The Big Question: the poet Kathleen Jamie chooses the month of leaf-tang and mystery

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2013

October is a liminal month, a threshold both threatening and alluring. The dark begins to press its case, but as though in response, the days are often clear (but with wild cloudscapes when it’s not), and of course there’s that leaf tang in the air. Even in the most urban places, there comes that leaf-and-woodsmoke smell, which seems naturally to invoke memories, so October looks both ways, past and future. 

It also suggests distance and closeness. Closeness because it’s a time of closing in and storing up and laying down supplies. Distance, because of course the geese arrive and who can’t be moved by the sound of geese high overhead? In these parts, it’s ragged skeins of pinkfoot mostly. Once you’ve heard them, urging themselves on, you can’t not search the skies for them, so they do us that favour, make us look up from our own concerns. Because of the geese, I probably look up at the sky more often in October than any other month. They make us aware that the world is wider and stranger than we usually give it credit for, in our daily lives. As refugees from that otherworld, the Arctic, they gabble: "if you think it’s dark and cold here, you should try where we’ve come from."

So October is the closing down of the year, but it suggests not death but mystery: a sense of worlds beyond this, of past and future.

And of course there is the other otherworld. Let no one say Hallowe’en is an American invention. It is ancient, and has been celebrated here in Scotland since Celtic times. Then it was called Samhain, and is the time when the fairy world was held to be at its closest to our own, when it was deemed possible to cross the border into that realm, to tell futures and consort with supernatural beings. In the great Border ballad Tam Lin, young Tam is imprisoned in fairyland, and can only be rescued on Hallowe’en. I still think that on a late October dusk, you can sense a presence.

We think of October’s colours as dark brown and orange, but it’s rare if October doesn’t bring the first snow. One crisp morning after a starry night (proper winter stars!), the distant hills will be sternly white; this is both thrilling and deeply reassuring. Overnight, they have become a serious proposition. Store the apples and potatoes and firewood, winter is nigh.

Read Charles Nevin on December, James Lasdun on April, A.D. Miller on May, John Burnside on July and Ann Wroe on Brumaire.

Kathleen Jamie is an award-winning poet and author. Her book "Sightlines" is about nature and journeys

Picture Getty