Autumn Pickings

I saw a crow carrying a hedgehog today. The hedgehog was dead, crushed by a car whose driver was oblivious to its small, spiky presence. Maybe that driver was in a hurry, or didn’t see, or simply didn’t care.

The crow waited for a gap in the traffic, and, just a few yards in front of me, it glided smoothly down to the tarmac, grasped the sorry, squashed creature in its beak, hopped ungainly a couple of times to catch its balance and flew on to the railing separating road from grass verge.

Nature’s cleaners, I thought. It immediately struck me that this wouldn’t be everyone’s reaction. Probably more like gross or something along those lines. But without carrion eaters, our roadsides would be a mess of maggots and rot. Mind you, even the maggots ensure there is less decaying meat hanging about and making the countryside smell bad.

Autumn is all about dying. In the wheel of the year, winter is often named as the season of death, but autumn is where it all starts. The leaves fall in a shower of spectacular beauty, but the colours soon fade and crumble into a crust of browns and blacks. The day becomes shorter; a hunched, elderly shadow of its former glory. Fungi spring forth everywhere, their mycelium eating away at their hosts. Even the fruit still clinging to brambles, hawthorns, elders and rowan trees reminds us that the season of plenty is coming to an end; these are the last pickings of the year. Best grab them while you can.

So of course, as a witch, I tend to listen to nature. I grab: I take my young son out after school, and we pick rowan berries and the last of the blackberries, some stubborn crab apples and even a few sloes. We bask in the golden, autumn evening, and we talk about how different the woods will look soon, when the leaves have all left, and the trees are skeletal shapes haunting a frosty cemetery. Nathan doesn’t shy from asking about death, and I’m glad about this. His lack of awkwardness makes it easier for me to be open with him, so we talk about the season dying in the same tone that we sometime talk about our own mortality.

I wonder if it’s odd for a six year old to be asking about death, but he often asks me how long I’m going to live for, and when I will die, and he talks about his own death in quite a matter-of-fact manner too. I try and match this attitude by not couching death in different terms; if something is dead, it is dead. It’s not ‘passed’ or ‘sleeping’. Life is confusing enough, and its ending is both fascinating and terrifying. No need to make it more confusing than it already!

He often asks about my ancestors and when they died (When did your great-nanna die mummy? How did she die? How old was she?) and although the only deaths he has experienced are of beloved pets, he seems to both understand the concept and be incredibly ready to speak about it, including articulating the different ways he feels; sad, puzzled, intrigued and at times unsure. I think this is something we lose as we grow older: the ability to see death as a part of life, albeit a puzzling and often devastating part. Perhaps it is the devastation that makes us shy from discussing it, but wouldn’t it be easier if we could reach out to someone and say exactly how we felt, without feeling awkward or clumsy about it?

These seem like deep thoughts to have come from a poor, flattened hedgehog! But I often find myself reflective around the autumn equinox. Day equals night in a point of both balance and liminal potentiality. We are not quite into the chills of later autumn but we certainly can’t call it summer any more. There is death on the horizon, the death of the season and, eventually, the eternal promise of the return of the sun and the longer days.

There is also the promise of the darkness; of rest, rejuvenation, and time to oneself. The promise of cold, white mornings and mysterious mists. The whisper of snow in the distant weeks. I don’t always crave the light, the sun and the heat. Sometimes I like to feel the touch of ice, like the crooking of a skeletal finger, to remind me that I am alive, and I feel all things: happy and sad, joyful and angry; energetic and lazy. I am whole, yet flawed, broken even… and that’s OK.

Summer dies, and that’s OK too. I miss the long, luscious days but I crave the long, cosy nights. I can be safe in my home, by my hearth, watching the world outside die slowly or move into hibernation. And the crows… well they are there all year round, clearing up the corpses and tidying the entrails away.

I have my own crows that pick up the rotten bits in my mind and carry them away. They aren’t always active, but when they are, I am grateful. Hail to the carrion eaters, reminding us, like our children, that death is a part of life and when it gets messy, there is always someone who will enjoy the gloppy bits.

Originally posted on Moon Books Blog, 21st September 2016