Falling hard: a love letter to autumn
There is much to love about the season’s colours and the closing-in of the days. It is in this dying time when the natural world is most alive
A cyclist passes along the Grand Canal, in Portobello, Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times
A squirrel in the National Botanic Gardens. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
The river Dargle in Enniskerry, Co Wicklow. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
The bank of the Grand Canal, off Baggot Street. Photograph: Eric Luke
Autumn leaves. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
St Stephen’s Green, Dublin. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Loughcrew Autumn Equinox Festival
On a lucky, crisp autumn day last year, I took my two nephews – brothers aged four and six – to the park. We collected acorns, stones, red and yellow leaves, flowers and mushrooms. And so many blackberries, which they didn’t really want, so I took most of them home and reassured myself that I’m not running a blackberry- picking child labour ring.
The boys heard about the púca and how, after he spits on all the blackberries at Halloween, you can’t eat them any more. This is an old and familiar story in Irish folklore, but the fiction has long been an imaginative way of keeping children away from rotting fruit.
We saw badger setts. We fed ducks. We hunted for dragons and searched for fairies. We climbed trees and turned them into space rockets.
All of this was in Cabinteely Park in south Co Dublin and, bar a small ice-cream in the shop, totally free.
Autumn, that most earthy and spectacular of seasons, is the best opportunity to connect with nature. Yes, there’s all the colourful leaves, the “just so” weather that makes it right for coffee or tea, the perfect walks, conkers, thicker soups and comforting foods, the unrivalled freshness of the air, Halloween and bonfires. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch deer rutting at this time of year (but keep your distance, they’re full of testosterone and can be aggressive).
But for most people, their love, indifference or loathing of a season is more emotionally rooted.
My mum, Jean, loves autumn too. She was a few days old when her biological parents, a young married couple, gave her away and never took her back. She was raised by her aunts and grandmother; all four of her younger siblings were reared by their parents. Jean’s biological parents, it seemed to her, loved the summer. They lay out in the garden and got tans and took their other children out places. She felt excluded and unwanted. But autumn brought her birthday, and her grandmother and aunts made a special fuss of her.
They walked through the gold, red and brown crunching leaves in Whitehall, north Dublin. The air felt crisper and cleaner and they returned to a warm fire. The curtains were drawn earlier and earlier, and home became a cocoon. And when she had a party every Halloween, the day after her birthday, it didn’t matter that her biological parents, who lived just a few miles away, weren’t there.
For me, like a lot of eccentric, outsider children, the summer could be long, lonely and isolating, especially as a teenager. Autumn brought structure, routine and comfort, not least in its food. Mum seemed happier and she took us on walks to the park and dived headlong and enthusiastically into Halloween.
As a night owl, I liked the closing-in of the days and the chance to play in the dark.
It’s not for everyone. Many people start to experience seasonal affective disorder and feel more tired and sluggish. If this is you, go with it: whether in autumn rain or its peculiar golden rays of sun on shortening days, there’s less guilt about curling up by the window with a book (Harry Potter being surely the most autumnal of stories).
In Ode to the West Wind, Percy Shelley writes of decaying autumn leaves providing the fertiliser for the rebirth of spring. The Wild Swans at Coole, written by WB Yeats when he was feeling melancholy, is set in autumn and reflects decline and change. And John Keats’s To Autumn is believed to be the most anthologised poem in English, suggesting that autumn holds a special resonance for many.
It is a time of transition and introspection, a welcome respite between the hectic pace of summer and Christmas. It’s a space for reflection, but still, there are many social and cultural highlights, not least pints by an autumn fire after a hike.
When does autumn come? That’s a matter of debate. According to the old Gaelic calendar, August 1st, with winter following on November 1st; this is based on an agricultural understanding of the right times to sow and reap. Autumn’s end was marked by Halloween, a time when the natural world was seen to be in transition and a state of ambivalence, with the veil between this life and the next so thin that the dead and the fairies could pass between the worlds.
Denis Cotter, founder of Cafe Paradiso, an exceptional vegetarian restaurant in Cork, writes in Paradiso Seasons that he has “never been comfortable with the neat compartmentalisation of the year into four even-sized seasons. I sometimes argue that there are probably seven.”
Indeed, there’s a big difference between late summer and early autumn – where we are right now with the days getting cooler and shorter and the leaves beginning to change colour – and later autumn, where the trees put on one last spectacular flourish before they shed their foliage and retreat into winter hibernation. This, says Cotter, is the season for blueberries and blackberries, mushrooms, leeks, pumpkins, aubergines and figs.
