Tuesday, September 8, 2020

The last light of summer

Evening light.

Beneath me as I write is the sweep of the sea on the western tip of Wales. I’m sitting in the van, my whippet curled beside me, the sky paling to the thinner evening light. It’s been a bright day; the beach was busy with trippers, the campsites fuller than usual. But soon, the sun will arc to the horizon, and the last light of summer will be gone.   

My grandfather used to insist that autumn proper began with the equinox – I have his sundial still in my garden. At junior school, we marked the turning of the season with a harvest festival later in September. And I suppose horologically at least, British Summer Time will be with us till October.

But for me, the rituals that mark the transition are more secular and less scientific. The other week I put away the garden furniture and somehow knew it wouldn’t come out again. Then there’s the buying of school uniform, the ordering of an academic wall chart, the sense that September – not January - is when the year should begin. 

This summer has passed too quickly. 

My grandfather would point out that such a notion is nonsense; that the world turns at a constant speed regardless of our desires. Yet, when I saw small copper butterflies on the Coast Path today, it seemed only weeks since the first brood in spring.  And according to a birder I met, the linnets are departing, and an osprey has arrived on the Daugleddau. 

Jane says she likes the autumn and in theory, I do too: the prospect of crisp leaves under steel skies, of sloes and hips and haws, of turnip lanterns and penny for the guy…  In Northumberland, where I grew up, the season is typically dry and cold – crisp, we’d call it. Here, it brings September swells, a greyer light if warmer sea, and for me, an intangible sense of days that can never come again.

Of course, the seasons are not as rigid as our calendars or meteorologists would have them. Nor would nature regard autumn as either beginning or end. The last light of summer is no more than a poetic metaphor, resonant to a darkening sky and the lamentations of a writer no longer in the flush of his youth.

My friend, the author Jim Perrin, described the west as the landscape of loss; as where the light dies. He was drawn to the Atlantic coast in unspeakable grief at the deaths of his son and wife. As a child, my school overlooked an eastern sea; a pink sky in the morning was a fisherman’s warning, we were told. Here, all is reversed.

So as I sit and watch the clouds redden over Ramsey, I’m mindful that fair weather will follow. That the troubles of this year, its fears and fall outs, its sunshine and showers… as they say, this too will pass. I hope so, and not before long.

For in truth, I have loathed the lockdown, and all that came with it: the shrinking of our lives, the sub-surface tensions, the fibs we tell each other and ourselves to hold it all in check. If ever a summer was craved, it was this one, and yet at times, I would gladly have slept through it all. That’s somewhat dark, but it’s also truth to power of how I’ve felt and in so being, a little lighter to bear.

Tomorrow my youngest son returns to school. The world will no doubt spin as always, and the geese and fieldfares will follow it in their turn. I have builders at my house, a new study to construct. Somewhere, if I can find them, a book or two to write.

In Welsh, the word cynheaf means both autumn and harvest. That we reap what we sow has been an aphoristic earworm to my year. I worry that our pickings will be thin, that in focusing our minds, we’ve narrowed our perspectives; in our terror of the dark, we've ironically dimmed the light. 

It’s cold now. The sea is nearing and the glow from the laptop is all that remains. I should move on. My little whippet is restless, unnerved by our evening sojourn in the van. He too misses the warmth of the sun.

The last light of summer?

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