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When does autumn start?

Ben DolphinI get very excited on 1st September because this is when weather presenters announce the end of summer. Doubtless many of you in Scotland will wryly smile and say “Ha! That happened months ago!”….but despite appearances to the contrary 31st August is widely taken as the last day of summer and 1st September the first day of autumn. But can seasons run to such rigid timetables? If not, what DO they run to? Given the contentious nature of the topic I opened it up to completely unscientific debate by asking Twitter and Facebook the following:

‘For you, when does autumn start? Is it a set date or do you look for natural signs?’

Some of the early responses made me wonder if I’d taking leave of my senses by asking social media:

‘Autumn starts when the media asks when Autumn starts.’

‘Autumn in Scotland starts in July.’

‘Don’t get me started on that ‘old chestnut’ – the amount of arguments I’ve had about autumn over the years!?’

But happily, of the 202 replies I received, none provoked an argument despite there being a huge range of conflicting suggestions. And although I had my own ideas about what people might say, the results fascinated and surprised me in equal measure.

Does autumn start when the leaves and hillsides change colour?

Does autumn start when the leaves and hillsides change colour?

1st September

Seven of the 202 respondents see 1st September as the start of autumn. This date features prominently in the media because of its use by meteorologists around the world, including the UK Met Office. They see the year in terms of an annual temperature cycle rather than any other phenomena, and as there are twelve months and four seasons in a year, each season is given three calendar months. The three warmest months are the summer, the three coldest are the winter, with spring and autumn falling in between. December, January and February are the coldest months in the northern hemisphere and so form the meteorological winter, which means meteorological autumn is regarded as September, October and November.

These three-month datasets are what weather presenters are referring to when they say that this winter or that summer have been the wettest, windiest, sunniest etc on record, and without such neat seasonal divisions meteorologists and climatologists would be unable to interpret historical weather data or generate statistics year on year.

22nd September or thereabouts

Eight of the remaining 195 respondents follow the autumn equinox, this being the point midway between the summer and winter solstice (longest and shortest days). On this date both the day and night are more or less of equal length, hence the word ‘equi-nox’, which is derived from the Latin for ‘equal’ (aequus) and ‘night’ (nox). Thereafter the days get shorter than the nights, and while there might not be a perceptible drop-off in temperature for a few more weeks afterwards, for some people it represents the true start of autumn. In 2016 the equinox falls on 22nd September but because our orbit of the sun takes 365.25 days and not the 365 days of our calendar year, the date shifts slightly by a day or so each year until we insert a leap year to make up the difference.

None of the remaining 187 respondents give a precise date. They instead take their autumnal cues from what they see going on around them in the places they live, work or visit. Some are on the lookout for just one tell-tale sign but the majority are looking for two or more things, or even a comprehensive tick-list of autumn signs. However, because those signs don’t necessarily start or arrive together, most people see autumn as something that reveals itself gradually. As one person said:

‘Seasons merge, they don’t switch.’

Phenology

Nearly 70% of all respondents rely on plant or animal behaviour to announce autumn’s arrival, and they could therefore be said to be following ‘phenological autumn’. Phenology (a contraction of Phenomenology) is the study of recurring natural phenomena, specifically the seasonal behaviour of animals and plants. But because species, habitats and climates vary depending on where you are geographically, so the signs people are on the lookout for are similarly varied. As a former colleague from Spain put it:

“When I’m in Spain it is when I feel the first cold breeze on a sunny day. In Scotland it’s when leaves start changing colour since there’s a cold breeze all summer!”

By far the most popular indicator of autumn, mentioned by just under half of all respondents is the change in the colour of vegetation and especially that of the trees and upland grasses. Most refer to it in a general sense but some single out specific species like maple, beech, rosebay willowherb, blaeberry and bracken. For a smaller but still substantial number of people autumn cannot properly start until the trees are dropping their leaves. And for one person in Edinburgh there has to be just the right amount of leaf drop, in just the right place:

‘For me Autumn starts when there are enough leaves on the pavement of Blacket Avenue for me to kick/shuffle through as I walk home.’

Another sizeable contingent is taking its visual cues from the annual crop of berries, nuts and seeds. Brambles, rosehips, conkers and chestnuts all feature prominently but red rowan berries get the most mentions. For a couple of people the latter is enough to herald autumn’s arrival in itself, while others see autumn starting only after the birds have stripped the rowans bare. Surprisingly though, only 3% of all respondents mention fungi as an autumn indicator.

Does autumn start when the geese arrive from the arctic?

Does autumn start when the geese arrive from the arctic?

Animal behaviour is the next most popular phenological sign, mentioned by just under 20% of all respondents. Dew-heavy spiders’ webs are a welcome sign but nobody mentions the annual appearance of massive spiders in our houses. Too traumatic perhaps? Midges are singled out for special attention too, with respondents gleefully celebrating their demise at the hands of the first frost.

A few people are waiting to see squirrels and jays caching acorns but surprisingly, given the number of outdoorsy Scots among the respondents, only two people give red deer stags or the rut a mention. Farm animals’ behaviour is noted though, with one person saying their horses get ‘friskier’ and, as one crofter on Mull puts it:

“Autumn starts when my Luing cows start their autumn migration and bugger off every night, which was about a week ago.”

2% of respondents mention swallows as a sign of autumn, either when they form ‘gangs’ prior to their African migration or after they have all departed. But the animals that clearly make the biggest impression are geese, with an impressive 10% of all respondents mentioning either their visual spectacle or their distinctive honking calls. Other bird sounds that are specifically mentioned include rook colonies and the autumn robin with its ‘sad, sad song’.

