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4 November 2020updated 29 Jul 2021 7:05am

Appreciating the magic of autumn’s seasonal milestones

Each year on my windy Fife ridge, I await the coming of the geese.

By John Burnside

The coming of autumn, that distinct season-in-itself between summer’s end and the first hard frost, is a magical time – literally. We may be less aware of it, but our pagan ancestors saw this season as a period of transformation, of shifts and eddies in the physical world that, if properly observed, might generate parallel, sympathetic shifts in both individual minds and in the community as a whole.

Such ideas are usually dismissed, these days, as primitive or superstitious – and yet, even now, ungrounded as we have become, each passage from season to season touches us in subtle and, occasionally, magical ways.

When I lived in the more temperate climes of southern England, it was the annual blaze of autumn colour and the bringing in of my own plum harvest that drew me back to the earth; today, on a windy Fife ridge, where trees are few and plums are beyond cultivation, it is the coming of the geese.

[See also: What Britain can learn from its disappearing orchards]

I miss the scarlet and gold of ironwood and tupelo, I miss having a kitchen full of fresh plums piled high in bowls and colanders; yet, as bleak as my current home may sound, I know how lucky I am. My house sits between two reservoirs in damp pastureland, a perfect wintering ground for the pink-footed geese who drift in from Iceland over a period of days, their lines in the autumn sky a code, in the words of American poet Jorie Graham, “as urgent as elegant, tapering with goals”.

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This arrival is one element in the larger rhythm of my life, an event for which I am particularly grateful this year. Listening to the geese as they descend upon the surrounding fields, a hundred or more at a time, has served as a kind of psychic anchor in the midst of the pandemic, the affirmation of a continuing narrative, a life-story that, as cyclical as it is, never repeats itself exactly.

Like gravity, like light, this sense of the cyclical is essential to our well-being. Natural cycles ground and sustain us, even if, in a consumer-based culture, they are rarely given their due. Bud-break, blossom-time, the last rose of the summer and, yes, the autumn and spring passage of the geese overhead.

[See also: From British woodlands to the massed gum trees of Australia, pay attention to the trees]

Without these migrations, my existence would continue as usual – outwardly. I would carry on doing what was expected of me, working, consuming, occasionally dreaming of a more ample and rewarding vie commune; but inwardly something would falter. All living organisms need rhythms; we depend, emotionally and psychologically, on the reassurance of cyclical events. Seasons may vary by location, but organic patterns of all kinds sustain us, wherever we are.

When the geese arrive, something clicks into place in my mind and in my blood; I am ready to move into winter, to travel on to the still point of the solstice when, more often than not, the absolute quiet that falls upon the land prompts me to new plans, and new hopes, for the year to come.

By the time the geese depart once more for their northern feeding grounds, some change will have come about, a necessary, or unexpected, or even life-altering new course. But whatever it turns out to be, it will have started with that first line of geese, dropping down from the pale blue of an autumn sky and settling in around me, noisy and fussy, yet oddly companionable, to endure, and stoically to relish, whatever winter may bring. 

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This article appears in the 04 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, American chaos