I always think that autumn (fall) gets a bit of a raw deal in the popularity stakes. Spring has lots of fans, summer is everyone’s favourite, and even winter has its proponents (due in no small part, I suspect, to the midwinter festivals of December and their associated jollification – I should perhaps note here that I am writing from a northern hemisphere perspective). But apart from the show of colour in the trees of New England, and to a lesser extent elsewhere, autumn gets a bit of a bad press. It’s the season when the heating goes back on, the days shorten, the casual linen and cotton of summer gives way to woollies and coats, equinoctial storms batter western coasts, and summer holidays are well and truly over.
There is one thing I hate about September – wasps. In the UK, September is peak season for wasps, timed to allow them to feast drunkenly on the apple harvest. As I both have a phobia about wasps and also react very badly to their stings, this makes being outdoors – and especially eating outdoors – stressful. But other than the wasps, not only is the autumn my favourite season, September is my favourite month.
For me, the year turns several weeks earlier – usually in early August, although in 2020 it was in mid-July. One morning, you go outside and realise that the air feels different. It’s not necessarily colder – just different. There is a sense that it is the beginning of the end of summer, although often the hottest weather is still to come during August. The swifts, which have been screeching around the summer skies, are ready for their epic migration to Africa, and suddenly, from one day to the next, they are gone.
The start of meteorological autumn in the northern hemisphere is 1 September. This makes a lot of sense – historically, the grain harvest was pretty much all gathered in by the end of August (as evidenced by Lammas (Loaf Mass, or festival of the First Fruits) on or about 1 August, in thanksgiving for the harvest. Before modern farming practices, the land would then rest until January, when ploughing would begin for the next year’s crop. Geese fattened on the stubble would be eaten on the feast of St Michael and All Angels, on 29 September. St Michael the archangel is probably my favourite saint – whilst I take a dim view of his persecution of dragons (I like dragons), I like that he is the saint associated with high places, and churches on hilltops in remote locations are often dedicated to him (for example, Mont Saint Michel in France, St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, St Michael’s Church on Brent Tor in Devon, and the tower on Glastonbury Tor, which is all that remains of St Michael’s Church, to name but a few).
September’s weather often seems better than August (hot and humid) or October (wet and windy), and most years I choose to go on holiday then, to take advantage of the weather and also of the relative quiet once the children have gone back to school. For September is a month of new starts, with the school year in England starting at the beginning of the month, and the university year at the end (in some universities, the autumn term is still called the Michaelmas Term). It feels fresh, full of potential and possibilities, of projects begun in hopeful anticipation. The days are still long – the curse of the end of British Summer Time doesn’t take effect till late October – temperatures are pleasant, and mornings start to be crisply or mistily autumnal. The archetypal poem about autumn (John Keats’ Ode to Autumn) https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44484/to-autumn has a melancholy tinge to its celebration of the season, but for me, September is more upbeat, full of promise and purpose rather than an elegy for the summer that is ended. I feel energised, roll my sleeves up and get stuck into life and work. Although it’s many years since the academic year governed my working calendar, I still find that this is the month when I gear up to start new work, find my mojo again, and start looking forward.
This September, I am back in Somerset, becoming re-acquainted with the landscape – coasts, hills and wetlands – ancient landmarks, and contemporary communities. No doubt I shall be writing about some of them too. Perhaps, especially if you are in the northern hemisphere and it’s the start of autumn where you are too, you might also like to go exploring during this month of September, watching out for the signs of the changing seasons. Let’s enjoy it and make the most of it before the darkness of winter closes in.