Tuesday, October 5, 2010


When autumn leaves... You know the rest of the lyric, from that great old standard about the melancholy of this season. I feel it in my bones, as the sights, sounds and smells of another summer curl up to hibernate in the cozy corners of memory; as green, blue, violet and rose dial down to sleep mode; and as daylight—especially those glorious after-dinner hours—is borrowed for the enjoyment of those on the other side of Earth.

Yeah, I feel the melancholy, but I don't let it get me down. I figure I can either curse the darkness or turn on my light. For me, as those of you who know me can attest, that's a no-brainer.

What could be more emblematic of this season than falling leaves? What a perfect metaphor for the swirling, sinking emotions of autumn! Like summer's profusion of life, they shrivel and fall and die. Yet they do so with such exuberance, such flamboyance, that we can't help but be moved by their promise of renewal.

I often wonder what someone from a place where trees don't turn would think of seeing, for the first time, a stand of sugar maples in their full fall glory. Don't you think it would be every bit as exotic as when we northerners witness the lavish colors and forms of a Caribbean coral reef for the first time? (Probably even more so, since reefs are finding it harder and harder to renew themselves.)

We of the northern deciduous forests are used to thinking of autumn leaves as a sort of commodity—a mass of stuff more than a community of individuals. We o-ooh and ah-h-h at the broad brush of color they apply to the landscape. We rake them into piles, like so much soil or snow, to be disposed of, or, one would hope, composted. If we're smart, we play in them.

They shrivel and fall and die, yet with such exuberance, such flamboyance, that we can't help but be moved by their promise of renewal.

But take a moment to pick up a single, brightly colored leaf and look at it. Notice how different the two sides are. One, obviously its face, is smoother, brighter, often even glossy. The other side, like the ceiling in an old home's basement, is where the plumbing is. See how the veins stick up on this side, how muted the color is? Nature, with her usual economy of design, knows perfectly well that both beauty and function have their places.

Hold the leaf up to the sun. Notice how the color catches fire. Is it the same color you observed in just reflected light? (Some leaves might surprise you—like grape leaves just before they turn, which may be a dusty gray green on their back side, but engorge with a rich, deep maroon when back-lit.)

Once in a great while you'll find the skeleton of a leaf. You'd expect them to have crinkled and broken, lost their shapes and gotten ground up by machines or feet or microbes. But occasionally you can find one—as worthy a prize as a four-leaf clover or a sand dollar—that's lost all its skin, but none of its "bones." You appreciate, then, a leaf's amazing structure. Like ever-finer lace, its arteries, veins and capillaries reveal how they've given the whole organ not only its sustenance, but its structure.

There's so much to be discovered about autumn. So, if you feel your heart growing heavy at the prospects of another long, cold, dark winter, now you know what to do. Move to Mexico? No, just turn over a new leaf.


El Perseguidor said...

What a wonderful topic to write about. I love fall but would have never been able to express it the way you did. Such magnificent words perfectly woven in succinct and concise ideas. Love your writing.

jeff said...

Mil gracias, El Perseguidor! I appreciate your kind words and hope you'll check in often -- or, better yet, subscribe to my RSS feed!
By the way, do you sometimes also go by the nickname El Charro Fiel?

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