Other signs include the arrival of Greenland white-fronted geese and Canada geese, and the corncrake’s departure.
Mushrooms rule the forest, as invisible fungal threads connect the various plants and allow nutrients to be recycled. Magic mushrooms – hallucinogenic and officially frowned upon – thrive in fields near sheep and have formed a quiet subculture for thousands of years; their influence in the Cú Chulainn tales is clear. And hunts for edible mushrooms of the non-magic kind are growing in popularity (never consume a wild mushroom unless you are completely sure what it is – it could kill you).
Children’s lives were once more firmly governed by the seasons, and autumn was particularly fruitful. One schoolchild wrote in the 1937 Schools’ Manuscripts of the National Folklore Collection: “During the summer, we go around the ditches gathering strawberries and looking for birds’ nests and, later on, we go around the hedges, picking blackberries and pulling apples and gooseberries. In the end of autumn we go to the wood to pull nuts. Then, when the frost comes, we go to pull sloes and that ends our fruit for the year.”
Autumn is the smell of pine, leaf and damp earth; the feel of wood smoke and hazy days; the taste of apple cider; the disguise and masquerade of Halloween. It is in this dying time when the natural world is most alive.
A TALE OF TWO RÓISÍNS: READERS’ CONTRASTING VIEWS
Autumn is my favourite month. I love how everything calms down after the summer. People settle back into routines. I love the crisp weather, lovely clear air with that particular autumn smell and the incredible evening skies. My top things about the autumn are night swimming in phosphorescent waters, surfing, picking sloes and making sloe gin, picking elderberries to make wine and tinctures (better for you than echinacea, by the way) and picking blackberries, mushrooms and hazelnuts in the Burren. It’s the best time for walks. Connemara looks like it’s on fire when the colours of the bog turn rusty orange. Róisín Coyle, Galway
I prefer any other season. Even winter. At least winter is honest. It’s just plain cold. And it ends on the upnote of spring. Autumn is melancholy with no hope at the end. Just the promise of relentless darkness and cold. The leaves turning are beautiful, of course, but they’re falling. It’s all mournful. It’s the taken-too-soon-before-its-time tragic loss of yet another year. A year that was born with such hope and boundless potential, just casually killed off by autumn like a favourite Game of Thrones character. The death knell of sunshine and the harbinger of darkness and shivers. Winter is coming. I’m getting panicky just thinking about it. Róisín McGarr, Dublin
THINGS TO DO: WALKS, MUSIC AND FESTIVALS
Forests: Japanese people call it momijigari, the custom of watching autumn leaves. Last year, the Irish weather conspired to give us particularly spectacular autumn foliage.
It will soon be all around us, but, to immerse yourself in it, the Vale of Clara near Rathdrum in Co Wicklow – a short hop from Glendalough – is a spectacularly well-preserved natural woodland. Also in Wicklow, Dargle Valley and Glen of the Downs nature reserve are easily accessible; and Djouce mountain, although dominated by conifers, nonetheless offers breathtaking autumn walks.
In Dublin, autumn colours dominate along the canals.
In Kilkenny, Castlecomer Discovery Park is easily accessible for families.
Bogs, moors, uplands: The bogs and upland moors can be as spectacular as the forests. Wild cranberries grow on raised bogs. Bog asphodel blooms yellow before turning a bronze-orange, and some spiders make funnel nests in grassland. Purple moor grass flowers from July to September and turns straw-coloured thereafter. Ling heather blooms purple.
Lullymore bog in Kildare is an active research centre and an enlightening place. The bogs around Connemara roar with colour, while the Royal Canal, on its route from Longford to Dublin, takes in some fantastic autumn scenery.
Culture and events: The Dublin Fringe Festival, when the capital is at its creative best, is a great time to experience the city (September 10th-25th). It coincides with Culture Night, when more than 1,400 venues across more than 40 locations open their doors for an evening of free events (September 16th). The Bram Stoker Festival, a celebration of horror and all things gothic, takes place in Dublin, October 28th-31st). Hard Working Class Heroes, a festival of new and upcoming music (which introduced us to the likes of Hozier, Fight Like Apes, Delorentos and Villagers) takes place around Dublin venues, October 6th-8th.
A major autumn highlight is Loughcrew Autumn Equinox Festival (left), September 24th-25th, at the megalithic tombs near Oldcastle, Co Meath. Dawn ceremonies will be followed by events such as archaeological talks, guided walks, yoga and meditation. facebook.com/carnbane