The jig of the leaves

The end of October is wind and half-light and a carnival of leaves.  The gale roars in and fallen leaves come to life once more.   They gambol over the grass, leaping and swirling like spring lambs.  When the wind gusts, they are swept into a rowdy gang, sprinting across the ground.  Lone leaves float against the sky, bobbing and flickering as they twirl.  Those caught up in the leaf-mass try to rise too but can’t.  Instead, scores of grounded leaves wave from their mulching places.  Meanwhile the trees that released them creak and rustle, undulating on the side-lines of the park, as though cheering on the final jig of their offspring.

There are fewer leaves on the ground this autumn.  October’s dry weather has left many crumbling to dust.  There have been few of the mists and storms I would associate with the season.  The colours have been muted and brittle.  If anything, it has been a grey month.  I have noticed the brutish beauty of sow thistle and the delicate star-burst seed-heads of groundsel.  Indigo mornings studded by Orion and Pegasus.  Garish orange dawns splodged with dark grey clouds.  A grey squirrel tries twice to scale the surrounding wall in the park and twice falls off, before shimmying up the poplar to the tallest branches to re-assert his street cred.  Starlings gather on the same TV aerial in town each morning and the wings of the seagulls are gilded by the sunrise.

This is the close down of the year.  The hatches are battened down, the unfinished chores are as complete as they will ever be.  The hearth is swept and a fire lit to welcome the ancestors.  Halloween itself is still.  The wind has vanished.  There is not a breath of it, not a sway of branch or a drop of leaf.  Fallen leaves are wet after a rare rainfall in the night, making them particularly vibrant.  Only the birds are restless, a flock of songbirds chittering at the tips of the poplars, crows swooping and barking.  I think about the ending cycle, the disrobing of the landscape, and all the industry that will carry on but won’t be seen, as leaves are broken down and nature renews herself.

Halloween night is fluid.  The year is neither old nor new, but in-between.  So the dead might visit and we can meet those who have not yet been born.  A feast is prepared with a place set for the ancestors.  The previous year is released in a flash of flame and a curl of candle smoke, the new year welcomed with the shuffle of Tarot cards.  I have entered the world of the dark, that delicious time of dreaming.  Easel and paints are calling me.  New stories call from the darkness.  My box of dreams is ready, waiting to receive the seeds of the things that are soon to be born.

 

Walking Through Autumn

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In the dark of the year, the landscape glows.  I struggle through mornings that seem deeper and darker than last year, into luminous dawns of pastel pink and baby blue.  The sun is low molten gold, infusing stones and leaves with honey.  The air is chill but the scenery warms my soul.  It is as though nature knows that we need the memory of autumn’s fiery patchwork to warm us through winter.

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The maples are autumn’s show-offs.  If my eye is caught by a particularly vibrant display I can be almost sure it is a maple, with its blazing sunset palette.  Horse chestnuts offer fat golden fingers edged with rust.  The lindens are wisps of tissue against dark branches, leaves becoming transparent as they turn.  And the beeches are a radiance of colours from delicate greens and yellows to glossy bronze.  Paths become tunnels of gold, carpeted in fallen leaves and overhung by burnished branches.  The ground disappears beneath a crust of copper.  To walk through autumn is to walk an uncertain path, hidden by drifts of kaleidoscopic leaves.

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In this season, the old cemetery is a gilded place.  Pools of gold against a canvas of fading green.  Shafts of sunlight striping the fallen leaves.  In the old part of the cemetery, eroded stones slant under saffron foliage.  Fallen markers lie broken among sprinkled leaves.  Some graves have become melded to ivy, its roots like foliate inscriptions accenting the words.  Those graves that lie within their own shallow enclosures brim with leafy coverlets, as though the occupant has drawn up a comforter.

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I’ve come to the cemetery on the Eve of the Dead.  Halloween is when our ancestors are honoured and invited to visit.  I have always loved cemeteries.  I find them neither sad nor scary.  They are places of peace, of undisturbed nature.  This is the place where my parents’ ashes were scattered and where I have said goodbye to others I have known.  I’m struck, suddenly, by just how many people lie here.  In a way, they are all my ancestors: not of blood but of place.  A community of people that shaped the town that shaped me and birthed the people I have known and will know.  The parts of them that remain are only imprints, but their breath is in the breath that stirs the trees, their essence is in the earth on which I walk.

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I wander the old paths to the gentle caw of crows.  A magpie scolds me from the branches of a sycamore and follows me to the next.  A robin flutters in and out of a hedge.  I have a pebble in my pocket that I took from the beach at spring equinox as a symbol of the light half of the year.  I had no plans what I would do with it, but I’m drawn to a small moss covered gravestone that tilts towards the ground, forgotten in a dark part of the cemetery.  I place the stone on top, leaving a little of its light behind.

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Halloween has always been my favourite festival.  Its symbolism has all the complexity of autumn.  The old year is gone, all its hopes and dreams stripped away.  But the new year hasn’t yet begun.  This night has a fluidity, a sense of what was and what might be.  It is the start of the dreaming darkness, full of possibilities that haven’t yet been imagined.  As I walk the old paths, I am walking through layers of history.  This is a place that has seen the turn of many years, the turn of countless leaves.   It is a place where the stories that have ended endow those that are to come.

 

A harvest festival

In the forest, the earth has succumbed to a peculiar alchemy. Far below the canopy, in twisted root and shady hollow, the fruits of the wood have bloomed. These flowers of autumn are strange blossoms: bruised purples, sickly yellows, blood reds, viscous whites. Waxy, slimy, gnarled blooms with names that hint at death and decay: fly agaric, sickener, shaggy inkcap, brittlegill. Some are delicate sprinkles as though a character from a fairy tale has carelessly scattered a trail of crumbs. Some are enormous, meaty things, the size of dinner plates, crawling with insects and already rotting inside.   They are the stuff of fairy tales, stools waiting for their toads.

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It is the sunset of the year, when the seasons once more inch towards balance. At the autumn equinox, the hours of darkness and daylight will be the same, but the year then tips into darkness. If we’re lucky, this is a time of plenty, when we gather in our final harvest to see us through the winter. This is when the year suddenly makes sense. The work of growing and nurturing pauses and the shape of the past year can be seen. And just as the fruits of the fungi emerge from the earth, so our dreams are ripe for foraging too.

At Candlemas, I took a handful of seeds and swaddled them in darkness. These were the dreams that emerged during the dark months, the ideas and the projects I wanted to work on this year. At harvest, I will unwrap them and consider whether they have been fulfilled. I’ll look back and wonder whether I did all I could to nurture them. I’ll celebrate those that have reached their potential. And then I’ll let them go. For this is a transition time, when we must leave behind what no longer serves us and begin to seek the seeds of new dreams.

My dreams this year were dreams of creation. I wanted to write and I wanted to paint. In fact, words took precedence over images. A dozen short stories written, my novel readied for submission to agents, an outline of a non-fiction book produced. This year writing has been about work: completing projects and submitting them. There has been a modicum of external recognition – a short story publication coming soon, another publication that almost came off before the magazine stalled, invitations to guest blog. I haven’t achieved all my writing goals for the year (the biggest being to find an agent), but I’m happy with the fruits of my harvest.

My painting has been about pure enjoyment.  I’ve resisted the temptation to see them as something that I might one day sell.  The paintings have been personal.  Some of you may remember that I have a vision of myself as a landscape painter  but haven’t been able to stop painting portraits.  Some of you suggested that I could combine the two. So landscapes have begun to creep into my portraits. And unexpectedly I’ve had my first offer of a sale.

Have you ever been to a harvest festival, where the best of the harvest is gathered, displayed and celebrated? Well, I’d like invite you to a harvest festival of creativity in which we’ll celebrate what we’ve created this year. In the comments, please share your greatest creative achievement of the year (big or small, whatever means the most to you) and insert a link to your favourite post that you’ve written in the last twelve months.  (For those of you in parts of the world where harvest is still months away, we’ll call it a celebration of spring!) My contribution to the festival is a coming magazine publication that I’m particularly pleased with (of which more soon) and a link to my favourite post I’ve written this year: The small wild things  And now, over to you. Don’t be shy about your achievements, this is a celebration!