The Daily Telegraph

It’s not just haiku writers who feel a yearning for autumnal frost


The view from my window is of a typical English autumn day: an overcast sky with fitful gleams of sunshine; a brisk breeze whisking fallen leaves in eddies. From indoors, it looks like weather for wrapping up warm.

Go outside and it is another story. The wind is southerly, the air as mild as a late spring day. Every rose bush in the garden is in flower and the tree fern, fleece-wrapped against the expected frosts, swelters in the horticultu­ral equivalent of a woollen vest.

Gardeners love nothing better than a good moan about the weather. But now another group has joined their chorus of seasonal lamentatio­n. Poets, for so long accustomed to rely on autumn as a signifier for decay, withering, the chilling of the heart and general melancholi­a, are having to rethink their references – nowhere more so than in Japan, where the treasured poetic form, the 17-syllable haiku, must by tradition include a seasonal reference, or kigo.

Almanacs known as saijiki list appropriat­e kigo by season. But the changeable weather has thrown the categories into turmoil. In The Narrow Road to the Deep North, his poetic chronicle of a long journey on foot, the 17th-century haiku master, Matsuo Basho, remarked the once rare phenomenon of an autumn day as warm as summer: “unrelentin­g the sun yet/the wind of autumn.”

Now, with the winter solstice a month away, Basho’s autumn day of unseasonab­le warmth is unseasonab­le no longer. And with scenes of frosty festivity in the television Christmas ads contrastin­g strangely with the mild dampness of the weather outside, it is not just poets who are having to reframe their view of autumn.

For all the bleak literary associatio­ns of autumn and winter, I begin to feel a nostalgia for a sharp, glittering frost, more commonly associated with a yearning for the coming of spring. Then again, for anyone in what used to be known as the autumn of their years, the sudden blooming of the cold months has its metaphoric­al consolatio­ns.

We are a nation of  tree lovers. We vote annually for our tree of the year; when trees are threatened, we climb into their branches to protect them; and when they are untimely destroyed, like the Hadrian’s Wall sycamore, we mourn them as lost friends.

The only people who seem not to cherish trees are, oddly, some of those responsibl­e for them. After councillor­s approved the mass felling of street trees in Sheffield in 2016, and in Plymouth this year, residents in Haringey are attempting to protect a 123-year-old London plane tree against a felling order that could establish a precedent for the capital’s 100,000 mature planes.

The battle to protect our beloved trees is as deeprooted as the Haringey plane. In 1884, Lord Randolph Churchill deplored the then prime minister, William Gladstone’s, hobby of tree felling: “The forest laments in order that Mr Gladstone may perspire.”

But for a proper understand­ing of the destructio­n wrought by chopping down trees, not just in the present but echoing down the generation­s, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poetic cry of anguish on the destructio­n of Binsey Poplars demands to be read in full: “O if we but knew what we do/when we delve or hew…”

Required reading for all would-be tree fellers.


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