Notes for the Season
The Carved Beech Tree & the Passing of Seasons
It is the physical act of circling a tree which lifts the spirits of a long-known poem and prompts a true consideration of the passing of seasons and the blessings of Autumn, season of mists and mellow fruitfulness…
Standing discreetly to one side, in one of the several beech woods of Hampstead Heath, is a tree whose scored bark is gradually and gracefully, year on year, losing the traces of a familiar poem carved with a steady hand, circling halfway round its girth.
Now fuzzy and faded from view, the carefully carved words begin, “Autumn, season of mists and mellow fruitfulness…”
Forced at school to learn the poem by rote (sadly not ‘by heart’) the words had long since dulled into empty sounds. To know that its author, Keats, walked these same woods – seeing, smelling and feelings these same sensations – added a welcome layer of connectedness across time. But it is the physical act of circling the tree to follow the words that helps lift the spirit of the poem out of the school book through the bark to my outward gaze.
At this, my ideal self would nod sagely at the seasonal signs and signatures all around me, whilst having a profound thought about something vaguely existential and deeply meaningful. More likely I might be preoccupied with the white noise of my own onward rushing thoughts, or still be miffed that summer is over, vainly straining to hold onto its light, warmth and bee-busy optimism, ruing the departure of the swifts and the onset of rapidly darkening evenings.
It’s easy to forget that the summer we cling to is the one that heralded the end of a spring which we had previously relished which, in its turn, we welcomed for relieving the fading months of winter.
At my best, the graffiti might awaken me to consider or, at least begin to accept with growing curiosity, the blessings of this strange, enigmatic season. Then in due course we will have to let go of the ‘mellow fruitfulness’ as the trees give way, drop their leaves to allow the first freezing fingers of winter to delve into our woods, parks and gardens.
In this way we might begin to see the seasons not as rivals successively conquering one after the other but a slow possession of knowing collaborators with autumn taking its place at its own pace, in its own time.
Or as Keats put it:
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To be honest, and perhaps true to my schoolboy self, I can’t say I love the poem; perhaps I’m not romantic enough. There aren’t many ‘thatch-eves’ around Hampstead, or indeed anywhere, but, nonetheless, the boy had a point: summer is past, autumn is here while winter waits patiently in the wings.
And I remind myself, once more, that even the seasons have their seasons…
For more on the glorious beech wood, see In Praise of the Beech Wood and the Forest Bath