Sunday book review – Autumn by Melissa Harrison (ed)

51N6aHhe9ZLI’ve reviewed Spring and Summer here, and liked them, so it won’t be a surprise that I enjoyed Autumn too.

The book follows the same model as the earlier two seasons – an anthology of writings from famous writers mixed in with offerings from current writers.  It’s still a good model and worked as well as ever in this season.

Nobody really likes autumn – do they? It’s the worst of all seasons – not as warm and sunny as summer and not as cold and sunny as winter and not a season of promise like spring. Autumn is only redeemed by those odd days that remind one of what is slipping away or those that promise a proper winter to come. All that dankness and the utter shock of when the days are suddenly dented as the clocks go back! Yuk!

Whereas spring is heralded by Chiffchaff song, Snowdrops and Brimstones, autumn sees the slow seeping away of most visible forms of nature as wildlife dies, migrates, pupates or hibernates.

Even the birds, the most obvious form of life, apart from those large dead-looking things known as trees, mostly just slowly fade away and are replaced by a few foreign thrushes and lots of ducks and geese.  You don’t hear people talking (much) about the arrival of the Redwings like they do about the Swifts, or that of the Wigeon like they do of the Cuckoo, do you?  For some birders, the great compensation is that the storms crossing the Atlantic that may cause havoc for travellers and businesses may deposit a few Yankee rarities on western facing coasts and islands – an  American warbler or Least Sandpiper can cheer up the gloomiest of autumns.

Autumn’s saving grace is that all that productivity of spring and summer is now laid out for us to exploit. We can go fox-hunting (at least, we could), wildfowling, shooting Pheasants, picking mushrooms (but not in the New Forest and look out for the toadstools!), apples, sloes and blackberries. Oh yes, and we can play conkers.  And there are a few days when, sometimes, the autumn colours are nearly as good as a the fall colors in a poor year in New England – but even then you have to be lucky. Get your timing wrong and the wind has stripped the trees of all their colourful leaves which rarely look as good on the floor as they do on the trees.

So autumn presents a challenge to the nature writer. How does this book cope? Pretty well really.

There is not that much about mists (and I’d have liked rather more on mellow fruitfulness) and very little about the fun of going out with your gun to kill some birds. It’s surely not that long ago when such an anthology would have had a lot of accounts of your real countryman stepping out to kill wild creatures.  I would have liked some more of that, if only for old times’ sake and because there is some fine writing on the subject.

Instead we have a collection of tales, some of which are not really particularly autumnal, that will delight the naturalist and provide consolation in these unsatisfying months. Daphne Pleace’s stags, Jon Dunn’s missing chickens, Julian Jones in the kitchen and John Lewis-Stempell’s walk in woods stood out for me amongst the modern works and I liked the passages by the Woodhope Naturalists’ Field Club (1887), Clare Leighton (1933) and of course John Clare and Dylan Thomas too, from the older selections.

There’s not quite enough poetry in these anthologies for me but Matt Merritt’s Evidence (Long-eared Owls) is a gem.


Autumn: an anthology for the changing seasons, edited by Melissa Harrison, is published by The Wildlife Trusts.

Inglorious: conflict in the uplands by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury – for reviews see here.  Updated paperback edition now out.

Remarkable Birds by Mark Avery is published by Thames and Hudson.



10 Replies to “Sunday book review – Autumn by Melissa Harrison (ed)”

  1. I love Autumn and I don’t think I am alone in that.

    For a very different take on Autumn, try the poem of that name by Vernon Scannell.

  2. Autumn is far and away my favourite season. You just can’t beat a bit of “mist and mellow fruitfulness”.

  3. I love Sunday Book Review. I’m particularly loving these seasonal anthologies. I’m particularly particularly loving being in the Autumn book and getting a mention from Mark. Thank you very much, Mark. Though I don’t agree with your “nobody likes Autumn”. It’s the liminal season… and can be so beautiful. Mists and mellow fruitfulness in both literal and metaphorical senses. Working as an (eco)psychotherapist, Autumn comes up again and again as an important time for memory, reflection and review for clients.

    I do agree about the poetry, especially given the range of excellent contemporary eco-poetry of recent years and with poets like Alice Oswald, Gillian Clarke, and many others writing now. It seems, somehow, to get missed in discussions about the so-called ‘new nature writing’.

    The Resurgence book Earth Songs, edited by Peter Abbs and published by Green Books, is a cornucopia of this work, with enough in it for a lifetime’s reading. I highly recommend it for anyone who loves reading about nature. Poetry, if nothing else, is short, so great for bed time reading.

