Searching for autumn
“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”
― Albert Camus
why am I growing old?
bird disappearing among clouds.”
― Matsuo Bashō
I went in search of autumn. All the while, as I had journeyed, wrapped in the opaque cloak of my own busyness, autumn had been creeping up from the south, its roseate fingers gently unfastening summer’s hot grip from the skin of the land, and an ennui born of repetition and industry had kept me myopic and unaware.
But the signs were there. The mists were returning, coiling lazily along the valley floors, slithering in the soft light of dawns which now came at a reasonable hour. The duvet on my bed had suddenly become a comfort, not a tyranny to be endured, abused and discarded on oppressive summer nights. While my gaze had been turned, the leaves had turned, amber lights indicating that the months of growth were about to stop. The fields of maize and wheat, shimmering green and gold under the brittle light of mid-summer had disappeared overnight, with only shattered stalks like broken teeth and lazy columns of blue-grey smoke rising above the plains a reminder that they had ever been there.
We hugged and she left on business, driving slowly down the hill as she went away to fulfil corporate obligations. I stood for a time, enjoying the silence of the mountains, listening to the soft fall of the rain and enjoying the mist as it curled and intertwined itself among the dark wetness of the tress above our home, plaiting the hills in silence. Then I turned and went inside. There were bills to pay, emails to return, laptop to update..
An hour passed.
Then the phone rang.
I have just seen the most amazing sight. The hills just east of Waiau are covered in colour. Reds, yellows and green. They are just stunning. Where, I asked? She gave me the location. Just before you get to the top of the road. I knew it instantly. And I was surprised. I had never taken note of the place. It had always been unremarkable when I had passed, a dowager clothed in soft greens; green trees, green grass, green hills. And I had usually been on my Way to Somewhere, so I had never really stopped to breathe in its spirit.
I went in search of my camera, took it out and began charging all the batteries. I would go that afternoon. The rain continued to fall, and the clouds lowered, grim and gloomy, crushing the light out of the landscape. It grew darker and more ominous.
Perhaps the weather beyond our valley would be better, perhaps the sun might be shining.
It wasn’t. The fog and rain followed me out of the valley and followed me down the road, a relentless monochrome palette which greyed out the landscape. Not even enough contrast to think in black-and white, I mourned. Perhaps it would be better up in the hills, perhaps the murk would lift as I climbed out of Waiau.
The rain lowered itself and soft, swirling skirts of fog and rain draped themselves down the hills, closing me in and limiting my view. I drove on.
Then, as I rounded a bend, a burst of colour, an intense, fiery red, lit up the hillside. It was surreal, abrupt and intense. In shock, I slowed and almost slewed from the road. A raft of cherry trees clung brightly to the steep hillside, a wedge of festivity, and invitation to celebrate. The unexpected gaiety woke me from my self-imposed doldrums. Below the road, in the valley floor, a caterpillar of intense gold was weaving its way along the valley floor, undulating as it followed the stream bed, willows wearing their finery, showing their best side. In my head a line or two of poetry surfaced:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
John Keats’ Ode to Autumn.
I travelled with the willows for a few minutes, circling among them, dancing with them, enjoying the blackness of the rain-soaked trunks and the delicate frivolity of the yellow leaves, until the road turned away and began its climb to the summit. Down in the valley small explosions of intense orange and red littered the soft green moonscape. I took note, concentrated on the road and climbed the hill until it turned east and dropped away. Greedy for more, I travelled a kilometre or so, but there was no pot of scarlet to be seen. The rainbow was behind me.
I turned and made my way back, dawdling down the hill, looking for a place to park. I turned the motor off, climbed out, and stood there, hands in pockets, absorbing the scene until the spatial relationships fell into place. Bit by bit they began to emerge, shuffling forward, offering me opportunities for dialogue. I stood there and listened with my eyes and heart. There was none of the neatness and order of a plantation. These were trees with minds of their own, wild and wilding, taking root where it suited them, a staccato series of intense explosions of colour. In the middle distance was a low triangular hill with a lone cherry on its summit, a visual axle around which the scene revolved. A small creek wound its way towards and around the hill. A pattern was emerging.
I was prepared to wait, but the air grew darker, the contrast reduced, and there was nothing for it but to take note, make a few exploratory photographs until the rhythm asserted itself, then retreat and return home. Perhaps the following day would be better.
When I returned in the early morning, the mists were still hovering tantalisingly, almost blocking everything out, but I was prepared, ready to face down the day and wait until its dour expression cracked. We stared at each other for an hour until finally it broke eye contact, let its guard down and cracked a wry smile. The mists lifted and a watery sun made a brief appearance, pushing soft shadows under the tress and into the hollows. The cherries began to glow, as if illuminated from within.
After 5 minutes or so, the landscape had had enough and called in the mist and rain, wrapping itself in silence and mystery and dismissing me, waving me away.. I packed up and turned for home.
As I drove, I remembered the comments of celebrated English landscape photographer, Fay Godwin, from a workshop I had attended with her. When you find a place willing to talk to you, she had said, you need to go back again and again. You need to get to know it, to listen to its story and photograph what it has to tell you. And that takes time, patience and perseverance.
But I was content. I had gone in search of autumn and experienced an epiphany.
My mother, the Earth, still had much to tell me.