As different parts of the UK find themselves under varying degrees of restriction, as indoor pleasures dwindle for many, the outdoors may provide some shred of solace, some healing connection to nature. Impervious to human travails, autumn happens to be putting on a particularly spectacular extended show this year, thanks to a damp August and sunny September. In some parts of the UK acers, or Japanese maples, are now entering the period of their most vivid crimson pomp; Amelanchier lamarckii, or the juneberry, is shedding its delicate apricot autumn foliage to reveal its handsome dark branches; oaks are on the turn towards a warm yellow.
Observing this seasonal drama is called momijigari in Japan – or “leaf-peeping” – and the National Trust notes that the British are becoming more susceptible, at this time of crisis, to its pleasures. It is also a remarkable year for apples and honey-scented quinces – indeed, for fruit and berries of all kinds, from rowan and sloe to spindleberry and holly. For those lucky enough to have a garden, raking is now a seasonal task and ritual, the rich scent of rain on fallen leaves a small pleasure to be savoured. To plant daffodil bulbs and sweet pea seeds is to engage in small acts of optimism and expectation – it is to insist that there is something to look forward to.
In parks and gardens alike, there’s a last spectacular showing of colour: flushes of late roses; dahlias and salvias still going strong. Messy banks of purple Michaelmas daisies are still attracting bees – as are, in the south, the musty-scented, autumn-flowering blooms of clambering ivy, which also provide sustenance for moths and hoverflies. Nerines, autumn-flowering crocuses, and wild cyclamens are putting out their delicate flowers, welcome signs of new life as the year blazes and fades. Gardens, in general, are dishevelled but joyous in October, like a relaxed guest at a party, flushed and happy and faintly anarchic, no longer on best behaviour.
Garden birds are getting hungry once more for seeds and nuts – good news for human spectators of the avian theatre offered by great tits and the like as they bicker and flutter round garden feeders. Charms of goldfinches are making greedy incursions on nodding sunflower heads. Autumn migrations are in full swing: the chaffinch population is being swelled by those returning from Scandinavia. The occasional chattering flock of siskins might be seen even in cities. A walk – whether urban, suburban or rural – serves for many to clear the head, and if it involves kicking through crisp brown leaves, then so much the better.
The clocks go back in the UK this weekend. It can be hard to summon up enthusiasm for autumn’s diminishing days, for a winter that seems to spread out dismally ahead, with rising infections, redundancies, and family members often kept apart. Enjoying small seasonal pleasures cannot be much of a consolation to those who have lost a job, or face a collapse in earnings, or who are sick, or anxious about their loved ones. But the beauty of autumn is not quite nothing. Do not pass a late rose without first smelling it.