A nod to Autumn

Mist over fields
Looking out of my study window: autumn mist shrouds the fields – 23 September 2014

Autumn is here.

But how do we know?

Google has a new doodle so it must be so.

My Oxford English Dictionary (OED) says autumn is “the season after summer and before winter”.

Hmm… okay. And summer is the season after spring and before autumn, and winter the season after autumn and before spring?

Well, yes! Thankfully, the OED has a little more to each entry, keeping me from falling into a definitional whirlpool from which I might never escape.

Summer, for the OED, is “the season after spring and before autumn, when the weather is warmest” and winter is “the coldest season of the year, after autumn and before spring”. (For completeness, they define spring as “the season after winter and before summer”.)

So, for the OED it’s all about temperature. To be fair, this is from the compact OED. The maxi version may go further.

If it’s about temperatures, who could know better than the weather people (aka meteorologists and not to be confused with The Weather Girls whose climate was altogether more complicated than most). There is a useful blog entry by the UK Met Office (they drop the ‘eorological’ and I don’t blame them, it’s quite a mouthful) which explains that:

In meteorological terms, it’s fairly simple – each season is a three month period. So, Summer is June, July and August; Autumn is September, October and November, and so on.

Of course, this is fairly arbitrary, but provides a consistent basis for the Met Office, as the holder of the UK’s national weather and climate records, to calculate long term averages and provide seasonal climate summaries from year to year.

Their definition is for statistical record-keeping and comparison. So, for the Met Office, it’s been autumn for over three weeks.

So why are we, and Google, only just getting round to it?

The Met Office blog helps us out again . It’s all down to defining the periods of seasons in terms of astronomical events, specifically equinoxes and solstices. Last night, British Summer Time, was the equinox at the start of autumn, unsurprisingly called the autumn equinox.

This astronomically inspired definition makes sense. According to Wikipedia: “an equinox occurs when the plane of Earth’s equator passes through the center [US spelling!] of the Sun.” This only happens twice a year because the Earth’s axis is tilted relative to the plane of its orbit around the Sun. This leads to different lengths of day as the year progresses and, in turn, to differences in how much warming we get from the Sun. And this underpins weather and climate, and thus the seasons.

But for most of us the seasons are marked by what we experience. Two weeks ago, Monty Don, presenter of the BBC’s Gardeners’ World said autumn seemed to have been “two to three weeks ahead of time”. For him, and countless other gardeners, the seasons are marked by what is happening in nature.

Back to the Met Office blog and another new word for me: “phenology – the process of noting the signs of change in plant and animal behaviour”. Looking out of my study window, there is a lush, green landscape shrouded in mist. In the hedgerow over the way I can see blackberries, rosehips and haws – plenty of ‘wild’ fruit for all.

Mist. Fruit. This feels very phenological to me.

And so to a final and poetic definition. (Poetry often brings out meaning more powerfully than mere prosaic definition. I cover this in my workshop on what poetry can teach us about writing better, more engaging, and more influential prose for reporting, promotional and marketing purposes.)

So, the last words on autumn – and, for me, possibly the most satisfying definition – come from John Keats’ ode “To Autumn”:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun