A tender doom

UW fall leaves

The fictions of summer are so persuasive: the constancy of fair weather, the treasure of unhurried time, the allure of nature’s green paradise, the willful suspension of care and duty. In hammock or kayak, who can imagine anything but endless bliss and smiling skies?

Summer’s last full day in Puget Sound was as perfect as they come – brilliant light, delicious warmth. Even after sundown, we lingered outside in summer clothes as if it were still August. But the harbingers of autumn had already begun to intrude. Darkness which delayed until bedtime six weeks ago was now arriving for dinner. The clamor of songbirds at our feeders has dwindled to a lonely remnant. And it’s now almost impossible to find a blackberry worth eating.

In the hours before the equinox yesterday, clouds rolled in and the temperature dropped, like a set change between acts – or, in poet Penelope Shuttle’s fine image, it was “the year changing its mind.”

But as John Burroughs noted, fall “comes like a tide running against a strong wind; it is ever beaten back, but ever gaining ground, with now and then a mad push upon the land.” There are still some lusciously brilliant days to come, but we can no longer claim them as our seasonal right. We may only receive them as gifts of increasing rarity, now that the earth has tipped toward winter.

Describing the mechanisms of autumnal change, Peter J. Marchand points out that the seasonal senescence of plants is not simply a matter of loss. The process of dormancy is just the flip side of growth, and there is “as much life as there is death in the browning of meadows and the drying of leaves in autumn.”

If we could sit under a maple or aspen in the fall and observe all that is going on within the plant, we would witness a remarkable communication of chemicals and flow of materials: a bustling hubbub of messenger molecules and hormones directing complex metabolic processes, a train of nutrients and waste materials being shuttled into storage compartments; a clatter of metabolic machinery being disassembled (Autumn: A Season of Change, p. 14).

We each have our own versions of this slowing down, letting go, turning inward, growing quiet. We can’t hold summer forever. The leaf falls, the year dies, the heart submits to a process beyond its control. In Marchand’s wonderful book on autumn, he catalogs the poetics of the season as well as the science, and his citation of Martha McCulloch Williams, a 19th century American writer, makes a lovely overture to the days before us now.

September, she said, is a “fair month, truly – golden fair, spiced with breath of the orchards, the vineyards’ winy smell,” with the earth “smiling peace to a perfect heaven.” But she knew that beneath the exhilarating splendor of early autumn there sounds “an under-note – a wailing minor of loss and waste. Faint, ah, so faint!” So savor this mellow time while it lasts, and when it goes for good, do not forget the promise of returning spring.

Walk afield [then] every day … Whether sun shines, or rain drips, or white frost bites and stings, you should find a liberal education in the hectic beauty of death; not cruel death, but a tender doom, sweet with the glory of full harvest, and spanned with the rainbow of resurrection.

5 thoughts on “A tender doom

  1. Simply lovely…. Autumn is my favorite time of year, perhaps because of my career in education. For teachers and students it is a time of renewal and second chances to “get it right this time.” That being said, I enjoyed the other side of autumn yesterday, aspens already past their peak in the high country, empty campgrounds and trails, quiet blew skies followed by an unmistakable chill near sunset. After all these years I find a balance in autumn that I never knew before, and I accept it as a gift.

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