They fell in the last week of October: leaves lining the pavement like cornflakes, crispy and golden. When autumn isn’t happening it exists in a romanticised state – rolling mist and languishing dawns – but even in south London, against the dawn sirens and the crisp packets, it can be quite good. I’ve rushed upstairs to marvel at the fleetingly pink morning skies, wandered around the park at teatime with my neck craned, trying to drink in the fierce glow of late afternoon.
It’s a time of year when I become reacquainted with the neighbourhood trees after long months of anonymous green, remembering their patterns and shades before they bare their branches for winter. My favourite gingko, in Myatt’s Fields Park, is always the last to shift. When everything else is small and dark in December it flutters gold, the size of a house.
Some are briefer encounters but longer remembered, like a particularly attractive stranger on the Tube. A few weeks ago in North Yorkshire I watched a close friend and her new husband walk along a near-fluorescent row of sumac trees. The skies were deep grey. Such a strange and beautiful backdrop for a wedding dress; it’s an image that I’ll long associate with those otherworldly plants.
I cling on to the autumn colours – those of the skies, of the trees – because I find it difficult to chart time in the final months of the year. Much like the leaves falling, autumn seems to loiter before announcing itself all at once. We emerge from summer into the hurtle of new-school-shoe feeling. Suddenly it’s November, and Christmas is to be thought about. Another year’s end approaches, and I try to make sense of what this one has been. Even during the worst years – and this has been a tough one – I grieve a little for the speed with which they have passed.
The clocks changing marks a useful gardening reminder: time to cut back the pelargoniums and bring them inside; time to take cuttings, to think about mulch, to sink bulbs into the earth. But the shorter days make it difficult to find time to be outside – we leave our offices in the dark and soon will be waking up in it, too. The indulgence of a lie-in results in a three-hour opportunity to see the day.
Being outside has, personally, never felt more vital. Even – and maybe especially – as I pace the same streets, look at the same trees, note the things growing and slowing in familiar front gardens. In the wake of a locked-down year, and with whispers of restrictions ahead, the notion of hunkering down at home over the darker months holds a new and uneasy association. I light candles and pile up blankets, but the fact is I just don’t want to be inside. In some ways I feel I’m only just emerging from an autumn and winter spent indoors; that we’re on the cusp of another almost feels a cruelty. I’m not sure I’ve really made peace with those endless isolated days yet. I long for bruised skies and blustery moors to blow them away, to offer a new start and set the seasons into kilter.
And so I garden into the dusk of the shrinking hours. In that half-light things look different. Dahlias that were gaudy in late-summer sun now look jewel-like, the fennel’s tatty skeletons gain a cobwebbed majesty. The nasturtiums clamour around other things, with their long sneaky tendrils. It should be a nuisance, but I’m grateful for them hanging about when nothing else is. Beneath, other things are growing: stubborn, hardy annuals from the previous spring’s demise, new growth from persistent perennials. On a shelf in my kitchen, a sedum stalk has sprouted roots as fine as hair.
In the garden, I can set my own balance within these shifting seasons. I repeat the movements and actions of other autumns, tidying and composting, stretching and waiting. Soon we will be in the time of steaming mugs of morning tea, of puffa jackets over pyjamas, and mid-afternoon moon rises. Even if I’m not ready to retreat yet, the garden will be. Perhaps I can follow its lead.
This article appears in the 10 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the Masks