The year has well and truly turned. We are now at the half-way point between the end of summer proper, and the festive season of Yule, Christmas, whatever you call it. I never got on well with autumn growing up: a mixture of ME and generally overdoing it in the summer months always lead me to end up in a pretty ‘orrible state by the end of October. Then the academic year of study took over – where October took over as the start of the year’s efforts and the summer was a sort-of-break. Then came me leaving full time education and the start of full time trying to make a living. I always wondered what would happen to me in the autumn.
I need this time of year: It is a welcome break from the cycle of frenetic activity in the summer months. The push of seed sowing, tending and cultivating, harvesting and making slows* and by this point in the year my event medicine work has stopped and the thought of sitting around on sun-baked fields waiting for something to happen is a distant memory, not to be repeated for another 6 months.
I find myself walking a lot – mainly in the woods. I’ve always loved deciduous woodland, especially in the autumn. Probably comes from being brought up in the middle of a mixed Oakwood. When I start my autumn muse, the leaves have not yet started turning colour; Autumn for me begins with August finishing and everyone going back to school or work. The land looks dusty, tired, and somewhat ‘backendish’. But in spite of that, the hedgerows explode with fruit – Blackberries, Crabapples, Damsons, Sloes, Hawthorne, Elder, Rosehips – all swathe the hedgerows and lanes in blobs of bright appealing colours. It feels like every time I go out with the dogs for a routine walk it seems like I stay out for hours – and come home laden with baskets or bags of *something*. But strangely, this isn’t work – it’s an important part of my spiritual life. Do I need to bring all this bounty home? Perhaps not. The Hawthorne, Elder and Rosehips are all medicinal, and contribute hugely to my medicine stores for the autumn. Other things, I *don’t* need, but are just nice – made into wines, preserves, syrups or maybe dried for later use.
As the days shorten and the weather worsens, the woods explode with mushrooms and fungi. I mark the start of autumn by the appearance of Fly Agaric – about the same time as the Autumn Equinox here in North Wales. The nice thing with foraging for fungi is that, unlike plants where you wait all year for a plant or patch to fruit or mature, with fungi you never know if they’ll be out. You get better at guessing when they’ll be out but it’s never guaranteed. By the middle of October, I start coming back home with baskets of mushrooms in addition to any last fruits I find. I start to reacquaint myself with Fly Agaric, Turkey Tail, Birch Polypore, Blushing Bracket, Judas’ Ear, and many more edibles.
But fundamentally, when autumn strikes I regress into being a little boy, walking through the woods in wonder at what I find. This feeling almost becomes my life.
By engaging with the decline of the year into darkness I also notice changes within myself. The world slows down – and so does my metabolism and mind. The number of hours I sleep per night increases by 2 or 3 hours, my energy levels slump, I eat more and my waistline does grow. Whereas I used to be depressed in the autumn, I now feel enlivened and nourished. But I do notice changes and I slow down. I embrace it.
There is a term called ‘seasonal affective disorder’ that is given to those who get depressed and or tired in the autumn. I see this in a lot of ways as being nonsensical. What this term implies is that being affected by the season is in somehow a disorder. Of course, I’m also a clinician: I personally define a disorder as something that impinges upon your ability to function appropriately.
But what is appropriate in the autumn? Well, waning energy and a sense of introversion and re-evaluation is completely natural. At least it is for me. As I work hard in the summer, I need this time to just be. But the secret is that everyone does. We have evolved to be active in the summer, quiet in the winter. But as a society we have evolved to live a 24 hour lifestyle; working hard all the time, always contactable and always on the go. How toxic. The question to ask is: which is wrong; seasonal change, or a modern lifestyle?
Like so many things, we have had our very own human instinct and behaviour taken away from us and licensed back to us through the lens of benchmarking our function; like little microchips in an even bigger machine. Bugger that.
I feel a better term for this time of year is ‘Seasonal Affective Order’. We are following in the footsteps, patterns of thought, and behaviour that our ancestors have followed before us for thousands, or millions of years.
The real nub of the Seasonal Affective Order is whether our function can keep up with the demands placed on us by a modern life, family members and earning a living. What your own function is relates to your life and no-one else’s. However I invite you to look at what you do on a day-to-day basis and re-evaluate. To look at what you can manage to do to keep all the plates of your life spinning while making time to sink down into the autumn and just be.
I invite you to go for a long walk in the woods, as often as possible and to notice the world change. Nature is a better therapist than most, and observation is the key to mindfulness and development. It provides a framework upon which to hang structured reflection and self evaluation. That doesn’t mean walk into the woods full of your own thoughts and wracking your brain about your own state of mind and what your mind (and therefore the little voice on your head that keeps on talking to you) is saying. It means walk into the woods and just observe what is happening in the woods itself. The key thing here is to see not how Autumn and its changes fit into your modern life, but how you as a living being fit into your surroundings and mirror them. Learn not from yourself – how you see the world around you, but by seeing how you fit into the bigger picture – by seeing how *you* fit into the world around you.
As the days grow shorter still and winter properly takes hold a magic grips the air. The two darkest points in the year are November and January – not as one might think, December – gripped as we are in that time by the revelry of the festivities of Christmas. These are the time that energy slumps and we just want to sleep. It is a time to prop ourselves up with the support of gentle medicines (if needed) and seasonally useful food-stuffs. Yes, drinking rosehip wine is still an immune stimulant and Elderberries likely help with mood and mental function through toning the vagus nerve.
In my own descent into the dark time of year I find myself sitting by the fire a lot, drinking what I call ‘syrup teas’ – often in an attempt to use up last year’s herbal syrups that might be left over. I put 1/4 inch of syrup (Rosehip or Elderberry) in the bottom of a cup, and brew it like I would a tea. I also drink country wines and sit looking out at the darkening skies as night approaches, swathed in candlelight. This is a time of regeneration, of deep rest and renewal for a busy year ahead – next year. Enjoy it for what it is. Learn from it. And most importantly, I invite you to do what many have lost the ability to do – slow down and sink into autumn consciously and joyfully.
Enjoy your autumn!