Jason Goodwin: ‘The flock widened and contracted, filling the whole sky with motion: expansive, pure theatre’

Our spectator columnist comments on the end of summer, as murmurations of wheeling and diving birds herald the beginning of a new season.

I took the dogs up the valley and saw, rising over the top field, a flock of birds that dipped and dived with the equinoctial wind. The size of the flock took me aback – and the width of the sky. The flock widened and contracted, filling the whole sky with motion: expansive, pure theatre. New and large, it carved out a bold shape in the landscape, a fragile behemoth; Leviathan in midair.

It came to me that this is how summer always ends. Winter, I think, is death, or hibernation. Spring is a rebirth, of course: frail shoots, first blooms, new lambs, the earth quickening and coming alive. Summer is the world at full bloom, all about scent and staying still, and it is to compensate for the loss of those long, lazy days, blue skies, small waves, insects and fledglings taking wing that autumn arrives with its brassy call to action. Summer, in short, gives way to a season of spectacle.

Sunset over beautiful rolling Devon countryside, Devon, England. Summer (June) 2013

The migration season begins with the intricately choreographed murmurations of starlings and swallows, wheeling and diving, as the geese, honking overhead, depart in skeins. The canvas grows not only larger: it’s brighter, too. In the US, gaudy autumn foliage will draw thousands of suburbanites into their cars and out into the maple woods to witness the technicolour transformation of New England.

Nor is autumn restricted to size and spectacle alone. Sloshing through puddles and kicking up huge piles of fallen leaves are immersive theatre, which brings city children into the ambit of the natural world.

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‘Now the bawdy hedgerow sets out its stall’

Now the bawdy hedgerow sets out its stall with misty bullaces and tight sloes, black berries and red, hips and haws. Giant pumpkins and outrageous dahlias vie for attention under canvas at the showground, aptly named, because harvest is for showing off, for building stacks and pressing cider, for agricultural displays and harvest festivals.

It seems that the deep rhythms of the year affect everyone, as the Moon draws water. In town, the window dressers start to fold the parasols and picnic baskets away, hoping to catch the eye with mannequins rigged out in the new autumn fashions. In the literary jungle, autumn is when the big beasts reveal their new books. TV executives do the same, with boom and bombast, as they trial new shows in their autumn schedules.

As the nights draw in, we’ll get Hallowe’en, all noise and dressing up, followed by the more rustic displays of Bonfire Night, when sparks and fireworks light up the sudden dark. These are popular pageants, but the state itself seems likely to pick up the mood.

Otmoor Nature Reserve, Oxfordshire

A murmuration of starlings at Otmoor, Oxfordshire

The years legal, administrative and academic begin. Judges process from Temple Bar to prayers at Westminster Abbey and to enjoy what is known as the Lord Chancellor’s Breakfast. In the Mother of Parliaments, arguably the strangest theatre of all, a State Opening will indubitably follow a General Election, in a crescendo of monarchical pageantry and dressing up. MPs fresh from canvassing in their constituencies may sympathise with Black Rod who, in a customary bit of ceremonial slapstick, will have a door slammed in her face.

We propel our own fledglings onto a new stage, like Mrs Worthington. In school this month, small children enter from the wings as the others move up or move on.

The curtain is rising on 1,000 new acts, where the skyline of an unfamiliar city can be seen through the window at the back of the stage. Forget the birds and the hedges and the big skies after fresh rain. We have sent the boy to university. My heart is with him and all those young players stepping forward, considering their scripts, getting into part, and glancing out beyond the footlights to the audience that waits, hushed and expectant, in the dark.