A Golden Autumn at Birmingham Botanical Gardens
I love how different cultures and languages describe the physical world and seasons. In Japanese, there’s komorebi to describe the phenomenon of light flickering through trees, and in Polish there’s a phrase to describe a particularly beautiful autumn – złota jesień – which translates as ‘golden autumn’.
The autumn of 2011 was a golden autumn in Poland, and I remember watching the trees turn in Park Oliwski in Gdańsk and out in the villages in rural Pomerania during a research trip to the Tricity that October. Six months in to my now nearly ten year strong Photo a Day project, Stach – a PhD student who had the same supervisor as me but was based at the University of Gdańsk rather than the University of Birmingham and who often helped me out with transport and translation – smiled when he saw me obsessing over the golden light on a particularly breathtaking day, and shared the phrase with me. We don’t really have an equivalent in English, which is a shame.
This weekend gone filled me up, as we are currently experiencing a golden autumn. I am not an autumn person, my true loves are spring and summer, but every few years if the weather has been particularly good – lots of sunshine and rain at the right times during spring and summer – the leaf fall display in October is spectacular. This year is one of the good years. 2020 has been a year of death and decay on a grand scale, so I think of this as a peace offering, a small reprieve in amongst the struggles of everyday life in the midst of a global pandemic.
On Saturday, Ed and I picked up his parents’ dog Maisie and took her for a long walk at Woodchester Park in Gloucestershire, which is one of my favourite walks in the Cotswolds near where they live. The weather was perfect and the trees on the ridge were illuminated by the late afternoon sun streaming in across the valley. Maisie was a joy, as she has finally learned how to behave herself and come to heel when we call her, and seemed to really enjoy the novelty of our company on her walk. We had a lovely time, soaking up the warm sun, the colours of the trees, and all the little details to save them for the gloomy, uninspiring months that lie ahead. Like squirrels collecting nuts for winter, we stockpile lumens and memories.
Yesterday we had initially planned to visit Winterbourne, but Ed wanted to watch the Giro d’Italia and I didn’t mind the idea of a lazy day at home after a long day out on Saturday. Ed watched the cycling with Minou while I spent a few hours pottering, making bread, and reading about plants, and then at about 3pm Ed suggested we go to the Botanical Gardens as they had a few slots available in the last hour before close. At the moment, BBG is operating a booking system to manage arrivals, even for members. It’s a bit annoying as it takes the spontaneity out of a visit, but there are usually spots available last minute and so it’s not too much of a problem. Arriving at 5pm, the light was a dream.
Down on the lawns a couple were having their wedding photos taken, their small party of friends and family – weddings are limited by law to gatherings of 15 in the UK at the moment – holding flowers, arranging the bride’s dress, and preparing a confetti canon, but other than a small handful of visitors the gardens were lovely and peaceful. We said hello to the birds, I spent some time teaching one of the parrots to say MF, Samuel L Jackson style, but he was too polite and stuck to “hello” and “bye”. We spent far more time than usual wandering around the corners of the gardens, chasing the light as it shone through the trees illuminating spiders’ webs, bouncing off the perfectly still pond, and painting everything in warm beams of light. The acer trees and fruit trees were a particular highlight, I can only imagine what the forests and parks must look like in Japan at this time of year.
We visit BBG fairly often as we are members there, as well as at Winterbourne, so it’s a very familiar space. It’s always beautiful, but after all these years of visits it has become an everyday experience and I’m ashamed to admit that I take it for granted. Perhaps it’s because the gardens were closed during spring and I haven’t seen them at their best for twelve months, or perhaps it was the light, or my mood, but yesterday stopped me in my tracks and made me really appreciate the space and how lucky we are to live nearby. The gardens are in desperate need of investment – the cactus house is falling to pieces, the information displays are faded and dated, and the walled gardens are overgrown with weeds – but yesterday the landscaping really shone.