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2 October 2014updated 21 Jul 2021 12:11pm

The dark, ripe smell of a summer’s end

Autumn is also the season not of perfumes, or even scents, but of one complex, yet oddly single smell.

By John Burnside

Autumn came early this year, the pavements of our corner on Schwarzbacher Straße and Storkwinkel littered with dry leaves and falls of horse chestnut, Virginia creeper and barberry lighting the fence lines with cool flames of crimson and mottled gold. This is the season when the Berlin suburbs come into their own, the usual tidiness softened by drift and straggle, the manicured lawns vanishing under the damp browns and russets of sumac and Turkey oak. I have never understood why so many gardeners favour straight lines and narrow, regulated borders; perhaps they think wildness could work only in a larger space. Whatever the reason, this predilection for a strict and entirely human order makes their gardens almost impossible to enjoy in summer. That is the season for moving around the city by S-Bahn, gazing out into the accidental green spaces where the plant life is free to run riot between stations.

Not that a garden should be obliged to run riot. More often than not, the best plots, however modest, are contrived in the debatable land that lies somewhere between the beauty of the wild and the landscape designer’s blueprints and layouts. “I believe it is no wrong observation,” wrote Alexander Pope, “that persons of genius, and those who are most capable of art, are always most fond of nature, as such are chiefly sensible, that all art consists in the imitation and study of nature. On the contrary, people of the common level of understanding are principally delighted with the little niceties and fantastical operations of art, and constantly think that finest which is least natural.”

Autumn is also the season for some of the more beautiful, though less showy, garden flowers, such as the late-flowering stonecrop (Hylotelephium spectabile), which looks like clumps of coral in the morning sunlight, especially when the blooms are wet with dew.

Japanese anemones, purple asters, chrysanthemums, Eupatorium (highly toxic, with medicinal uses in the treatment of gout) and any number of autumn grasses make for a suitably cool palette, running from silver through pale golds and sandy browns to ruby reds and perse. Yet it is not the colours that matter most at this time of year. The fabric of a garden is determined as much by its textures as by its tonal range and architectural flair. This is especially true in autumn, when the garden seems to melt away in the first frosts, leaving only a hint
of rust here, or a straggle of grey-green there, to highlight the occasional miracles: one last, blush-pink rose; a windfall of crab apples; the bright-orange “Chinese lantern” fruits of physalis in an otherwise naked border.

Autumn is also the season not of perfumes, or even scents, but of one complex, yet oddly single smell. It is the smell of ripeness first and then, by almost imperceptible degrees, it becomes something else, an aroma best described by Rilke, in his letters on Cézanne: “At no other time, it seems to me, does the earth let itself be inhaled in one smell, the ripe earth; in a smell that is in no way inferior to the smell of the sea . . . containing depth within itself, darkness, something of the grave almost, and yet again wind; tar and turpentine and Ceylon tea.”

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Is it fanciful to feel that there is something to learn from this dark, tarry scent, something almost metaphysical about summer’s end and that process by which the earth prepares to blossom and ripen all over again? Perhaps. And yet it seems to me no accident that, for our ancestors, this is where the year and the cycle of life begin, in seed fall and leaf meld and the reminder, with each last touch of colour, that the reason why everything continues is that no one thing lasts for ever, no matter how carefully it is tended. 

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