(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on September 22, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Though I'm many years removed from the rhythm of the academic calendar, I can't help but get nostalgic this time of year. With the first hint of gold in the trees I find my thoughts turning back towards the books I read when I was a kid, particularly those that remind me of a time when the country was still in its infancy. I imagined it as a time when there was nothing but trees from the east coast to my coast, a time when people grew their own food and built their own log cabins, when everyone was more in touch with the world around them. The images these books conjured up in my mind have stayed with me, shaped me, even haunted me. I like to think that I am not alone in this, that as children we all transform these stories into pictures of the world that become a part of us and make us want to become painters or teachers or gardeners when we are older. None of the pictures I dreamed up have shaped me quite as much as those that were wrapped in autumn's clothes.
Autumn captured my imagination because it didn't matter what kind of story I read, autumn could be used as powerfully as any of the characters in the story. There is a duality in the season that writers have used to establish a tension between beauty and barrenness. The season portends death and yet, it is still filled with so much life. This duality allows the writer to explore the whole range of the human experience.
"Autumn is the mellower season, and what we lose in flowers we more than gain in fruits."
-Samuel Butler, The Way of all Flesh
Writers and gardeners share in the cornucopia of symbolism provided by the autumn harvest. The writer borrows the gardener's work to illustrate bounty and to foreshadow winter. Gardeners read the writer's words to help put the season in better perspective. The gardener gathers the fallen leaves and knows that summer is over. The writer ponders them and reminds us that our green youth will have a similar ending. Sometimes the symbolism is subtle, like when Charles Dickens wrote, "Around and around the house the leaves fall thick, but never fast, for they come circling down with a dead lightness that is sombre and slow." And sometimes the symbolism is not so subtle:
"Death lies on her like an untimely frost
Upon the sweetest flower of the field."
-William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Our experience in the garden reinforces this grim symbolism. Our plants shed their summer beauty and we wait through fall and winter to see if they return, knowing that some may not--knowing, also, that we can do nothing to prevent the eventual chill of our own autumnal approach.
But we hope. We hope because we have jumped in piles of raked leaves and taken hayrides through apple orchards so we know that autumn proclaims more than just decay and despair. It also proclaims that the enchantment of an October twilight is unique and that even at its worst, the world is still a beautiful place. Okay, so I confess: I have never actually played in a pile of leaves or taken a hayride, but I have read books about people that have and the memory of my reading is almost as ripe.
In spite of the tendency towards using autumn to portray endings, many of our classic writers also give autumn unabashed praise. Writers have used the fleeting beauty of the season to encourage us to go outside and revel (or relax) in the season while we still can.
In My Antonia, Willa Cather wrote, "I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy." How great is that? If you could just sit in your garden and feel all day, wouldn't you do just that? Nathaniel Hawthorne echoed this sentiment when he said, "I cannot endure to waste anything as precious as autumn sunshine by staying in the house. So I spend almost all daylight hours in the open air."
Washington Irving wanted to remind us that even in spooky Sleepy Hollow there is more to autumn than creepy, leafless branches stretching out to ensnare us when traveling through the forest. "As Ichabod jogged slowly on his way, his eye, ever open to every symptom of culinary abundance, ranged with delight over the treasures of jolly autumn. On all sides he beheld vast store of apples, some hanging in oppressive opulence on the trees, some gathered into baskets and barrels for the markets, others heaped up in rich piles for the cider-press."
Those of us that live with dirt under our fingernails are wired to create beauty, but in literature we are told by greats like Ralph Waldo Emerson to let the beauty of the season come to us. "Go out of the house to see the moon, and ‘t is mere tinsel; it will not please as when its light shines upon your necessary journey. The beauty that shimmers in the yellow afternoons of October, who ever could clutch it? Go forth to find it, and it is gone: ‘t is only a mirage as you look from windows of the diligence."
Autumn is a great time to be a gardener. It's a great time to soak up the experience of life. It's also a great time to slow down a bit and read a great book. So when your chores wind down, and when your plants lose their thirst, and you find yourself with less daylight, take the opportunity to grab a cherished book from your bookshelf, sit by a window with a hot cup of cider and read for a spell . . . but if you listen to Henry David Thoreau's advice, don't read too long. As he said, "a truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting."
On second thought, maybe it would be better to take that book outside with you instead?