You'd think by now I would have exhausted my autumn repertoire. In my 25 years as a columnist, I've covered the mists-and-mellow-fruitfulness beat faithfully each October, reflecting on last-minute Halloween costumes and the languid dance of falling leaves and the welcome snap of chilly mornings. I've pretty much said what I have to say about the fall, which is that it's my favorite season, and I wait for it all year, and I hate to have it end. Done.
Well, maybe not quite.
How can I be done when the light keeps gilding buildings and bridges and even bus shelters, turning the most utilitarian piles of brick and steel into instant monuments? Landscapes that wouldn't rate a second glance two months ago now stop me in my tracks. Shabby fences hung with scarlet vines. Roadside ditches full of purple ironweed and goldenrod. Kudzu-draped groves fragrant with grape-scented blossoms. Extreme makeover, autumn edition.
The light of autumn is the light of transformation, but it's also the light of memory. Late afternoon shadows deepen the shades of green and gold, calling up vivid snapshots of the past: walking home from second grade and up the last steep hill through carpets of rustling leaves, holding a construction paper pumpkin in one hand and a plaid Howdy Doody book bag in the other. Loading up our battered Volvo with coolers and far too many children to head north for a day of apple picking; driving back to Manhattan in the waning daylight, the car scented with fruit, the small passengers out cold in the back seat. My wedding day, which dawned gray and threatening and then pivoted mid-morning to hazy gold, illuminating the fall gardens and touching each photo opp with an unearthly glow. In the pictures, everyone seems to wear a subtle halo.
How can I be done when the mornings arrive so softly, the 6 a.m. darkness giving way to mists and the early call of the mourning doves, that haunting three-note greeting? I sit and watch the day begin, the neighbor's dogwood trees shifting from dusty green to burgundy, the banks of rust and white chrysanthemums arranging themselves against the ivy ground cover for maximum effect. The deer that shelter in our backyard woods come out to graze in these dawn hours, and sometimes I catch the eye of a doe who wanders close to the porch. She gazes at me, watchful, measuring my distance. She and her companions have been known to strip my perennial garden of buds in the spring, but today I harbor no grudge. We look at each other, and I remember something I read once, about how the hoof prints of deer leave a heart shape on the earth.
How can I be done when the air itself seems like a tonic, a kind of wonder drug that might impart energy and serenity in equal parts if I only breathe it right? How can I be done when everywhere I look, the signs point to harvest, gathering in, saving up for the fallow spell to come?
When I lived in Chicago, a friend used to say that she couldn't enjoy the brief, brilliant fall there because it heralded endless winter. The trees were bare by Halloween; often there was snow on Election Day.
Here, autumn lingers, patient and mellow. The October days pass in procession, jewel-toned, leaf-deep, luminous. Slowly, I begin my own harvest. I gather my store for the months ahead, the necessities that will sustain me when the light shifts from gold to gray: a dove's call, a purple and yellow roadside bouquet, a doe's unblinking, timeless gaze.