Autumn is more or less over; the rain is getting colder and more consistent, the mists are rather more serious about their business, and the apple tree in our garden is looking increasingly like a branch meeting of the union of angry twigs. I think it’s a bit of a shame, as Autumn is my favourite season, but it also feels unreasonable to complain that it has come to an end. After all, part of Autumn’s particular feeling is one of transience, taking its meaning from the summer behind it and the winter months ahead. The bright, chilly days, the falling leaves, the suspicion of frost in the air, are all markers of a threshold season. A moving between. The Americans had a sound instinct when they called it “Fall”, an exhilarating process but one which has a definite end.
Paradoxically, it’s the season of new hopes and new beginnings, for those of us who work in universities. The terms kept by law courts, Parliaments and schools also land us up at the end of the summer at the beginning of our formal cycle. This is a bit foolish on the face of it. Whilst the year is busy moving towards cold and shadows, thousands of young people are arriving in halls and lecture halls, ready to begin their university lives (or to restart them, for those no longer in their first flush of fresh.) The general air of hope and newness sits oddly with the shortening of days, the temperature dropping and the general need for something in the way of hoods or umbrellas interposed between one’s head and the prevailing environmental factors.
It might be that this is some part of why so many academics in the Arts and Humanities love the Autumn. (Based on deeply unrepresentative poll carried out by taking into account various friends and half-remembered scraps of books; as I mentioned, we’re in the Arts and Humanities here.) We love a paradox, or a tension, and the prospect of young people setting out on intellectual journeys at the point at which the days are heading towards the dark satisfies some part of that. People making their own lives, but not under the seasonal conditions of their own choosing.
Or maybe the ephemeral air of Autumn focuses our attention on the passing of time, making every day seem more valuable. Does the season offer our students the hinted outline of a memento mori, a murmured who knows where the time goes amongst the leaf mulch and the rugby season? Enjoy yourselves, it’s later than you think. For the craft is long and the life is shots. Sorry, shorts. Perhaps it’s only that Autumn is the most reading of the seasons, and the weather offers a sound empirical argument for curling up anywhere warm and dry with a book. So Keats’ Ode To Autumn is merely the ideological super-structure caused by, and in turn sustaining, the material base conditions of it being absolutely damp and dreary out there. The labour of academic reading is naturalised by the institutional calendar of the term and its attendant aesthetic mystification (cf., like, the entire previous five hundred words.)
But there’s another logic to it, at least it feels as if there is. Autumn is the right time for students to arrive in a department like mine. They’re faced with a range of disciplines whose complexity and depth they haven’t encountered before; from the sociolinguistics of lesbian couples to the elegies for Anglo-Saxon kings; from the conditions of Restoration drama to the fantasies of Jacobean poets. They discover the astonishing richness of arts and learning which has already happened, massing behind the century they stand in.
Autumn is the right season for that. To sense the story and subtlety you can’t yet name, like the grain in a wooden bench or the peatsmoke in a sip of whiskey. And it needs to be ripe – even over-ripe – for them at that stage. The fruit breaking open, the leaves on the ground, the drizzle on their hands and faces. We need to offer them the books in easy profusion; generous, delicious, close. Spring will be time enough for them to start worrying about what comes next, how the field goes forward, how to detect the new shoots worth nurturing and the soil that needs breaking. In Autumn we can let them – help them – roll and revel in what’s more than ripe, til they know the satisfactions of a tipsy orchard pig.
After all. Winter is coming.