Friday, October 10, 2014

Autumn Coming and Going and Coming Again

“These golden weakes that do lye between the thunderous heates of summer and the windy gloomes of winter.”   – Anonymous

I agree with the American naturalist and photographer Edwin Way Teale.  “Nowhere in the world is autumn more beautiful than in America.  I can never write enough good things about autumn; it is my favorite season of the year.”  Mine, too.  There is really no competition on this score.

Donald Hall, who has spent a great many of his eighty-plus years on a farm in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, has written eloquently on its seasons, describing autumn in northern New England as both “gorgeous and ominous.”  The brilliant flaring fall colors “prophesy white frozen winter” which is only a few short weeks in the future.  To put it more succinctly, “[w]e inhabit the landscape’s brightest and briefest flesh . . . the pomp is brief, abrupt, and poignant.  But Autumn is always poignant.”

I am always keeping my eyes open for that first suggestion of autumn.  I spend my summers in Maine, and come August, just three short months after the trees begin to leaf out in spring, there are always a few maples with branch tips beginning to flare red.  It seems a bit curious to be swimming in a small lake while trees bordering its shores are already exhibiting the first flashes of color bespeaking the colder temperatures and cooling waters that can’t be that far off. 

September is the month when one feels what Truman Capote called the “first ripple chills of autumn,” when the fall colors arrive in earnest in northern New England.  The first to turn are the swampmaples and popple in low wet areas.  Then come the various shades of reds, oranges and russet among the red and sugar maples, scarlet oak, and sumac; the ash trees’ deep purple; the yellows among the popple, birch and willows; and finally the more subtle tans and browns among the oak, beech, and sycamore.  With these early chills the color increases almost daily in its proportions and brilliance. The leaf peepers also arrive around mid-month; they come, they look, and they are gone again by mid-October.  They have little understanding of the full evolution of a northern New England autumn.  It’s too bad they are unable or unwilling to experience its entire range and spectrum, from the onset of color as well as its evanescence.  I honestly believe that autumn is no more colorful, nor more awe-inspiring, than it is in these northern climes.  For this reason alone I always try to postpone my annual trip south until after the autumn colors have reached their zenith. 

With the onset of the killing frosts of October the season is better disposed to the arrival of winter.  Cold rains will mute the colors, and as they fade, the leaves will quickly forsake the trees and fall to the ground much too soon.  Not all of the leaves will fall, however.  A few drained of their color will continue to flutter through the stiffening gusts of winter.  No surrender.

It is not uncommon for snow to fall by Halloween, first at the higher latitudes and elevations, but quickly enough snow is common place when November arrives.  The leaves are raked against foundations for insulation as houses and out buildings are tucked up for the winter.  The calendar may say it's still autumn, but our senses tell us something different.  Truly a touching end to the briefest and most poignant of seasons.

A couple of years ago I was able to enjoy an extended autumn season, watching as it  arrived in many diverse locales stretching from the Canadian Maritimes to Florida’s Gulf Coast.  I saw the first golden leaves of autumn in stands of birch as I crossed the Cobequid Hills in western Nova Scotia in the early days of August.  Later that month, and into the early days of September I watched the autumn hues intensify throughout the mountains of northern New Hampshire and western Maine while the woodlands around our summer cottage on Sabbathday Lake, in southern Maine, were just beginning to turn.  The autumn foliage had reached peak color there by the time I departed in the early days of October to drive home to Maryland.  But autumn’s colors were not yet over.  In fact, they had hardly begun for much of the United States.

The variety of colors and their intensities ebbed the farther south I drove through Massachusetts and into Connecticut.   There was some color here and there as I passed around New York City and ventured further south into New Jersey, but by the time I reached Delaware and Maryland, the greens of spring and summer had faded somewhat, and in some places had begun to yellow.  Autumn had not yet arrived in earnest.   A short time later I drove along the Eastern Seaboard to northern Florida and there was hardly a trace of autumn to be seen anywhere.  When I returned to Maryland in late October, however, I began to see colors turning deeper and more brilliant the farther north I drove.  Once again this year I have seen the peak colors of a New England autumn only to return to Maryland to watch as they arrive again.  What more can one ask for during his favorite season of the year?

I have been lucky enough to see autumn come and go and come again.  Stay in one place, however, and Hall’s dictum proves correct every time.  The flash and fury of autumn is far too brief.  But always poignant as I fend off those “windy gloomes of winter.”

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