Since we suffered through a week of rain here in New York City and the suburbs ending yesterday, there wasn’t much opportunity for outdoor pleasures. This wasn’t just any kind of rain, but more of a pounding and unrelentingly forceful torrent of water dumped by a seemingly wrathful and stagnant bunch of clouds stuck in place over the region. It rained more in the previous seven days than it had in all the days of the summer that proceeded this season of autumn, and it became rather depressing being caught up inside the gloomy house looking out at the increasingly dismal gray heft of sky and rainfall each day.
The last two days have been conversely lovely. The cool breeze, the changing colors of the leaves, and the smell of burning wood in fireplaces has invigorated me. As I walked around the streets and then the park near my home, I felt tinges of memory that sparked pleasant thoughts. The burnished houses, porch rails, and fences sparklingly bright and dry in the sunshine after so much rain, looked almost like cut-outs against the cobalt blue sky. I remembered days like this in my youth, especially on weekends, as leaves fell and footballs sailed through the air, with school on Monday seeming only a remote possibility.
In the park the bushes and hedgerows, chiseled into perfect geometric shapes by diligent park attendants, had flurries of flaming red swiped across them as if done by a mischievous lad with a paintbrush. The towering maples drooped lustrous arms with dapples of orange and yellow slicing through their limbs, and the old lumbering oaks’ limbs swayed in the stiff wind, giving up only a few brittle brown leaves while dropping copious amounts of acorns on the paths and lawns.
The squirrels were having a fiesta on the grassy patches, scooping up their booty and racing off to their little nooks and crannies in the patchwork of branches above my head. I sat on the bench watching parents walking with little children, their jackets zipped firmly up to chins against the gusts of wind. I recalled walking with my own parents on days like this, racing over to the swings or monkey bars and liking the rush of cold metal bars against my hands. Now the park features wooden jungle gyms with colorful plastic connecting tubes, yet sorrowfully lacking in the stark adventure that a climb to the sky on monkey bars used to provide. The swings are plastic as well now, and the ground beneath is carefully protected by a synthetic cushiony substance. While safety is important, the thrill didn’t seem to be there for me anymore looking at these things, though the kids seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely.
I walked under the bridge as a Long Island Railroad train raced by overhead, dislodging the grist of decades of sediment and dust. When I got to the other side, a particularly fat spider had woven an impressively large web between the girders and the supporting wall that ran up along the tracks. Framing Halloween decorations in the house adjacent to the bridge, I thought this spider had perfectly situated himself for a bountiful season of not only flies, but of appreciative little ghost, goblins, and assorted witches who would be traversing this path on their trick-o-treat haunts.
I climbed the hill on the other side of the tracks, staring down at the rippling water in the reservoir and the geese bobbing in the wind. Soon they would no doubt be seeking warmer climes, but for now they seemed perfectly contented with the sunshine glaring off the water, the soft sweet taste of the wind coming down from the trees, and for a moment I felt a tranquility that I hadn’t for a long time.
As I walked home, I realized why I had always liked autumn so much. In these cooler, almost gentler days after the harshness of summer, there is a realization that home, hearth, and family are the things that matter. In the warmer months we scatter, traversing the country and the globe for vacations that are either exotic or challenging. We climb the highest mountains, we scuba dive the deepest blue seas, we rush along the fiercest of rapids, and we indulge in the allure of foreign nations to discover cultures that are parts of our varied personal histories. But autumn, especially in places where the earth changes to meet our need for variety, is an especially lurid time for things of the heart and soul, a sequence of days where we take the time to understand the nature of our place in the roving year.
When the earth starts to die in its yearly cycle, there is at once a stark reminder of our own mortality and the greater importance of our need for kinship and clan. During the autumn months families and friends are brought together to celebrate the ghoulishly happy holiday of Halloween, now syndicated and fabricated to meet the needs of the corporate world. Still, it is the time of children and their desire to create, to role play, and to feel a little scared. That’s what makes Halloween so alluring, for children of all ages.
A few weeks later is the happily secular holiday of Thanksgiving, meant not so much as a religious ritual in thanking a merciful god (as perhaps the Pilgrims originally envisioned it) but more as just people being happy (and grateful) to have their families, friends, and other loved ones gathering together. By the time Thanksgiving comes, the leaves are almost all gone in New York, and one knows that the winter, Christmas, and the New Year are ultimately just around the bend.
So I say I like autumn for what it is, for what it represents, and what it promises. On those days when the air smells like burning leaves, the wind whips through the trees like ghostly reminders of winter, and the sky and earth pass beyond ripened to the eventual state of slumber. I revel in the crispness of the cooler air and the flames of autumn in the landscape. This is the time for reflection, for understanding, and accepting one’s place in the vast configuration of things.
In autumn one finds the essence of life; we live and we die, but in between we are meant to savor the color, the taste, and the feel of things. This is the season for understanding and accepting what is yet to come, while appreciating that what we have at the moment is as good as it may ever get. That’s why I say I like autumn: a season where a multitude of nature’s gifts and simplistic pleasures abound, when kids can be kids and adults can feel that way too, despite knowing that the inexorable ticking of the clock says otherwise.
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