Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Autumn’s Wiles and Wooliness

The air is golden today, but with a slight undertone of copper that burnishes the woods. I sit by half-open glass doors, appreciating early autumn air laced with warmth–sunshine cheerily dapples all–and then come alarming blasts of brain rattling noise. Reddish pine needles, small branches, lots of twigs and dead leaves rain down on my once-inviting balcony. They prick and blanket the potted flowers, plants, outdoor furniture. Overhead, thudding footsteps remind me of what I forgot: this is roof-and-gutter cleaning day. It’s that time of year as habitats are readied for long winter rains. We already have had a small storm. So–necessary if annoying for a few hours.

I am not as tolerant of noise since I’ve become attuned to nature’s songs and silences in the forested hills. Finally, the atmosphere calms as falling debris stops and brash machines move on. I know the work done will make coming months safer, more comfortable.

Autumn is settling in, despite slightly balmier temperatures today. For a few more weeks it will swing between sandal, sneaker and boot weather, to being coatless to donning rain jacket, and this cavernous, west-facing room will be defined far more by shadows from early ’til bedtime. When I come downstairs in the morning–if Marc hasn’t already opened blinds–I’m met with a sheer darkness no matter the hour. The air seems bluish-grey and it is chilly. Rather, it feels cold for me by 60-65 degrees Fahrenheit indoors or out (with Raynaud’s, hands and often feet get unusually cold and hard to warm up).

I have to get at the ready a heating pad, woolen socks and fingerless gloves brought to me from Iceland by daughter Naomi. This year I also know to be prepared for sporadic snowfall around our new home, as we are at 800 feet, high enough to get flakes that stay. But I have good slippers and lots of blankets, handmade. thick velour, woolen. Swaddling up has already commenced at end of day as we get situated on the couch to read or watch television. I long for a fireplace but haven’t had one in decades, although there have been a few wood stoves– I enjoyed chopping and splitting the pungent wood, once, tending the fire. But here I am loathe to turn on heat until it is late October-early- November-cold–it costs more than it used to.

But despite the few less desirable features to this season, I love the changeover from summer into fall and beyond. How, like sublime peaches and plums, tasty corn and vivid pumpkins, there is a steady ripening of abundance until there is the peak–and a subsiding, then a spinning of the cocoon-like state of rest. I think of it as a courageous, somehow silvery turning inward, a gathering of a deeper energy and meeting one’s self at a more still point. I watch spiders at work and admire their diligent industry, how they create complex netting to snare insects and prepare for mating. And then they wait. I can learn from nature each season.

I am an outdoor person, and the cold, wet months ahead are not always welcome. But now the fall beckons me to still get out, take the last great mud-free hikes and walks. I pay attention, mind the rolling rocks and sliding earth. There are few level sidewalks and paths here than the previous neighborhood; I must locate my waterproof trail shoes, dig out fleeces, scarves and gloves.

As a youngster, little of these concerned me. The air took on that sharp tang and the bright sky could be so crystal clear it about vibrated. The leaves of the sugar, red and white maples shone like vivid little flags as they twisted about in a gusty wind. There were red and white oaks, hickory and quaking aspen, larch and poplar. The trees of Michigan were glorious to me and remain so as they “turn”—and people flock from far away to see “the color.”

As those transformed leaves fell fast, for years it was up to me and my siblings to rake the scattered beauties into piles, throw handfuls at each other and cover ourselves up. The best was making huge piles to jump in, as which point we would have to start the raking all over again. Bits of leaves stuck in hair and around the shirt collars and smelled delicious despite dying or being dead, a weird thing to think so I did not. I would gather a few lovelies and press them between sheets of waxed paper to keep as bookmarks, or set them around a bowl of fruit in the dining room table until the tips began to curl and my mother would toss them.

The city allowed people to burn leaves at certain times, and in yards bigger than ours, my friends and I would gather round to warm up in the spreading dusk and secretive dark to chat about school, life, love. I can still smell that scent of leaves burning–it’s very meaning was autumn, and it’s rich fragrance was heavy with poignant happiness. I felt magic descend on me as if rising smoke of charred leaves reached out to the stars and blessed each one, and then, somehow, also me. It made me a poet long before I appreciated it fully.

Even then I took long walks (preferably alone, the better to daydream and take it all in) along often damp, tree-lined streets in September or October, gusts slinging leaves at my face, new sharpness on the wind making nose run and eyes tear up. I loved it, pulled my collar up closer, eyed treetops and limbs to see which ones had yet more glories left, which showed off their elegant, muscular bodies. I didn’t really want all the leaves to fall, those fine branches to more vulnerable in winter storms to come. But I soaked it up nonetheless, that mystery of the seasons, the trees being so bold and strong to withstand the elements until spring remade earth and whatever lived in it once again.

Up north with family or friends, staying on smaller lakes or by the Great Lakes, fall was even more enchanting. Because many cabins or cottages were closed up for winter and so the last trips held more meaning. Because there was all the water, and air blew by like a cool mist and was layered with a perfumey mix of wet leaves, pine needles and lake; the earth underfoot was far less dusty; rocks seemed to carry more weight, rough or smooth; and lapping waves brought music and odd treasures to shore. There were huge old pines and birch groves to explore anew. There was peace and pleasure in row boating or canoeing in fall, surrounded by a vivid palette, watching the sky run blue to steel grey in even a few moments and after a hard rain, show off its rose and tangerine.

Later in a cabin the fire was lit in a stone fireplace. All was hushed indoors as wind regained momentum. The soughing in trees turned to rhythmic beating of branches against the roof, and the night was good, fresh perch or lake trout fried up, easy talk. After dinner, not much more going on than a cheerful game of rummy or bridge and crackling of wood as flames spit and flared. But contentment was never so fine as that, even as the wind howled through the wooded acres and waves smacked the rocky shoreline and the lights might flicker. We had all we needed. Life reduced to the simplest and best moments.

I look out the sliding glass door and note the woodsy mess I need to attend to following the gutter and roof cleaning. But I look forward to going out with my broom, working in the late afternoon glow, under the trees. I do still know how to ease into autumn: embrace these changes. The challenging, circuitous walk I took before writing gave rise to a gentle joy as I noted the slight turn of Oregon trees’ leaves. I have stew and chili on my mind. Woodsy candles set on my tables and a couple of tiny white and orange pumpkins. I was made giddy by the looks of surprise my two twin grandbaby girls’ faces held as I put one each in their beautiful little hands. Next year they may visit the apple orchards with us but this year Marc and I surely will drive out by Hood River and search for the best cider and apples as we have for decades. And I also must look for a woolly bear caterpillar to see how wide its bands are–to forecast how long and hard the winter will be (the wider the rusty bands, the milder; the wider the black ones, the harsher).

I am thankful for autumn’s graces and stirrings, its preparation for the long haul of winter–and how it brings me to myself and others differently. The seasons seem like bridges from one phase of nature to another unfolding. And they each accompany me through my own seasons, offering me a certain aplomb and greater gratitude.

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