  4. Ooops I clicked on the icon for “dislike”in error.! Unfortunately there isn’t an “undo” button that I can find. In this part of NE Scotland we had a run – at least a few years back – of wet, dull summers continuing into slightly colder but still wet autumns , contiinuing thus right into winter. Those years were tedious.
    Autumn puts a full stop to the lushness of summer (it tends to get lush even if wet or even particularly if wet) and if, like me, you are a wild food forager (of sorts, I don’t make a living out of it), there are berries to make into jams and jellies and – perhaps of more interest to some – liqueurs; there are mushrooms and herbs to dry for future use. And, since I don’t cope well with extreme heat, the scent of Autumn is that time when I feel renewed energy – I can pull on that sweater and my walking shoes and get out into the tang of decaying leaves.

  5. I join the chorus of people admiring autumn as quite their favourite season of the year. It holds far more promise than cold and damp spring in my part of the country, and unfaithful summer too; with it’s sun today and showers tomorrow attitude. Autumn is entirely consistent. It has a little light rain, much mist, and a little flash of sun to keep my bones warm. The hedgerows bear their fruit, and fill with sparrows; the woods blaze with colour, and the fields give up their bounty to human and bird alike. After all of that, it culminates in the blaze of Yule and Hogmanay too. How could anyone not love that?

  6. Autumn here is still bright sun and fluffy cloud at the moment. Two mewing buzzards calling above me which then drew my attention to a peregrine flying over and we’ve still reasonable numbers of hirundines.

    A nice fresh Red Admiral enjoying fallen apples, a Speckled Wood past its best, and a mischievous weasel frolicking around the pampas grass on the lawn!

    So, I can’t complain at the moment and I do love the autumnal colours which are beginning to develop in the tree leaves ahead of their ‘fall’. The American term for Autumn being ‘fall’ is an appropriate description perhaps?

    It’s also the time of year when we see the return of Hen Harrier to our local moorland roost, so there are things to look forward to? That assumes of course our birds have survived upland breeding attempts ….

  7. Autumn is the time when some of our most beautifully coloured moths are on the wing. Thorns, Sallows and Umbers for example are all lovely creatures.

  8. Hi Mark – great review as always; I will have to buy a bigger house to hold all these wonderful books you keep drawing our attention to. As well as the wandering vagrant rarities those clouds of tired thrushes on the east coast must make quite a spectacle? Eric Simms’ book on British Thrushes references these at length if I remember rightly.

    A couple of observations about trees (what else?). Re. “the autumn colours are nearly as good as a the fall colors in a poor year in New England” – I’ve never been to New England but I’d argue all are just as good, just different. The subtler shows invite detailed inspection and can be very rewarding close up. An ash doesn’t have to be a sugar maple to be beautiful, and I find many claims that this or that tree shows little or no autumn colour are often not borne out in reality – even a sycamore can put on a good show. If you ever get a chance have a look at a book by a guy called Benjamin Perkins in the early eighties titled simply Trees – he does wonderful paintings of twigs and leaves through all the seasons. Blew my little mind when I first read it.

    Where your observation about having to be lucky with the timing is most true I think is with oak, which turns a glorious golden biscuity colour for a few days (different days on different trees). Incomparable on sunny days but blink and you might miss it. Ah now you’ve given me something about autumn to look forward to!

    For a tree whose autumn leaves can look even better on the ground than on the tree try white poplar – they can have the most wonderful patterns you’d scarcely appreciate until they fall to earth.

    As a lover of trees I’m definitely in the loving autumn camp. Not just for the colours of the leaves but for the lovely buds lurking underneath the leaves ready for next year. To me autumn is as much a season of renewal as spring – all those seeds, berries and fruits. It’s also an antidote from the fag end of a dry summer when the foliage all looks a bit tired, and a relief from the relentless march of the more virulent tree diseases. That young elm that has survived to show autumn colours will at least still be there to see another spring.

  9. I love Autumn. Low sun, amazing light, the real shape of trees emerging from that dull green mass of leave, mists, colours, the shape of seedheads, jumpers and ankle boots, cosy evenings in front of the fire, busy flocks of wintering birds.

    I do miss flowers, dragonflies and butterflies but they will be back, and be all the more special because they are here so briefly.

    1. Abi – thank you. Well, today it’s going to be 31C in some places! Not very autumnal at all. I like September a lot. October is bearable, November is probably my least favourite month (good job it only has 30 days).

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