Summer is slowly fading in the forest. Though the foliage appears as lush as it was at midsummer, everywhere there are small signs of transformation. The meadow is no longer dense with summer flowers and the sumptuous blossoms of the rhododendrons are gone. Instead, there are dried seed heads where blooms would have been. The birds are muted and difficult to see. The bats are invisible. The opulent red berries of the rowan punctuate the greenery, while lilac heather blooms in clumps beneath the trees. A squirrel that inhabits the trees above our cabin obsessively gathers beech nuts, showering the verandah with shells like hailstones. Sun still washes the forest and during the day the sky is baby blue and cloudless. But the clear, star-speckled nights are chilled and silent.
Flowers have a flighty, exaggerated beauty: lavish, unruly and destined to be short-lived. But there is a different kind of allure to the burnt browns and pearly silvers of the seed heads. They are slender and skeletal, or brittle and gnarled, poised to crumble to dust in your fingers. Behind the visible transformations, there is a sense that there are hidden labours taking place within the forest, secret preparations for the autumn and winter to come.
To me, September has always been a time of transformation. Perhaps there is something instinctual about this, a sense memory of the change of the season and the transition to winter. But more prosaically, it’s a recollection of the return to school after the long summer holidays, when there was always an opportunity to return transformed, a different person to the one that left in July. Classmates would grow and change during the summer and we would all go back with new clothes, new supplies, new hope for the school year to come. And though I no longer get those luxuriously long holidays, September still seems like the time when change arrives. It’s an end to the blowsy exhibitionism of summer and a turning inwards to the snug serenity of autumn. I feel the shift within, a murmur of relief after the immodesty of summer.
I’ve always been attracted to the concept of transformation. Transformation is the thing I love about stories. Whatever the genre, the one thing that makes a story satisfying for me is to watch the metamorphosis of the characters within it. I’ll never enjoy a purely plot-driven narrative in the same way as a more intricate character-based tale. This is the joy of reading. To read about other people so that we can learn about other ways of being. And it’s the joy of creation. To witness the ways in which we transform our characters on the page.
Nature offers us spectacular transformations. The brutal annihilation of the caterpillar, turned to pulp in its chrysalis to emerge as a butterfly. The glorious eruption of the autumn leaves, before they wither and crumble beneath our feet. But for us, the transformation is often quieter. We may not realise we’re going through the process of change until it’s over and then we’re amazed at how different our lives have become. When we’re younger, we can’t wait for transformation: to become older, to grow more independent. When we’re older, we often resist it. We may say we want to change, but don’t want to experience the discomfort of discarding the parts of us we no longer need and forging new ones.
But change is inevitable and reading or writing about it allows us to experience it with only temporary discomfort. We can try out different lives, different adventures and immerse ourselves in all of the diverse things that are possible (or impossible, depending on the genre) within the safety of our imaginations. So that when we do decide to transform ourselves, or when transformation comes unbidden, we know that there is a path to follow, or we have the confidence to create our own.