The other day, we drove past the gas station and we all sniggered a little bit at a man taking pictures of a tree. He was just such a classic leaf peeper, a dude in a well-cut suit and a flashy car with out-of-state plates, beaming like a goon at a maple tree that wasn’t even that great. It’s a good week and a half past peak leaf season, and things have turned fairly brown and bare around here.
Last week, it was spectacular. Last week, the colors were overwhelming. The sky was a high, icy blue and the trees were so bright, they were deafening. The fields and mountains were crowded, almost hysterical with strange, unleaflike colors, salmon and coral and burgundy and chartreuse, violent crimsons shading into deep carmine. Everyone talks about the maple trees, but the humble sumacs had also caught fire and turned into fringes of wild flame, and the aspens were a disorderly haze of yellow sparks. Invasive vines are an unholy pink crawling everywhere like boas, and the thick mat of poison ivy goes fire engine red. It’s incredibly beautiful. I hate it.
Every year, it takes me by surprise that more people don’t understand how painful this season is. It begins when you’re prancing along through the middle of your summer, really just getting started. You’re thinking you need to get to the beach more, and maybe you need to plant more seeds in your garden. So many possibilities yet to come in this lovely, giving, fruitful time of year.
And there, on the surface of the pool, floats a single red leaf. Outrageous. It’s unmistakably an autumn leaf, one that has run out of chlorophyll, made the change, lost its grip, succumbed to death. And it’s only July! Too soon! Far too soon! And yet this is how it goes every year. One little leaf, and then the next week you see three, and then a whole branch branch has turned. Everything else is still abundantly green, still graciously growing and thriving, but still, you can’t help but feel that cold finger prodding you on the back: Hurry up. Time is running out. You’re running out of time. Hurry. Running out. Run.
And it gathers speed from there. A little tinge of yellow creeps along the edge of a hedge; a little seam of red appears along the bottom of a tree. The flowers on the side of the road take on a dusty look, and the ground begins to dry out and it stays dry, no matter how often you water it. Day by day, everything that grows and moves gets a little more weary, a little more stale, a little more worn out, because it is wearing thin, it is being used up, it is running out. The morning dew gathers and becomes bold and heavy, and it does not disperse when you walk through it. The air is more ponderous; the locusts are more brazen. The birdsong takes on a frantic edge as the days seep away, and everyone is leaving, flying away. All the fruit that grows is forming a hard little cap at the end of its stem because it is separation time, end time. Time’s up.
Everything is dying. This is what fall means. You open your eyes in the morning and you can feel it. The colors of the trees are just the high color of the final fever before the world’s final breath. I feel it all the time, and I do not understand when people tell me they love fall.
I see how pretty it is. It is lovelier than anything you can imagine. But it’s the beauty of ecstasy, of peril, of panic. It’s the kind of thing you cannot bear for long, and that only leads in one direction, and that is down toward darkness.
This sounds crazy, I realize. It’s just a season, and we always survive it. But it’s very hard, every year. What sounds crazy to me is when people step outside in the slanted, weary light and take a deep breath of that sharp, shuttered air, and they open their eyes to all the signs of loss and decay you can feel with every cell of your body, and they say, oh! Pumpkin spice time!
I don’t begrudge it. Irish fisherman sweaters and cozy socks are excellent, and it helps a lot to keep busy picking apples, baking pies and making soup, winterizing the house and designing Halloween costumes. But someone did ask why I hate fall, so this is my answer. The cold finger at my back has flattened itself into a heavy palm, pushing and pushing between my shoulder blades because time is almost up, and I feel it all the time, every year. It’s a great mystery to me that you don’t feel it, too.
Photo by Kelly Ishmael via Negative Space (Creative Commons)