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Falling towards winter

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When the words “Autumnal Equinox” appear on the calendar, as they did on Saturday, they send a little chill through the heart as well as the body. Labor Day is one thing, but this is official, this is a cosmic message. The configuration of the sun and planets tells us that summer is over, and there’s no arguing with that. But nothing much changes at first.

When we were in the south of France a few Septembers ago, everything changed. All the visitors and tourists went home. The roads north were jammed with millions of sun-worshippers, returning reluctantly from their long summer vacations to their damp and chilly northern lives. There was an almost audible collective sigh of relief from the people who lived in the south year-round. Some restaurants and tourist-oriented shops cut down on their hours or closed entirely. It was a true autumn — not just a date on the calendar but an economic, spiritual and social transformation. People would live differently from now until the first signs of spring.

It must be the same in the Hamptons or any summer resort that has this chameleon character — in season or out of season. But, for most of us out here in the suburbs of the temperate zone, autumn brings no such profound changes. A few sunbirds flutter off in the direction of Florida, unable or unwilling to face meteorological reality. The rest of us continue our lives almost exactly as before, apart from some trivial lifestyle adjustments: more reading, more TV, less exercise and much more eating as we get in training for the food marathons of the coming months.

The domestic heating and cooling systems switch back and forth to keep our bodies at a steady 72 degrees. The fruits and vegetables in the supermarket scarcely change. We have eliminated the natural seasons, leaving only the commercial seasons. I suppose we are trying to convince ourselves, with some success, that we are not actually living on a ball of dirt spinning and wobbling in an infinite freezing void, but in a kind of huge indoor shopping mall open 24/7. Only a few farmers and vineyard owners study the sky and work according to the seasons, and they are obviously off-message.

Poets have always loved autumn as a subject. Keats famously called it called it “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” which sounds lovely. Shakespeare wrote of “Teeming autumn, big with rich increase” — which seems to augur well for the stock market. But perhaps William Cullen Bryant was more on the mark when he wrote of autumnal days as “The Melancholy Days, the saddest of the year.”

It’s been such a fine summer — politics apart — that I would like to just miss the melancholy days this year, including Halloween the elections, Thanksgiving and the dreaded holidays. And it occurs to me that in southern hemisphere, autumn is spring. Perhaps we could go one better than the sunbirds by changing hemispheres twice a year — catching spring and summer in Australia, for example, and returning just in time to catch spring and summer here. That’s what billionaires do. I’d love to join them, but I’ve been grounded in one place so long that all my frequent flyer miles have expired. I’m not going anywhere.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.