THE RITES OF FALL
Perched between fading dreams of summer and the harsh inevitability of winter, fall is the most emotionally intense, nostalgic season, bringing rich sweet sadness as leaves flame on the trees and cold mornings arrive. As fall progresses, its rites unfold.
Early fall. The annuals are about to die, but they don’t know it. They’re at their greatest vigor now. Gigantic spiky weeds higher than my head blossom with fluffy white tufts of seeds. Late-blooming flowers, like asters, proliferate with yellow, blue and white blooms buzzing with bees.
The apple trees sway with fruit, and it’s amazing that nature (helped by pesticides) can produce a thousand of these shiny juicy red globes on a single tree. Picking apples at a U-Pick orchard is much easier than picking strawberries. It’s sunny and mild, with a few ragged white clouds in the blue. You just reach up into the laden branches, give each apple a twist, and pretty soon your bag is heavy.
The oaks, maples and birches have their own rites. We look for the first flames of red and orange and ooh and ah over them, and then search for peak foliage, which seems to vanish in an hour if that long. One day, there’s still too much green, and the next day it seems that the colors have already turned dull and faded.
But there’s compensation. Well past peak, yellow leaves still flutter on the butternut trees, beeches and Norway maples. Other leaves are shriveled and brown, barely hanging on, but these remain, backlit by the golden sunlight of late afternoon, glowing like yellow lanterns. Magnificent. Last to go are the willows, their thin curved leaves reluctantly turning amber.
Frost arrives. One chilly morning I find a dead bumblebee cupped in a broad aster, having eaten its last meal and frozen there.
Migrating grackles at first seem black as crows, but then you notice their shimmering iridescence and their yellow eyes. They roost by the thousands in the trees in the woods, loading the branches with dark shapes crackling and calling. Then, a flock swoops fluidly onto the lawn, which throbs with them prodding under fallen leaves for seeds and bugs. And suddenly, they lift off like an undulating carpet to the next lawn, and my heart soars with them.
In my yard, the oaks and maples shed endless piles of leaves. Starting as dry, loose and wind-driven, eventually, they become wet and sodden, a haven for earthworms. This is one activity that doesn’t bring nostalgia—except maybe wishing for that innocent era of youth when you were allowed to burn them.
The pungent smoke smelled good then, but it would smell like rank pollution today. Now it’s slog, slog, slog, as we rake and rake and fill barrels and barrels with leaves and dump them into the woods behind the house.
In late fall, though there’s less daylight, when it’s sunny, the sky is a crystalline blue sphere. Then we switch to Standard Time and the sun sinks in the afternoon like a stricken blimp, not even making it to 4:30. Thick frost coats the cars’ windshields and rimes the grass many mornings. November rains sweep in. Darkness has arrived. Winter is coming.
Henry Stimpson’s memoirs, essays, articles, humor and poems have appeared in Ovunque Siamo, Cream City Review, Rolling Stone, Common Ground Review, Vol1Brooklyn, Poets & Writers, The Boston Globe, Yankee, New England Ancestors, New England Monthly.