The leaves on the trees are beginning to change colour, vivid yellows, chestnut-brown and scarlet are creeping across the landscape. Down at ground level flowers are being replaced by fungi and fallen acorns. Although autumn is arriving late this year due to our long, hot summer it is arriving none the less. Everything is covered in dew in the morning and last night saw the first hints of frost.
I like this time of year, the chill in the air, the velvet-black skies filled with stars so far away they might no longer exist. I like the cloudless cyan blue and hazy sunshine that greets me some days and the murky fog that clings and billows like an ethereal sail on others. Rain is not my favourite thing and we get a lot of it through autumn and winter but if there’s a decent thunderstorm or a hint of snow to come I like that too. Years of living in the countryside watching the seasons change and baring witness to the ebb and flow of life – plants, fungi, insects, birds, deer, people – has attuned my senses and instincts to nature’s patterns.
On these days when bright yet feeble sunshine casts shadows in my room and outside the window is a frenzy of activity accompanied by a cacophony of birdsong, (there are finches, scores of them, filling up on sunflower hearts), I find myself wondering how many more autumns I might see. Two years ago that thought is unlikely to have entered my consciousness. Things are different now and time cannot be guaranteed. I wonder if this is what octogenarians think about, silently knowing the days behind them outnumber the days ahead. Of course I’m not an octogenarian I’m barely half that age, so assuming there are plenty of days and many more autumns to come should be perfectly reasonable. Logic says in spite of everything I’ve escaped death at least once and in doing so should have improved prospects for the future quite considerably. But nature is non-linear and unpredictable. Autumn doesn’t come at the same time each year and it never takes the same form. We can fool ourselves as much as we like but time was never guaranteed. Anyone who has lost a child and counted every missing birthday will know this all too well.
I wonder how much of our lives is predetermined. Destiny if you like that kind of thing. I’m not a geneticist but I know from my insatiable quest for information that genes and signalling pathways play a much greater role in health and longevity than many of us realise. Much like the processes of autumn, the microbiology of leaf fall and fairy rings, most of us don’t pay too much attention to happenings at a cellular level. We see the bigger picture, leaves change colour, nights draw in and winter comes. I’d like to know how much of the path I tread is predetermined at a cellular level. My gut feel is that it’s quite a lot but I’m not sure if I want to know how many more autumns I have, at least not yet. At some point I will know because something, old age or old disease, will set the deadline for me. Unless one of life’s non-linear and unpredictable mechanisms – meteor strike, plane crash, murder, gas explosion – intervenes in the meantime.
Awareness of self, the fragility of life, the lack of control (you think you have some?) and the ultimate outcome might crush a tender spirit and drive it half insane. Perhaps that’s why, for the most part, we fill our heads with distractions. For tender spirits like me who are not easily distracted yet wish to remain mostly sane there is a balance to be struck between constant wondering and enjoying the moment. I know the pretty little robin singing outside the window in his rosy breasted splendour may not make it through this winter and if he does, the next will almost certainly be his last. Today though he is here, he is plump and well-preened and his song is heart-warmingly beautiful. Today we’re going to enjoy each other’s company – I feed him, he sings – then cross whatever winter throws at us when it’s upon us.