Autumn: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons edited by Melissa Harrison.
(208 pages, published by Elliott & Thompson in conjunction with the Wildlife Trusts. Out now in paperback original – available here in the Caught by the River shop – and ebook.)
Review by Sue Brooks
Outside my bedroom window facing east, the sunrise is tracking south along the ridge, almost half-way towards the gap between two large oaks that marks the Winter Solstice. On July 19th it rose at 5:26am; yesterday (August 25th) it was 6:31am. I am still in summer waking mode, usually around 5am – cells locked into a circadian rhythm which is completely out of step with the season. Waking into darkness with strange dreams and a sense of foreboding.
This is a disturbingly familiar feature of early autumn and I’m glad to be reading a collection of other people’s experiences. Perhaps it will settle me down. 64 contributors, 208 pages, and number three in the series which has already proved successful for the publishers Elliott and Thompson, and the series editor Melissa Harrison.
Everyone has their own way with an anthology. Mine is to taste once more the pleasure of a well-loved writer. Horatio Clare’s piece, commissioned for the book, opens on page 1. He quotes E.M. Forster: It was a Saturday afternoon, gay and brilliant after abundant rains and the spirit of youth dwelt in it, though the season was now autumn. All that was gracious triumphed. What a marvellous opening. I may never match that says Horatio, but to my mind he never fails to write with a supreme lightness of touch – with grace.
I seek out other favourites – Nan Shepherd, Helen Macdonald, Amy Liptrot, Coleridge (from his diary Oct 21 1803……little wool-packs of white bright vapour rest on different summits and declivities…… “white bright” works well, I think. It adds an intensity, as in a Van Gogh painting) and the incomparable Gilbert White. I’m guessing Melissa Harrison feels as I and thousands of others do when reading the Journals – happy in the presence of someone supremely content and supremely alert. There are four extracts in this collection. I make the acquaintance and discover the identity of Timothy for the first time.
Nov 25th Timothy comes forth Nov 26th Timothy hides Dec 4th Timothy is gone under a tuft of grass, but is not yet buried in the ground Dec 7th Took down the urns and shut up the alcove.
Life at Selborne in 1792, the year before Gilbert White’s death; so very moving in those last few words.
What makes this collection unusual is the collaboration between the publisher and The Wildlife Trusts. A mix of classic and contemporary writers, 33 of the 64 extracts are dated 2016. Some are commissions (Horatio Clare, Amy Liptrot, John Lewis-Stempel), whilst some of the others may be seeing their words in print for the first time in book form. Pages 188-196 introduce the authors and their blogs. John Clare is followed by Ryan Clark (ryanclarkecology.wordpress.com), William Cobbett, S.T. Coleridge and Tamsin Constable (@ConstableTL). It makes for a hearty autumn stew in which there are surprisingly tender morsels, such as the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club (of which I am a member…) searching for fungi, October 1st – 3rd 1887, undaunted by snow and freezing temperatures. Rarities and novelties were out of the question and never, perhaps, were common species treated with so much care and attention. One gentle-man actually took off his hat in the presence of almost the only specimen of A. rubescens.
To read two pages of Richard Jefferies’ essay from Field and Hedgerow, entitled Just before Winter, is to know this is the harvest of a lifetime’s walking with heart and senses wide open. Like Edward Thomas, he lists the names – hypericum, white yarrow, some heads of red clover, some beautiful buttercups, 3 bits of blue veronica, wild chamomile, tall yellowwood, pink centaury, succory, dock cress, daisies, fleabane, knapweed. You know it is autumn and he has caressed each plant as he passed. It’s the same with Nan Shepherd: to feel the heather under the feet (bare feet, of course…..) after long abstinence is one of the dearest joys I know. These are extracts from a large body of work. They have amplitude: you can rest against them when the going is rough. By contrast, some of The Wildlife Trust contributions fizz and sparkle, especially the close encounters with, for example – dolphins, red deer, otter, badger, salmon, manx shearwater, woodcock, wood mice, bank vole, and my favourite, the European Eel Anguilla anguilla. Ecstatic moments shared, until now, only with Wildlife Trust members and blog readers.
Others among the contemporary writers provide elegiac pieces about autumn in their particular part of the UK. If I were to single one out, it would be Sinéad Gleeson’s walk in the Dublin Mountains. High above the city, with the sea visible in the distance, the forests were heavy with the weight of change, of imminent abscission. The word “abscission”, together with its sister “senescence” are powerfully associated with autumn. The time in the natural order when deciduous trees form a protection layer of cells at the base of the leaf, cells which grow and harden until the moment arrives for the leaf to fall. I had forgotten how much I love the words and look forward to those moments until I read Sinéad’s description.
It’s beginning to happen NOW. September, October, November lie ahead, a drum roll in the imagination. This is no time for foreboding: melancholy perhaps, but that can come later. Waking early in the dark is autumn’s gift, I tell myself. Get out there and smell it, taste it, watch and listen. 64 authors in this fine collection, skilfully assembled by Melissa Harrison, have the same message. The UK in autumn is a feast for the senses. If you feel it is passing you by, dip into these pages and let George Eliot inspire you. Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.