Saturday, 26 October 2013

So much confetti

‘If God were as poetic as Whistler once wished,’ Alistair Cooke wrote, ‘and if He had devised a solar system that lighted parts of the globe only at the seasons that showed His best handiwork, the rest of the world would be dark in October while New England enjoyed its hour, just as England would light up for the few magic weeks in late March and early April for its incomparable spring.’ The New England fall and the English spring were, according to Cooke, ‘the unique earthly expression of two moods of the human spirit’. Maybe, but English autumns aren’t too shifty either – not in the Champions League like New England, perhaps, but definitely vying for a UEFA cup place.

The American literature professor Jay Parini has written that academic life is renewed with the fall of autumn leaves, ‘shredding the previous year's failures and tossing them out of the window like so much confetti’. These days it isn’t quite true, because our semesters begin well before the sunlight fades and the leaves begin to lose their chlorophyll.

But now the garden at the back of our building is a shrivelled wet blanket of yellow and brown, and thankfully no one seems to be in a hurry to sweep it away. Nowadays, falling leaves tend to be seen as a mere nuisance, from those ‘leaves on the line’ that harass the modern rail commuter to the back-garden tree litter that is supposed to be swept away by those new high-powered leaf blowers.

This is surely part of a more general recoil from the tangible and the real. According to a survey from the Woodland Trust this summer, eight out of ten people in Britain are now unable to identify an ash leaf, and only half can recognise the nation’s most celebrated tree, the oak.

We should reacquaint ourselves with falling leaves, and the sweet little melancholy annual death that is autumn. And by ‘we’, I really mean ‘me’. ‘Shall I not have intelligence with the earth?’ as Thoreau writes in Walden. ‘Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?’

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