Curious Roots


By Heather Elvidge 

In September, early mists give way to pleasant sunshine. Mornings see swallows gathering on gutters and telephone wires, weighing up changes in air pressure against the shortening days. One morning the time will feel right, and off they’ll go. First stop is usually the Humber estuary where they join up in large flocks with other swallows and house martins.

After weeks of moult-induced silence broken only by the cluck of a blackbird, there’s a hesitant trickle of birdsong. The sweet sound is almost wistful. The unseen singer is a robin, and this autumn song is a warning to other robins. Every redbreast, male and female, holds its own territory during the winter, and is prepared to fight its own offspring to keep it.

The titmice — great, blue, coal, and long-tailed — pass the winter in mixed flocks. They stay together as they tour their area, keeping lookout for each other as they search for food. Starlings travel in small flocks of 10 to 20, squabbling over food and scaring off other birds with their strong, sharp beaks. Starlings are particularly partial to elderberries, and so are we when they’re used to make elderberry wine.

The second harvest month delivers a surfeit of fruits. What’s more cheerful than a tree laden with ripe apples? If you’re tired of apples there are blackberries and plums for jam making, rosehips to make syrup, and almost anything can go into chutney. Rowan jelly goes well with beef, if the blackbirds haven’t eaten all the berries. And let’s not forget traditional crab apple jelly with mint…

It’s not only foodies who are excited by autumn; its luscious colours and mellow days have inspired many poets. The most familiar lines on the subject must surely be these, written 200 years ago this month: “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness/ Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun…”

On September 19, 1819, after a walk along the River Itchen near Winchester, John Keats sat down to compose what would be his last poem, To Autumn. It had been a difficult year. His health was not good, and he knew he could no longer afford to write poetry. Even so, struck by the beauty of the light on the recently harvested stubble fields, he created a subtle allegory from the passage of autumn. Was he contemplating the end of his career as a poet? Or perhaps the cycle of life, that would end for him only two years later at the age of 26?

On September 14 don’t miss the lovely Harvest Moon, rising as the sun goes down. Every full moon does this, and then on each night following it rises about 50 minutes later. Yet near the autumn equinox the full moon behaves differently. The Harvest Moon rises further north along the eastern horizon, and on succeeding nights it comes up sooner. This gives several days of moonlight from dusk till dawn, which used to be a boon to harvest workers cutting and binding by hand as they scrambled to beat the weather.

The autumn equinox, when day and night are more or less equal, occurs on September 23. Afterwards daylight hastens away, retreating by four minutes each day because of the tilt of Earth’s axis in relation to the Sun. 

In the second harvest month we dream, like the poets, of crisp, golden days. Not an Indian Summer — that’s next month — but a Blackberry Summer. Then we may see red admirals, their black wings banded with red, feeding on sedum, ivy, michaelmas daisies, and thistles. They’ll even sip on over-ripe fruit, especially plums or bananas. Red admirals can’t resist them. On the other hand, there’s always a chance that we’ll catch the tail end of an Atlantic hurricane. If you have a real need for a decent day, September 15 is almost always fine. 

September 29 is Michaelmas, the 500-year-old festival that died out in the early twentieth century. Families celebrated with a set-piece dinner of roast goose stuffed with the season’s new apples, followed by gooseberry pie. This old quarter day was a time for hiring fairs and livestock fairs; it also marked the end of harvest, and was the closing day of Scarborough’s great fish fair, held for the last time in 1788.

Animals born at Michaelmas were said to be mischievous, but blackberry kittens, particularly tortoiseshell ones, were as lucky as black cats. To attract money luck, try this old charm: pick three bramble leaves — watch out for Old Nick, Michaelmas is when he spits on the berries — and tuck them away with your money. You’ll never go short as long as the leaves are there. And take note of the wind direction at Michaelmas; this shows where winter’s weather will come from.