I fear that the herald of autumn is dead. The small maple in the park – the smallest of all the trees – always turns first. Its leaves are bronze and gold while the others are still clothed in green. It tells me – even if I hadn’t felt that nip in the air, that soaking of early morning dew – it tells me that autumn is here. But this year its boughs are bare. There was no unfurling of bud, no burst into green. Its trunk is spattered with buttery lichen, its branches tipped with desiccated flowers, but there is nothing to suggest it lives. The park is littered with boughs and branches. They say that in drought, trees give up parts of themselves, making themselves smaller against the stress. I wonder if the long winter and bruising summer were just too much for the little maple. I wonder if somehow it has made itself dormant, and that it will sigh back into being next spring.
A crackle of geese honks in a corn field. A twitter of swallows echoes over the cliffs. As we move towards the earth’s gilding there is the sound of leaving in the air. The winds sweep in, carrying the scent of far-flung shores. The horizon yawns with promise and I wonder what a bird feels as it gazes on that expanse. When does the leaving begin? Perhaps its starts with a faint humming in the blood, a tremble of expectation. Perhaps it begins with a twitch in the wing, a distance in the eye. Until the urge can’t be contained any longer and the bird must stretch its wings. So many birds feeling that longing, that pull of invisible threads across the planet, becoming ever tauter until they can’t be resisted. Maybe these autumn wind storms aren’t wind at all, maybe they are the flutter of thousands of wings, churning the air with excitement.
I hear my first blackbird sing after the silence of August and I wonder what the blackbird feels. Does it sense the urge to movement and feel loss that it is staying behind? Does this vibration of leaving account for the expectancy I feel in autumn too? Perhaps my body yearns for a journey while scarcely knowing it. As a species we have wandered for so much longer than we have stayed still. Following the herds, following the weather, following the tides. When those early people settled in one place, they may have felt relief, but also sadness that they would no longer roam. Maybe we have lost something in our safer, more stationary lives.
But we still have cause to roam. 3% of the world’s people are migrants, moving not at the urging of the seasons, but for a better life, for escape, for survival. We have roamed for centuries and there are those of us for whom the journey is not over. Some of us are the blackbird, destined to stay in one place. Some of us are the swallow, with no choice but to move. September has always meant change. For a third of my life it meant moving on – another year at school, college, university – with all the promise and apprehension that held. Now I stay still but the urge to movement is still there, somewhere deep inside.
Of course September is not only a time of leaving, but also a time of arrival. Just as those threads pull our summer visitors away, they reel in others who will accompany us into the depths of winter. Each season brings its own gifts, and there is a sweetness in the inevitability of each wave of coming and going. The herald of autumn may be dead, but the old poplar is strewing its leaves on the grass like offerings of gold. Life is all arrivals and departures. People move into our lives and are gone. Things alter unexpectedly. The world of my childhood is no longer the world I live in now. We watch and feel the joy and sorrow of each change. It gives us our sense of history, of having lived. But even if we stay in one place, we are never really still. We are coming and going too. We are the bird soaring into the horizon and the bird arriving home. And someone, somewhere, rejoices at our passage.