By Karen Cord Taylor
New Englanders have a complicated relationship with autumn. We brag about it and invite outsiders to enjoy it with us. After all, who wouldn’t like those maples and oaks turning orange, crimson and yellow? Trees turn color in Illinois and Iowa too, but because those places have few hills, you can’t see them in big swaths as you can on our mountainous slopes.
Who doesn’t enjoy walking through the woods and realizing that the golden, spicy native witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) lights up the path as if it were a ball of scented candles? Maybe you’ll come upon a mound of chicken of the woods mushrooms.
Plants go on forever, it seems. The knock-out roses keep knocking out blooms. Window boxes can bloom into November. September is the least rainy month in New England, and the air is usually dry and pleasantly cool. Hard frosts don’t really come until late November. That means summer really doesn’t end if we can enjoy eating at outdoor restaurants, walking along a beach in warm sand and forgoing heavy coats until winter is almost here.
But fall is full of frenzy. Not everyone goes away in the summer. And some students attend summer school. But in September, people feel as if everyone is back. The students have moved in. Traffic gets heavier. The subways are more crowded. You can go to a meeting every evening. Appointments pushed off during the summer now have to be kept. Obligations you promised during July now have to be met.
New Englanders see winter as something to be endured. They view spring as joyful and summer as short. Autumn, however, is purposeful. It is demanding of your time and attention. You have to meet goals, concentrate on projects, tidy things up. There is no lolling about as you might want to do in summer. Things are serious now.
They are also melancholy. Clam shacks, summer ice cream shanties and hot dog stands close. The last of the harvest comes in. Daytime gets shorter, and some people begin to fear a depression coming on that seems exacerbated by the darkness. While activity is more purposeful it is also more constricted.
Songs about autumn express that melancholy. “Autumn Leaves,” a song about love and loss composed in 1945, has never gone out of style. Nat King Cole recorded it in the 1950s, and Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton did it in the 2000s.
If autumn drags you to melancholy, you’re not the first one to feel it. But I’ve always felt the demands of autumn can be balanced by the poetry that has been written by such favorites as Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Perhaps you can’t evoke the images as well as Will Shakespeare in Sonnet 73 but you can find solace it them:
“That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long”
On the other hand, Emily Dickinson got a bit giddy with autumn:
“The morns are meeker than they were,
The nuts are getting brown;
The berry’s cheek is plumper,
The rose is out of town.
The maple wears a gayer scarf,
The field a scarlet gown.
Lest I should be old-fashioned,
I’ll put a trinket on.”
So you can take your pick. Wallow in autumn and its symbolism of death or go all gaudy with it. It’s your choice.