Finns are rarely caught praising the Finnish weather. Still, once they have lived for a while in warmer climates, they often admit to missing the sharply marked seasons of the North. I very much can relate to that and I think every season in Finland has its own bag of wonders. Still, the season to which I feel most attached is autumn. And here is why.
Like all the other seasons, autumn is actually not only one season, but three – at least at our latitudes. First there is the golden early autumn, Indian Summer with often warm days, where the leaves dress in flaming colors. This is the part most people favorably connect autumn with. Then, there is late autumn, where it becomes indistinguishable from winter. The land and trees are often covered with spectacular displays of hoar-frost, or snow is already transforming the landscape, lightening up the long and dark nights. Finally, there is the rarely loved time in-between, where the trees have shed all splendour and only show their bare-boned structures. The sky is often suitably grey and even on sunny days the colors are washed-out and subdued. I think even this part of autumn has its charm. It used to be the time when, after harvest, people started to calm down and settle for the winter. A time of silence, when even birdsong had muted and only high winds provided nature’s melody. A time of introspection when we have the opportunity to slow down, think and re-orient ourselves.
Unfortunately, these weeks in October and November have become a time when people seem especially tense and stressed-out. Maybe this has to do with the lack of light, the need to get things done before the year-end or the onset of the shopping season. Some also say that they dislike the melancholy that seems to sweep over nature and the land. And when I hear that I wonder what has given melancholy such a negative connotation. I rather think of melancholy as one of the creative forces. Let me be clear: with melancholy I don’t mean clinical depression, which is a crippling and inhibiting condition. I rather mean the sweet sadness that the authors of romanticism like Jean Paul and Heinrich Heine called “Weltschmerz”. This kind of feeling stems from the discrepancy between the world and our aspirations, or the sense of loss in which we feel the flow of time. Without it where would be the sting that makes us innovate and change?
Curiously, innovation is often connected to optimism. That might be correct with regard to a belief that change is possible. But I think the need for change has to be felt first and that is a feeling rooted in the disconnect between the world and our desires. At the same time the urgency of change is rooted in our knowledge that our time to achieve it is limited.
As this form of melancholy seems to me a common human condition, I think it can be a source for empathy and compassion. When we look beyond the flashy leaves in which we dress our personality for the world, we all seem to me sharing the same longing: for life, happiness and for the shelter of love. We also share the sadness about failing so often in these aspirations – and that is a reason to treat each other with respect and compassion. Psychologists thus tell us that children need to be allowed to live out their sadness from time to time in order to become more fulfilled, caring and balanced adults.
In the bare leafless trees that we see in late autumn sleeps the exuberance of a new summer. Likewise, in our melancholy lies a seed of new engagement with the world and others, a new and better self. And this is what autumn always was for me: a time to think, a time to seek and define my priorities and a time of a beginning, not of an end. Maybe, you too can see and feel this on your next autumn walk.