Weather and light

A third of all respondents single out changes in the weather as a sign of autumn, in particular the general cooling down:

‘Nights below 10C.’

‘Two successive days of valley frost’

This in turn leads a good many people to say it is their choice of clothing or bedding that signifies autumn’s arrival. Some mention putting the sandals and shorts away, others bringing out their socks, cardigans and winter duvets, while a couple of people see lighting their log stoves as evidence enough. For a few people, however, their stomachs are the first things to sense autumn’s arrival:

‘COMFORT things. Thoughts turn to stew’

‘Blackberry & apple crumble’

‘A freaking desperate need for carbs!‘

This isn’t surprising as we have natural biological responses to diminishing light, coldness and the perceived scarcity of resources – a subconscious urge to over-eat! It’s reckoned to be a survival instinct that long predates modern plentiful food supplies, plus of course it warms us up considerably and generally makes us feel better.

Does autumn start with the first frost?

Does autumn start with the first frost?

Other weather signs people are watching for include mist, fog, dew and frost, all of which make reference to water’s tendency to hang around later into the day as the nights grow longer and the sun’s strength weakens. 9% of respondents pick up on just that, saying that darker days are a sign of autumn but another 9% associate the season with a unique quality of light:

‘For me it starts with a subtle change in the blue of the sky. Autumn blue is different to Summer blue.’

‘Sunlight softens and shadows lengthen’

‘I love the mellow golden light’

Weirdly though, only one person mentions the wind as a sign of autumn’s arrival.

Smell and feel

Perhaps most intriguing of all are the people who describe autumn as something vague and rather nebulous, beyond just visual or audible signs. 11% of respondents follow their noses:

‘I must be weird but every year I can smell it. Musky but crisp smell, refreshing and warm at the same time.’

‘The earth smells loamy’

‘That tang in the air that’s not dry leaves nor damp rust nor bonfire smoke, but that is a forerunner of these…’

‘Mornings are different, you can smell a difference in autumn air’

Is autumn something you can feel in the air?

Is autumn something you can feel in the air?

A few people explicitly mention a smell of decay or decomposition, but not in a way that makes me think they see it as unpleasant or unwelcome. I take this to mean a certain dampness or mustiness in the air that is very different to the verdant greenery of summer. However, a further 8% of people cite something even less tangible than smell:

‘It’s something you feel.’

‘It’s signs and a feeling – one morning the world seems crisper, less languid, and then the natural signs begin to flood in’

‘Outside just ‘feels’ autumnal, & sometimes stays like that for a LONG time!!’

‘Just a feeling really. I felt this on Saturday sat in my lounge looking out the window and I did think to myself, that doesn’t look like a summer’s day outside – and that was nothing to do with the weather.’

And for one person that feeling trumps everything else no matter how autumn-like the signs around her might be:

‘The leaves turning and a particular feel to the morning air – if the leaves are turning without the autumn morning air…it’s not Autumn, the leaves are early!!’

Human activity

Some people take their autumn cues from activities or events in the human world, doubtless because our rituals and festivals are in no small part governed by the weather and the seasons: 5% of respondents mention the harvest or are looking out for ploughed fields and stubble; an Arrochar resident watches for a drop-off in the number of local tourists; several Edinburgh residents see the end of the Edinburgh festival as start of autumn; one person regards Strictly Come Dancing’s return as sign enough; and lastly someone says autumn is here when Dobbies (a chain of garden centres) puts the Christmas tat out on the shelves. There’s definitely truth in all of those!

So, are we any nearer an answer?

In a word, no. There’s no right or wrong answer but certainly the range of responses shows how varied an existence we humans lead, and the different ways we interact with the world. But I really like the descriptions of how people ‘feel’ autumn, because it hints at something primitive and fundamental within us, something we were all once in tune with but have for the most part become disconnected from. What surprised me most however, was that only two or three people described autumn’s arrival with a sense of dread:

‘1 September… All downhill from then :-(’

I think I assumed that most people would voice a reluctance to let go of summer, but that just wasn’t the case, and instead people seem to genuinely like autumn:

‘I feel happier’

‘Best season, by far in Scotland.’

I don’t know how representative that is of society at large, though. It’s more likely a reflection of the kind of outdoorsy circles I inhabit on social media, where the people within them spend time outdoors and aren’t put off by the change in weather. But given only one person mentions the wind as an autumnal feature you’d be forgiven for thinking that we love the perfect, golden, crisp ideal of autumn rather than the sober reality. When the season really takes hold and the sodden 70mph gales bite, might we all feel differently? I’d like to think not, because we’ve all lived through enough autumns now to know what we’re likely to get, and to know what we like.

Two of my autumn signs. Red sky at morning, and my face being perpetually exfoliated.

Two of my autumn signs. Red sky at morning, and my face being perpetually exfoliated.

And how about me? What are my autumn signs? Well, I am ever watchful for the first leaves turning brown, which tends to happen in August where I work but I only regard that as a teasing foretaste of what is to come. Whether it is the skeins of geese, the first Atlantic storm, deep red sunrises, the roar of stags, flocks of fieldfares, the Plough in the night sky or that first straight northerly when I can actually smell the snow on the air, I can potentially see autumn’s arrival in so many individual things. But as one of my respondents so beautifully puts it:

‘It’s not a date for me, nature knows and passes on the message’.

PS – a huge thank-you to everyone who took the time to reply to my questions about autumn. It was genuinely fascinating!

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