Sunday, October 9, 2011

Autumn's Melancholy Explained

It's back again, that slightly depressed feeling. It always hits in October. I want to go home. I want my mama and daddy. I need to be nurtured, petted, and babied.

Since no one in my house will indulge that particular fantasy, I'll just have to do it myself. And I will be going home to see my parents in two weeks. It always gets me over the hump.

My oldest daughter and I were talking about it the other day, and she said she read somewhere that there's an explanation for the feeling. So I googled, "Why do people feel melancholy in autumn?" Here's the answer I got, and I think it's a pretty good one. What do you think?

The sights, sounds and smells of fall stir the soul, but delight is mixed with melancholy, says Michael McCarthy
Saturday, 6 November 2010

I think it's all down to melancholy. If you try and work out what the special attraction of autumn is, I think that, ultimately, you come up with a mood.
Melancholy can mean outright depression or dejection, but the word does have a range of overtones and what I mean in the context of September, October and November, and how we feel about the period, is a sort of sadness which is not entirely unwelcome; a sort of sober, slowing-down of the spirit, leaving us much given to reflection.
Of course, for some people autumn won't mean a thing other than the boring fact that it's not summer any more, and they might see it as merely an intense work or school interlude between the beach and Christmas, with longer nights and worsening weather; or maybe the time when the football season starts to get serious.
But for anyone capable of looking up from their screen, for anyone in the slightest way alive to the rhythms of the natural world and its sights and sounds and smells, autumn has a peculiar personality of its own which is powerfully attractive.
Most obviously, the world rebeautifies itself: the autumn foliage becomes resplendent. I've never heard anyone remark on quite how curious this phenomenon is, in biological terms, given everything negative we know about ageing.
The leaves of trees are welcome and wonderful in their green iridescence when they burst out in April, but by June their bloom is gone, and by August they're plain dull. With most life forms, that would be it. We could expect no more. Instead, by a pure accident of organic chemistry, leaves are reborn, as they start to die, in an astonishing range of colours that puts their spring birth to shame.
It's as if they have another spring in another palette, the second one even more vibrant than the first: terracotta, russet, bronze, purple, gold. Even that subtlest of shades, old gold – gold with a burnished look, gold with a tiny hint of red, almost the quintessential autumn colour (look at Stourhead in Wiltshire, pictured opposite).
And this is decay. This is the winding-down of everything, towards death. Yet the great gift of autumn is that the beginning of the end doesn't feel like decay, at least on the surface, it doesn't feel like a crumbling and a rottening and a collapse from within; it feels like the arrival of a world of new sensations.
The first one is mist. To me, autumn mist is something you smell before you see it; it's the initial hint of a tang on the air as you leave the house in the morning, just creeping into the nostrils, and you know in your tissues at once that summer is over and the world is turning; then you notice that the sunshine is hazy. I've sensed it as early as the last week of August, but I would guess it's mainly a feature of September.
The next one's smoke. This is another tang that drifts to the nostrils after the summer, the smoke of wood fires (and coal fires in the past), the smoke of bonfires; you start to smell that in October, and see it hanging in the air on still days of high pressure. A third one is frost: different again. Not just a whitening, but a hardening and a sharpening of everything, yet welcome, when it first arrives, with the pleasant surprise of novelty.
Mist, smoke and frost; yet so much more. Tastes: the earthy taste of mushrooms; the rich soft crumble of roasted chestnuts; the dark pungency of game; the resinous bite of juniper berries. Sounds: the swishing of kicked leaves and their crunch underfoot; the roar of a gale; the metallic cough of a pheasant echoing through the woodlands. Sights: the foliage, of course, in all its glory, but less obvious things: the softening of the sunlight; the faded blue of harebells; the reddening of ripening apples; the understated dun shades of chrysanthemums.
All of this is gladdening, a source of the most enormous pleasure, but would you not agree that it doesn't quite lift the heart the way spring flowers or birdsong do?
For bluebells and birdsong have hope about them, a promise of what's to come, whereas the signs of autumn, for all their splendour, are the signs of a world that is dying; and there's no escaping that.
There's where the melancholy comes from: the subtext, the underlying, insistent theme beneath the year's last burst of beauty is that this is only occurring because the end is not far off, the end that comes to all living things, including us. If we look, in the autumn foliage we can see our own mortality: a beauty with a sadness never far away.


wayside wanderer said...

This is a great fall picture you posted. Love the shadows and leaves.

I can't really relate to feeling this way in the fall. The cooler temps usually give me a burst of energy if I can get past the allergy medicine. But I do feel this settle on me in the winter. I'm glad you get to go home soon!

GretchenJoanna said...

Thank you for posting this piece,'s a topic worth thinking about. Normally I'm not sad in the fall, what with the rain taking over one of the chores I can never keep up with in summer, and wood fires to sit by. But this year I'm feeling the melancholy for various reasons, and maybe it's nice to have nature sympathizing with me.

Sara Lorayne said...

What a marvelously reflective and insightful post. I enjoyed reading this.

grannimcd said...

I always get the desire to go back to New England in the fall. And, believe it or not, it really doesn't have anything to do (at least I don't think it does) with the changing colors of the foliage - although it is beautiful. Nor the fact that I am/was a Yankee. But every fall whether or not the weather gets cooler where I am - and it certainly doesn't here in Texas, I just wanna go north and east. sigh.....

debbie bailey said...

Linda, I feel your pain. Why aren't you subscribed to my blog, and when are you going to get one? Come back and visit!