Bright greens have become the warmth of orange and yellow with a scattering of red, and bronze glows in the light of a low sun. Autumn is upon us, the land transforming as the leaves change colour and then fall. A stiff wind brings a chill, tearing leaves from their flimsy anchors, swirling them into the air and around the house. They gather in gutters and corners, collect under bushes. A few tenacious ones cling to the end of branches, delaying the inevitable.
If I had to choose I would say autumn is my favourite season, the drop in temperature leading to the colours that define it. There’s still some heat left over from summer, but that fades with the light and nights turn cold. When I was a child the falling of the leaves meant running through woodland paths coated with colour, the promise of cosy nights in, curtains drawn against the darkness, lights glowing into it. It meant looking forward to Christmas, when a tree with needles rather than leaves was transformed into a sparkling wonder with shiny ornaments and twinkling lights.
Autumn is when I miss the northern hemisphere. New Zealand’s native forests are made of non-deciduous trees and stay the same green all year round. There are some interlopers, proudly displaying their invasiveness in bright colour, scattered along roads and in gardens, but not in the forest. There, although the bark of the native silver beech shines against darker trunks as does that of its cousin, the birch of the north, its leaves fall haphazardly through the year, and they don’t change colour before they do. A walk through the forest is the same in any season.
I miss walking in the woodlands of my birth country, kicking through piles of the fallen. Maybe one sign of adulthood is when you hesitate to do that, think briefly about what the pile may hide that you will stub your toe on, know that you will end up with your shoes full of scraps of twigs and will have to pause your walk to empty them. I do it anyway.
The winter of my childhood was frosty mornings, maybe a snowfall to turn the dullest scene into a wonderland. Winter was for wearing wool layers, the steam of breath drifting around as you walked, for warming bowls of soup or stew, the weather the other side of strong walls. In most parts of New Zealand winter is wet and wind rather than snow and frost. In the seasonally topsy-turvy southern hemisphere, there is no festive celebration to break the monotony that winter soon settles into and it seems to drag on for months, often compounded by a late start to spring.
There is a stillness to a wood in winter, where even birds, fluffed against the cold, move only when they need to. The bleak has always appealed to me, whether the stark beauty of skeleton trees defined against a crystal-clear winter sky, or the endless merging of bare branches into the distance of woodland, yet a Kiwi in Sheffield hates it when the trees die every year.
Snowdrops are the harbinger of spring, their tiny heads tenaciously poking through bare soil. The colour of spring is yellow, the slim green of a daffodil stalk blooming into it to trumpet the arrival of warmer weather (although I remember one spring my sister running outside to brush a late snowfall from the yellow heads in the garden before they broke under the unseasonal weight). The flowers of the forsythia spring golden along thin branches before they are hidden beneath the vivid green of new leaves. A friend living in Sweden lamented how it flowered late there, as does the season, for her a symbol of the dislocation she felt living in a country she knew she could never call home.
Blue is the colour of late spring, carpets of it in bells under trees, dancing in the light of a sun filtering through bright new leaf growth. It spreads for miles throughout the woodlands of Britain, a plush shag pile stunning in its beauty. In New Zealand I have to settle for pictures that cannot do it justice and cause a pang of nostalgic homesickness – there are no bluebells here, the only things carpeting the forest floor being moss and ferns, green against ubiquitous green.
Summer bursts in a riot of colour, turning gardens into picturesque works of art. But this art is tame and I can look for only so long, whereas I never tire of watching the wind sweep rain across the moors, trees bending with it, and I can watch grass flowing over an open plain, rippling and swaying with the tide of the wind, for hours. The beauty of a flower is transient, its bright colour quickly dulls as the life drains from it, edges curling brown, petals dropping. Before long the trees will claim their beauty and the colours of autumn will return.