“Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald
A post I saw recently on Facebook said: “Funny how people call fall the most beautiful season when the changing of the leaves is really death.” It was one of those grouchy, rain-on-your-parade posts that often get traction on social media, as if someone declared a war between the seasons.
But touché! I was wounded because I am an inveterate lover of autumn. The post implicitly accused me of taking pleasure in death. I asked myself, does my love of autumn make me some kind of sadist?
I was hanging my head in shame when another thought rushed to my rescue. Wait a minute! When the trees shed their leaves in fall, they are not dying. That’s not what is happening. They are just shedding their leaves. It’s part of their annual cycle, like going to sleep.
To equate the shedding of leaves with death is like lamenting the loss of the hair on the floor when we get a haircut. We shed our skins too, in different ways. It’s part of growing. Autumn is one stage in the ongoing cycle of renewal and change.
With that I felt redeemed, and free to fall in love again with fall, to openly relish the splendor of the changing leaves. This year circumstances placed me in New England commuting between Vermont and Maine on a regular basis. It gave me the opportunity in the course of my normal affairs to observe the transformation of autumn on a weekly basis in some of the best territory in the world for seeing spectacular fall displays.
Autumn! The monumental event that returns every year to mark the great change point between summer and winter, with wildly flamboyant displays of color that spread like wildfire across the earth’s surface. It is truly one of the world’s greatest natural wonders.
In the novel Persuasion, Jane Austen describes autumn as “that season which has drawn from every poet worthy of being read some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling.”
The beauty of autumn pulls at our heartstrings and demands some tribute, some attempt at description, but our efforts inevitably fall short. At best we can allude to it with a few brush strokes as in Japanese sumi-e painting.
The fact that we can’t describe it or even capture it in photographs makes the experience even more precious. The changing of the leaves is one of the most audacious displays in nature as it sweeps over the mountainsides, inflaming the landscape with bright oranges, yellows and reds. Every week I have been watching it change as I made my way across the countryside.
The riotous colors of fall take center stage in the seasonal pageantry, but there are also other things that combine with the colors to create the unmistakable feeling of autumn.
The Light in Autumn
There is something about the autumn light, a kind of luminescence that makes everything appear a little differently than in any other season.
The sun shifts to a lower angle, casting long shadows. It gives things a different aspect than in summer when the sun is straight up overhead, bathing everything in bright light and swallowing shadows. Sometimes in fall the sun shines through the leaves, illuminating them from behind like colored lenses.
Then there is the falling of the leaves, the event the season is named for. They gently drift down, dancing on the air currents with misshapen wings.
The change from summer to fall is subtle at first. Then it creeps up, and at some point you realize that the world has been remade. There is an increased crispness in the air, creating clarity in the sky that accentuates its deep blue color. The softer light of autumn is gentler on the eye and allows us to look straight into the sky without having to squint. The sky appears bluer because the color is no longer washed out with bright white light of summer.
In my drives I observed it all lovingly, the misty clouds hanging over the mountains, leaves floating on running streams or gathering to create a thick covering on the ground. Autumn is still gorgeous when it rains and the color of the drenched and darkened leaves stands out in contrast to the gray sky.
The beauty lasts only a few weeks, and its transience adds to its poignance. That calls to mind the symbolism of mortality, the sense that every moment is unique, precious and passing. But the changing of the leaves is also a symbol of renewal, of the ongoing, repeating cycles of life. Every day is unique and precious.
The View from Behind the Wheel
Driving across the countryside, taking in the views, I tried to absorb as much as I could. You can’t keep it. But at least you can try to experience it fully while it’s happening. Soon enough the leaves will soon turn brown and dissolve into mud and dirt. The branches will be bare, and winter will set in. Winter has its own kind of beauty, but I am in no hurry for that.
The spectacle of autumn is one of my favorite experiences. I never tire of it and try to get as much of the experience as possible every time fall comes around.
Though autumn is the death of summer, it’s also the beginning of the school year. And that sense of new beginnings still applies in the working world when you’re out of school. When fall comes in, people perk up and become industrious again, getting back to work. Fall is harvest time, when the work of the growing season comes to fruition and we gather our supplies together in preparation for the long winter.
Fall is not death, it is shedding one’s annual skin, preparing for hibernation, leading to renewal and awakening in spring. The world is constantly in a state of change and if you don’t get with it, you could be left behind.
Why the Colors?
I wondered why trees change colors in the fall so I did some research and discovered that the yellows and oranges are the base color of the leaves that shows when the chlorophyll breaks up at the end of the summer.
The red, however, is something else. It comes from a red chemical that the trees manufacture, and the reasons given for it vary. In other words, no one really knows why. There’s no consensus as to why nature provides us with such extravagant reds.
One theory is that the red is there to scare away insects that might eat the leaves. Another is that it’s to attract birds and mammals to the tree’s fruits. Attract? Repel? I don’t know. The theories are unsatisfying, feeble stabs in the dark. They attempt to fit the phenomenon into the framework of evolution and the struggle for survival. But what if trees do that just to be beautiful?
We humans like to adorn ourselves and make ourselves as beautiful as we can. We have an inborn sense of aesthetics that responds to the beauty of nature. Peacocks strut their colors. Eagles pose proudly on high perches. Many other animals seem to enjoy showing off their striking appearances.
Maybe trees do that too.
Your Humble Reporter,
A. Colin Treadwell