Assorted trees line the streets and are scattered throughout the park our home faces. Having returned to the cold weather states after decades in Southern California, the massive Elms, Oaks, Maples, Ash, and Poplars are like friends I vaguely knew as a student but more deeply appreciate and respect as I have grown older. I am awestruck how they humbly and effortlessly offer the annual, albeit short-lived festival of color that dazzles the senses and soothes the soul. The striking contrasts of crimson and vibrant yellows; the luxurious scarlets amongst the subtler hues of Auburn and Amber, all intermixed with varied shades of green- autumn’s alchemy not yet complete; soon it will be time to take their place on the color palette. The urge to reach for our I Phones is irresistible. And, as last year, I engage in a desperate effort to somehow capture the breathtaking moment when that spontaneous dance between sun, wind, and color evokes a rare and transitory contentment. Hastily and unceremoniously, leaves are now trading their dazzling colors for ashen browns, a color the French describe as feuille morte (dead leaves), and dropping with indifference onto the streets, the lawns, the cars. The temptation to metaphor here is appealing, so, I wonder if they have simply surrendered to the inevitable, the reality of having fulfilled their purpose, with nothing more to offer but wither and let go. Revered just days before, now, little more than bothersome detritus, they catch in the windshield wipers, lodge themselves within the gaps between porch planks, fighting the fierce wind of leaf blowers that sweep away the beautiful become brittle. Blow them into mounds, rake them into bags and feed the trash bins. They are no more than a nuisance now.
Autumn begins as a celebration of summer’s experiences; a ticker tape parade, followed by the proverbial street sweepers whose task is to brush it all away as if it never happened. In their wake is revealed the contrasting dull tones of concrete, asphalt, browning lawns. Leafless trees are gnarled, crooked, and rough-barked, summoning images of me standing before the mirror naked and perplexed by the wizened old man gazing back at me. The leaves we have failed to collect, chilly winds send to rest in barren flower beds and sewer drains. Canopies of green that generously afforded shade from the hot summer sun have become irrelevant as winter’s diffusely lit and dreary skies dominate shortened days. Autumn begins as a celebration but is swiftly worn out.
Spring is optimistic anticipation of what lies ahead. Still, it tempers optimism with a reminder of the hard work creation demands. There is nothing effortless about Spring. Waiting for the thaw, one can almost hear the grunts and groans of determined crocuses clawing through the cold dirt in search of life-giving sun. Waiting for the thaw, winter ice slowly melts, leaving muddy patches in sodden grass that ever-so slowly regains its color as if recovering from a long illness. Trees push out buds like exhausted mothers in frustratingly long labor. The astute observer knows it will be weeks before this birthing is completed.
We are grateful for the glimpses of winter’s end and join in a celebration of a different sort than autumn inspires. Now, we shed our coats as the trees create an entirely new wardrobe. Spring is so full of life, it must be managed to ensure our grass is of a certain height, the stubborn weeds must be uprooted and removed from the garden, and tussling with unruly ivy will continue for months. The children now are pleasingly boisterous as they make their way among the maze of playground equipment recalling the joy that each piece offers; the summer break in sight they are restless and distracted; the geese and ducks are nesting, and the days are not too short, not too long, but just right.
I wonder if there was some grand design in the way that the seasons play out. I wonder if Autumn and Spring are intentionally short as if the dramatic parade of miracles they offer was intended to spark reflection about the experiences of carefree summers and rugged winters. On the other hand, intended or not, we invariably look for and assign meaning to the events around us and the lives we live. We crave understanding. Regardless of intention, or our desire to assign meaning, nature’s displays in both autumn and Spring are brief, if spectacular, and perhaps thankfully so. We can only bear so much beauty, it seems, before the sublime becomes mundane. Art museums should never be explored in a single day, poetry is best appreciated in bite-sized pieces and symphony encores are typically very short. A good magician will never assent to an audience member’s request to “do that again”. Our experience of autumnal beauty and the struggle illustrated in Spring’s rebirth are both fleeting because in large doses we will reinterpret the beautiful as mundane; we will translate the struggle for renewal as ineptitude.
As fall inevitably drifts toward winter, consider observation of the natural wonders that surround us as our mentor and teacher. Soon, for many of us, the snow will fall and blanket the exposed and vulnerable world with a momentary purity, silencing, for just a short while, the brash and invasive sounds of the industry of living. Absorb it before the sounds of snow chains clink, clink, clink up your street, and footprints sully the gentle contours of the white coat covering the landscape and dogs have yellowed the snow, and it all turns to slush.
I know…there’s a lesson in this too. But, enough for now.