Since the Julian calendar reform in 46 B.C. September has been masquerading under the wrong name, i.e. ‘The Seventh’; March was the first month in the year, and when the Romans changed the calendar they kept to the old name; force of habit, probably, they didn’t like major changes any more than we, ok then, I do.
The same is true for the three following months, of course.
September can be a lovely month; we bid good-bye to summer, the heat has gone, but the days are still mild and soft, in the fields the harvest is in, it is time for sowing the new crop. Radiant reds, yellows, and deep dark blues of ripening fruit glow in the branches and the vines hang heavy with grapes; September is the start of a busy time in the vineyards.
This stretch of warm days, marked by a meteorological period of stable high pressure known as Indian Summer in English is called ‘Old Wives’ Summer’ in Germany. Such weather conditions allow for wonderful, clear views across the lowlands far into the distance and trees, woods, rivers, lakes and the skies above acquire a sheen rarely seen at other times of the year. Leaves colour up intensively at this time and the kaleidoscope of nature’s tints becomes a miracle to behold.
The name Old Wives’ Summer (Altweibersommer) derives from the activities of young baldachin spiders; these spin long, silken threads which float in the air like the wispy white hair of an old women; the spiders use them to sail through the air in early autumn. These delicate strands are often no more than a glint of silver caught unexpectedly, as they sway in the gentlest breath of a breeze, outside the window or between fence posts. They are at their very best when covered in a suspicion of dew in the light of a sunny early morning.
Folk wisdom calls these gossamer threads elves’ weave, or dwarves’ weave.
In the hedgerows everywhere berries are ripening. If the supply of haws and hips is particularly plentiful, it is said that a harsh winter must be expected. Green hazelnuts are ready for picking and after a hot summer walnut shells are hardening and turning pale brown.
Although nature is catching her breath before the onset of autumn proper and the first frosts of winter, kitchens are busy. In September Mother was in a race with time, bottling fruit, making jams and jellies. She kept earthenware crocks filled with green beans in brine and prepared her own Sauerkraut by shredding an endless supply of white cabbages and layering it with salt and juniper berries, the whole wrapped in vine leaves.
These crocks stood on shelves in the cellar; throughout winter, when green beans or Sauerkraut were part of the menu for the day, she’d go down and simply remove the wanted quantity from the crock. She also pickled vegetables, we had pickled gherkins, onions, and red cabbage. Pickled herring, plain and green herring, fried and pickled, were available for most of the year too, although she preserved the latter mainly in spring.
Apples for storing over winter were selected at this time. They too had shelf space in the cellar although the larger quantities were kept in the attic.
Father was busy ordering and storing potatoes, coal and firewood. It was his job to fill the designated bins and shovel the coal into the separate coal cellar from the pile which had come down the chute under the cellar window.
None of these jobs, with the exception of making jams and jellies, is relevant today. We buy fruit and vegetables at any time of the year, heating comes by virtue of the national grid and we certainly no longer value that wonderful feeling, the deep satisfaction, that come with providing for the family’s needs and safeguarding its existence during the leaner time of winter.
There is no need for any of that effort, that labour of love. Whether we are the richer or the poorer for our easy way of living I don’t know. That question needs more careful examination than I have time or space for here and now.
What we can do is go out, watch the leaves changing colour and the baldachin spider create its pathways of silver threads in the air. Nature’s autumn fireworks are about to begin.