I am full of leaves

by Sophie Haxworth

In Oxford City Centre, a man with a leaf blower tries to hide all evidence of autumn. The machine calls attention to the act with all the subtlety of a fanfare, and yet, the whole thing reads more like the sweeping of dust under a rug than the routine maintenance of street order. I have come into the city earlier than planned to clear my head, but the sound’s exposed edge enters me. I see my mind with a sudden simplicity as the victim of some internal leaf blower. Be clear, I have commanded my foggy thoughts, like a machine to the high street.

'I substitute lattes for mochas, so a little extra sweetness can combat the coffee-bitter truth of approaching cold.'

The man is the product of a moment in history, somewhere at the onset of industry, in which we all agreed to pretend that change did not exist. We cannot sweep away autumn altogether, but we can pay someone to shift the nuisance of it. Now, change gathers in the corners where pavement meets building. It draws our daydreams out the window for longer than usual. We acknowledge it in the way we walk, irregular footsteps veering to find company in a satisfying crunch. Yes, listen to the music of our movement — change is there amongst the percussion, sacrificing rhythm for harmony. I substitute lattes for mochas, so a little extra sweetness can combat the coffee-bitter truth of approaching cold.

I long for an honest environment, free of this pervasive pretense that the year is a blank, unchanging slate. I feel like John Clare in the asylum, writing his well-recited poem ‘I am’: I long for scenes where man has never trod. There is no such place in Oxford — man’s troddings are everywhere — but there is at least Christchurch Meadow, a sanctuary for leaves that settle here after other parts of the city have told them to move on. Turning into the tree-lined walkway, I get a distinct sense of separation between nature and normality, set up as opposing forces so that nobody will realise they are synonymous. Designated places for leaves, designated places for leaflessness. The meadow is a place to walk through and observe in a manner similar to art in a gallery: beautiful, but detached. We seem to want natural beauty without the other baggage that comes along with the natural world. Give me the colour, but hold the decay.

A season is not a picture. I wonder if we go too far in our aestheticisation of autumn — pumpkin spice, chunky scarves, reds, oranges, browns — to the point of forgetting a season is also a human experience. Autumn moves through us. Though we watch it as if from a distance, I feel its physicality. If my mind is the forcibly cleared high street, my body is the meadow. In the last few weeks, I have been full of leaves. And now, when I move, I rustle.

Another sound for the percussion section: that gentle warning fricative of taking a little more energy to do a little less. As it stands, I am trying to do the same, if not more — compelled by an economy of time that equates calendar space to mental capacity. No wonder my energy dwindles.

'I wonder how a potential winter lockdown might exacerbate people’s own winters.'

It was just over a year ago that my doctor confirmed my long held suspicion of having Seasonal Affective Disorder. I wore that cloak of self understanding all winter, and hung it up, unneeded, in the spring. Now I pull the term around, feel the uncomfortable itch of its label. Nothing about it feels disorderly. Rather, it is a sensitivity to nature’s most basic order: summer, autumn, winter, spring. Perhaps the problem is born of a disharmony — physical manifestations of seasonal change rejected by a mind that fights to stay in leaf-blown ‘normality’. Could my SAD simply be a natural restfulness mistranslated into a working world that denies seasonal rest? There must be a lot of people who feel similarly guilty for finding themselves like this, leaf strewn and askew. I wonder how a potential winter lockdown might exacerbate people’s own winters. Summer’s raw opposite laid bare, with less relief in the traditional restful leisures of the season.

I know autumn — leaves falling, light leaving — is the world’s way of slowing people down. A gradual transition into our fallow season. Had they not been cleared, I would be wading through Oxford’s streets at half pace. I don’t find any coincidence in the fact that these dry meadow leaves push past each other in the timbre of a head rush: the same sound I hear when my body tells me I am rising and moving too fast. Though not part of the original arrangement, it plays a featuring role in my personal autumn symphony.

It is not only movement that the season tries to slow; over shortening days, fading light forces us to stop earlier, rest, continue tomorrow. Work that could be done over one long summer day must take longer if we are to have light by which to do it. Or such was the case before we became gods, unbeholden to the sun. In this overlit age (so called by Katherine May in her book, Wintering) I have never felt so conscious of the power at my fingertips as now, hovering by the switch on the wall as I write this. With the power of light comes the power of speed, and my slowing body has no defence against an insistent mind; I can finish my writing tonight, so why would I pause, rest, halt my productivity instead? Autumn watches, out of tricks. By prolonging productivity in a season of rest, lights and leaf blowers alike make it easy to forget that we are earth-creatures.

'Inside is controllable. Inside can be kept the same. (...) Seasons are an outside ordeal.'

I think a condition of productive capitalist society is this unshakeable sense of insideness. Inside is controllable. Inside can be kept the same. We can work the same, produce the same, consume the same. Seasons are an outside ordeal. Crucially, I have found you can be outside and still be bound by the inside ideology: the safe place from which we can see change happening and theoretically not participate in it; the walk through a picturesque meadow. Now, I don’t just try to go outside, I try to embrace some form of outsideness — a Norwegian friluftsliv adventure in every trip to the shop.

Before I learned about decay, I thought leaves went back inside the trees after they fell, to get ready for spring. There were only so many leaves in the world, so each had to be held close, kept safe in the trunk over winter. When I first found out they decomposed, the real lesson was about abundance: life is not a scarce resource, so things are allowed to die. I cling to that profound sense of permission to rest, to let dried leaves go in the knowledge that more energy will come in its own time. In the face of the modern world’s ploys to make us forget, is it rebellious to remember our lives are cyclical? If simply being aware of that fundamental truth is a radical act, well — autumn is a good time for it.

Sophie is a poet and all round words-enthusiast who particularly enjoys using them for good, but can also be found using them to spout nonsensical musings or attempting to start serious conversations about art at social gatherings. Follow her doing all of the above on instagram @haxwordth, and read her poem Speed that we previously published on imprint.