The not yet of autumn

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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.

Looking down

Within a week or two of moving to Wivey a painter told me that her frustration with the countryside here is that it is clearly very beautiful but that there is nowhere to get above it.  The close, steep but gentle hills huddle together and there is often a haze in the air; I found myself agreeing that it is such a shame there are no great vantage points to take in the view.

But then I started walking. And when the dog arrived, we explored further and further footpaths. While there is no great platform for an art class to set up their easels, there are plenty of places where you achieve some height and happen upon a view of familiar locations from above or afar; where the countryside suddenly makes sense. You do have to walk out to find them though.

It happened today with Huish Champflower. Huish is hard to get a feel for topographically.  The village feels like it’s wrapped around a hill but also that you drop down into it. You have to turn off to keep going on the roads and the village hall is strangely slung higher up the slope. From the hall a dramatic vista of the trees of Cleve wood appears, densely covering the long side of Heydon Hill. But back down in the village I find it hard to point in the direction of anywhere else with certainty.

Yet the other evening curiosity kicked in as I climbed Maundown Hill and I followed the lane over its back instead of looping around the ridge and descending back into town. Within a few minutes I caught a glimpse of a quilt of lush green fields; a few minutes more and I was leaning on a gate staring at an incredible view of Huish in its verdant environment, clearly positioned on the end of a rolling ridge, flanked by other ridges, all decked in pasture or trees. Suddenly the comically sloping cricket pitch – on which opposite fielders can’t see each other over the wicket in the middle – made sense because it saddles the Huish ridge. The church, which I assumed was the centre of the settlement, is actually over to the side. The whole scene not only became cohesive, but the evening light threw shadows into the checkered fields and beatified the view.

The photo shows a glimpse, but not the breadth of the vista, as I only had my telephoto lens. Worthy of a painting, though, I’d say.

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On growth

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Trees in Western Cliff Wood

Last week I took the boys for a walk across some meadows and down to a river among some trees. Just a fortnight ago the grass had been short and the woodland portion of the path passable if a little twisty. Yesterday the fields were hazardously tall with thistles and scratchy grasses, and the footpath blocked with nettles. Undeterred, we scythed the blighters down with sticks and invented a new game – one point for every sting you take that you don’t complain about – making it to the pretty ford with itchy legs and plenty of points apiece.

But those nettles! Tall and loaded, all of a sudden.

It’s like the snowdrops that were sprinkled overnight like frosting, or the primroses that appeared suddenly in constellations as though clouds had cleared on a night sky, or the crashing wild garlic waves and gentle bluebell tides, or the fireworks of red campion, cow parsley and stitchwort bursting from all the hedgerows.

Or just the leaves, which took ages to appear, but when they did they burst onto the scene in almost autumnal glory, colouring every wood and hedge and garden in a week before ripening into luxuriant green. Now the land is heavy and full. The grass has been cut and baled already.

Everything seems to arrive quickly and in abundance. I should hardly be surprised that things grow, in the country, in spring.

But it’s the rate of change that is unexpected, bringing transformation swiftly after months of little variation. And it’s the impact of that transformation on us humans that catches me out.

It’s not just the visual renewal that affects us – although seeing the skin of the landscape ripple as the wind blows on high grasses and unfurled leaves, and watching the fields ease into colourful patchwork clothing after a drab winter, are both delightful – it’s the way that it changes our travel.

Some footpaths that were lost to deep mud in the wet months are now firm and treadable, yet many are blocked by hostile weeds, others by shoulder-high crops. The width of the lanes has been halved by eager hedgerows and the only way to drive safely is to trace the line of the hedge with your wing mirror, knowing that the light flaying from cow parsley and ferns is keeping your car far enough over. Visibility on roads and paths plummets; there is more shade, less road to see ahead, fewer views to the hills and more road signs buried in foliage. I guess winter brings dangerous conditions for driving but spring offers its fair share. Badgers, rabbits, squirrels and foxes are awake and wandering onto the roads.

What gets me is that everything feels so different. More alive, more hopeful. I’m reminded of nature’s ability not just to renew but to impress with magnanimity, to bestow more new and colourful life than I can possible take in, seemingly overnight, and for free.

I can’t help thinking of the idea that human organisations need to be treated as organic systems not mechanical ones. From what is happening in the country right now, that could mean accepting that growth only happens at certain seasons in the cycle; it comes when the conditions are right, but when it comes, boy will you know about it.

Franzen vs Coelho on digital books


Two authors with very different attitudes to literature online spoke up recently. Jonathan Franzen defended the physical object of the book at a festival in Colombia:

When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing – that’s reassuring. Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.

He seems to be conflating form with content. Books are lovely. Almost sacred. I still mostly read physical books. Ebooks will never compete with the sensual, material experience of a book, nor the ability to get a sense of the whole book by flicking through its pages and scanning endings and beginnings. That’s why I think the idea of free electronic version for everyone, alongside a premium special edition paper version for fans, might be a sustainable future route for fiction.

But it’s hard to see Franzen’s comments as much more than pure conservatism. So he doesn’t like screens. He should see how my one-year-old moves physical books around. That would make him weep. Pages of T.S. Eliot studded with raisins and stuffed under the sofa.

Ebooks, and the devices through which we access them, are going to continue to develop, absorbing all the advice and habits of people who love reading, who love books; they are going to become even more brilliant for reading and browsing, for sharing and annotating, for adapting to our quirks and preferences. That’s the beauty of the digital arena: openness, connection, and rapid evolution.

Franzen is wrong. There might be “a trillion bits of distracting noise” on the Internet, but that does not mean, “all the real things, the authentic things, the honest things, are dying off.” (These are lines he gives to Walter Berglund in Freedom). There might be a terribly low signal to noise ratio on the Internet but there is reality and authenticity if you know where to look.

Take Paulo Coelho for example. The Brazilian author recently made headlines by advocating online piracy. It’s hardly surprising – when a pirated Russian edition of The Alchemist was posted online, it opened up the market and contributed to the sale of more than 12 million copies. That’s because:

When you’ve eaten an orange, you have to go back to the shop to buy another.

It’s not just his attitude towards sharing his writing freely that is polar opposite to writers like Franzen. He also blogs several times a week, posting videos and links and smart competitions that connect him to his fans and have contributed to him having more than 3 million followers on Twitter.

He uses the opportunities that the Internet age has thrown up to connect generously with people and spread his work. Readers are lapping it up.

I have a tiny bit of sympathy for Franzen. I wonder sometimes how the good stuff is ever going to rise to the surface in the rubbish-infested oceans of the Internet. It was much simpler taking a book off the library shelf. But unless the best writers embrace ways to publish and share their work online, they are part of the problem. Coelho is doing it better than most. I’m with Paulo.