 September, and winter on my birthday, the 21 December.

That’s certainly what we learnt at school, but it does throw up some odd situations, like advent falling in autumn, Mary’s March birthday – on which we had a picnic this year – actually being in winter, and every single day of summer being darker than the last.

So I explain that there is also a popular view of the seasons based on equal quarters of 3 whole months. The weather man said it was autumn once we hit 1 September; winter is December to February, and so on. That way June gets to be in summer, and Christmas a third of the way through winter instead of right at the start.

But that’s not really it either. Most dictionaries go by the weather in their definition of seasons. Every year we cycle through patterns of weather and temperature, and it is their effect on the natural land that defines a season most tangibly. Spring is when warmth and rain trigger the plants and trees to grow again, flowers following leaves and buds. Summer’s heat sees greater flowering, fullness of growth and fruits towards the end. As temperatures drop so plants stop growing and fruiting, dropping their leaves in autumn and eventually shutting down during the cold of winter – the crucial sleep before doing it all again.

This definition of the seasons is the most real for me. Farmers make their livelihoods from understanding it and literally shapes the rural landscape. While spring has bursting hedgerows and fields ploughed red-brown or sprayed with muck, summer brings the golden and green crop colours and full lines of trees. In misty autumn the winter feeds and grass have been sown but dying foliage takes centre stage, scattered on the floor along with nuts and other fruits. Winter is green too, but bleaker, views of frosty fields opened up between the now sparse branches, the white sheep dots increased by lambing.

That’s what I tell the kids the seasons are. Look for the swallows return, the declining wasps’ sting, for the first frost on the hills, seeds in the air, for a sudden increase in roadkill. Look at your own environment too: when the lawn stops growing, when you wake up in the morning to condensation on your window, when the conservatory becomes colder than the house, when we light the first fire in the lounge.

Based on these natural observations, autumn is not here yet, despite being well into October. Whatever the weatherman said.