With the arrival of September, Autumn begins here in our pleasant verdant valley. Autumn, a season at once bringing the farming year towards its close with luscious fruits, the emptiness of fields, the sadness of decaying blooms, the first cold mornings and the fall of golden leaves. A “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” as Keats put it in his poem ‘To Autumn’.
While the names of months and days are capitalised in good English, the names of the seasons are considered generic nouns, so they are usually written with the initial letter in lower case. However, where a writer or poet like Keats chooses to personify a season by giving it a particular personality, the name of the season becomes a character’s name, a proper noun, so it is capitalised. But such is the influence of these seasonal characters upon our countryside, and so profound is the effect of the imposition of their individual temperaments upon our own lives, that we believe their personalities should be acknowledged every bit as much as the months and days; perhaps more so. Hence, throughout this piece (and in many of BridgeNature.org’s articles) the names of the seasons have been capitalised.
Today we recognise four seasons, but it has not always been so: while Summer and Winter have been accepted as distinct seasons for over a thousand years, it was not generally considered that there were two other seasons in our year until around the 16th century. In this country, up until that time, the late Summer period before Winter set in was simply known as ‘Harvest’, derived from the old Norse word ‘haust’ meaning ‘to gather or pluck’. During the industrial revolution, as more and more people moved from the English countryside to the new cities, the term lost its seasonal connotations and became just a word to describe the distant countryside activities of reaping and gathering of crops out in the fields.
Although Chaucer used the name Autumn (derived from Latin) in his writings in the 14th century, it was not until the 16th century that the word became widely used to describe the third season of the year. ‘Fall of Leaf’ became another popular, and more descriptive way to describe it too, and similarly ‘Spring of the Leaf’ acquired usage as a term for the beginning of Summer. Over the years they were reduced to the shortened forms of Fall and Spring respectively, and when the hordes of migrants travelled from these shores to the new continents of America and Australia they took those names with them. In Britain, for reasons unknown, Autumn remained more widely used than Fall; and it still is, much to the disappointment of Fowlers, the guardians of proper English, who prefer the more picturesque ‘fall’ (with a lower case f).
Fall of Leaf is surely the more poetic of the English names for the third season of the year; but in that name, and Autumn too, there is a sense of melancholy and ending, which conveys none of the joy, relief and satisfaction of the harvest: traditionally a happy time of year with feasting, singing and celebration when the work was done.