Autumn opened its eyes, smiled, still half asleep, and rolled over.
At least, that is what it felt like.
We had a spell of cool weather, unseasonably, bizarrely cool, but lovely. Right on its edge, I thought I caught the scent of Autumn. There is no smell like it, no smell that quickens my blood that much. It is like the breath of God entering my lungs and enlivening the spirit He once breathed into me.
August, in my hometown, is hot, oppressive, and usually muggy (though we are in a mild drought this time). 30+ years living here, and indeed, further south where it is worse, have not helped me to like summer weather.
There are things I like about summer. The food is great, the greens of the landscape are rich, some of my favorite wildflowers put on a show and there are awesome insects and migratory birds everywhere. The other day I saw a clearwing moth, and just yesterday, I watched two female ruby-throated hummingbirds compete over coral honeysuckle, native salvia and a feeder. And cicadas. I revel in summer cicada-song! But the heat and humidity wear me down quickly, and I run inside to escape.
The three other seasons, though, make up for the heaviness. For one thing, our seasons are pretty evenly spaced, around 3 months apiece. Spring, instead of being a brief link between winter and summer, is a long stretch of flower successions, greening, warming, and rain. It smells of sap and clean earth and breaks through the grays of winter with sharp, vibrant splashes of yellow, purple and white. Then, as the green begins to show, red, orange and blue mix in with the first colors, like a Fauve painting.
Winter, here, has little in the way of snow or persistent ice (though we always get some) but it is filled with opalescent grays, fawn-browns, and frost. A hillside covered with mostly deciduous trees looks like the speckled flank of a sleeping beast with a long, soft, gray-brown winter coat. It is subtle, and yet beautiful, like the many grays of the limestone sky. And in the morning, as I go to work in the dark, the street-lights set lawns and leaves sparkling with frost. It is as if every surface of the world is covered in glitter, and the smell of frost quickens the cold air.
But autumn. It leaves the rest behind. For some reason, the season of dying is life-giving to me. Sumac is the first to turn, a brilliant scarlet, brighter than flame or blood. The sugar-maples, perhaps the most spectacular, create a spectrum that runs from green, through yellows and oranges and into red, all at the same time. They look like shards of living rainbow. Sweetgums turn dark crimson, purple and black. Each tree species (and sometimes each tree) has its pattern and its method, and we have well over 100 species here. Some non-evergreens even retain their dead leaves to whisper through the winter, shedding them only when the new growth arrives in the spring.
One of my favorite species, eastern red cedar (which is actually a juniper) is an evergreen, though it takes on a winter sheen of dark bronze.
But if it were just about visual wonder, Spring and Autumn would be equally loved by me. They are not.
Spring breaks into winter just when I am weary of the gray. It is welcome and enlivening. But there is something about Autumn air. It blows across my mind, causing the embers there to redden, dusting away the white ash until flames flicker to life. It sparks my creativity, my well-being, my life. The taste we had recently whetted my appetite for that rare wind. I am never satisfied, it is never enough. Even in this place, that has a long autumn, it is too brief.
But for that short time, every year, I seem to touch something beyond myself. Perhaps it really is a time when the boundaries between worlds grows thin. I do not fear fairies, or the dead. What I feel coming near is different from that. It is the Christian song. I feel like I breathe in eternity, that eternity that is already here, present within me, but that I do not fully understand. Not yet. Not yet, but one day. Until that day, I have the contradictions, the mystery, a keyhole through a door.
Autumn, dying and living, curling up to sleep, comfort in fear, but not a vulgar fear as of being afraid. I am not afraid, but my heart is racing. It is so hard to express. I think C.S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton are right about that desire. The desire I feel that is soothed a little in this world, but never satisfied, the hunger for the excitement of adventure coupled with the comfort of coming home, that contradiction in my soul during Fall, fear and comfort, excitement and peace, thrill and balm.
I think of Bilbo Baggins. That journey at my feet, the road tugging at me, that song in the wind. Maybe that is why Bilbo’s song always brings me tears, good tears, and makes me think of Autumn.
Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains of the moon.
Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.
The Road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
-J. R. R. Tolkien: From Bilbo, in The Hobbit and (the last stanza) Lord of the Rings.
*I’ve been told that this post can easily be taken as disrespectful to other beliefs. If you find it so, I apologize. That was not my intent.