If you listen to painters, they are obsessed with color and light. Well, if you listen to stories of artists, that’s what they talk about. Me, being a word instead of a picture person, I didn’t understand what they meant. Color is color, light is light, right? You either have it or you don’t. Then I took a look at Autumn around here and I began to see what all the fuss was about. The qualities of light vary, hues change and the infinite combinations can blow your mind. Then, I began to think that if we are made in God’s image, then the Supreme Being is also the Supreme Painter and autumn is when all the crayons come out of the box to vary the leaves with the light.
The light of Autumn has its own peculiar illumination. If Winter is a pale, fluorescent bulb, and arc lights imitate summer, then Fall is like Edison’s first bulbs, full of amber, dim, uncertain illumination. And when that yellow, watery light comes up underneath the clouds and hits the variegated leaves, the foliage seems to….glow.
For example, my neighbor has this incredible tree that puts on a show every year. (By the way, we don’t “plant” trees in my neighborhood; Nature does that on her own. What we do is continually clear enough new growth to keep a road to the house.) Well before the other leaves turn, this one shimmers first from green to yellow, then orange to red, signaling the show is about to start. And even on a grey day, this thing stands out a mile. Now get a load of this view…
This was taken during a rainstorm, but can you see how the peachy-amber of my neighbor’s yard reflects the light? To me, this is Nature worth watching. Our autumn foliage season hits a little later than most, starting just before Halloween and peaking around Veteran’s Day, so the store’s outdoor holiday displays can sometimes look a bit schizophrenic, juxtaposing fake snow and Santa Clauses on top of blazing autumn leaves. So, it’s best to ignore what the merchandising calendar for now and take in what this area really shows: radiant color and unearthly light.
For the next few weeks, these colors will intensify as the light dims and yellows until Thanksgiving’s sunrise will seem to set the trees aflame. Then, in one fell swoop, most of the leaves will darken and plummet (never all of them) leaving bare branches and us back in winter. But that isn’t today.
Today is part of the planet’s annual fireworks show, all color, and light. Today is when Nature is Art. And I want to see everything in the exhibit.
As a teen, I never cared for love stories. While other girls were sighing and crying over the latest sugary “boy-meets-girl”, I jumped into the classics, swearing romance book writers conspired to create Cinderella pap to weaken women’s minds. (Mom said I was foolish but she kept a soft spot for Barbara Cartland.) Not that I didn’t believe in love! I was just felt very awkward and self-conscious reading about it. I knew that if/when I fell in love, I’d never write tell the world about it.
Then I saw the South in October.
Yes, I know people aren’t supposed to fall in love with places. And if any part of the states is known for autumn scenes, it’s New England, not Alabama. But I did and the beauty of Autumn in Dixie was then a fairly well kept secret. So I had no idea, when I crossed the Mississippi River, that I was stepping into a place of transcendent beauty. I spent that first visit walking with my mouth half-open, about the Technicolor foliage that appeared around every bend. I found the South and Southerners fascinating and loved their complex, stubborn relationship with this place but more than anything, I fell for the faraway hills covered in crazy quilts of color underneath sapphire skies.
What can I say? I began to fall in love.
I began to discover why an essential element of Southern literature is its exquisite sense of place, as if the things that happen here, couldn’t occur that way anywhere else. I’m not sure, but is there anyplace else where natural beauty is spilled out so generously, where “trash trees” transform themselves into moving sculptures of butterscotch, crimson and yellow every Autumn? On the branches, the leaves are breathtaking. When they fall, they become an impressionist’s fantasy. Stand outside when the leaves are coming down and it’s as if fat flakes of cadmium yellow sailed off some artist’s palate and start floating down to the earth, It’s a treat for the senses but that’s getting ahead of my story.
Fall is a festive season here, maybe because of the return of football games and maybe to mark our turn toward the holidays of December but I think it’s due to the changing weather. The blue of the sky begins to deepen or it just shows more of a contrast against the variegated trees. Then, the massive heat waves finally break and it’s fun to go back outdoors. People turn out for fairs, tailgating, fun runs and visits to the pumpkin patch. Music starts playing, scents of food fill the air and everyone seems happy to be part of the world. This is a great time for festivals but my favorite trip takes us up a secret bluff.
Can you believe this is where my husband and his friends hid out when they played hooky in high school? It’s a beautiful, hidden place, about a mile’s hike off the public road and the view from the top goes on for miles. In spring, wild magnolia trees on the forest floor bloom and, if you stand on the edge of the bluff, you can touch the flowers at the tips of their branches. It’s even better in fall when a hike through the leaves gives you an appetite for harvest soups and barbecue. That level of beauty is everywhere and it only heightens as the season wears on. By the time we return to the bluff, I am besotted with the joy of life and this wonderful world full of color.
Sometime between Halloween and Veterans Day, the deciduous trees hit their zenith of color and for a few days the sun rises on hills that already seem like they’re aflame. This is the grand finale of autumn and, regrettably, it doesn’t last long. The winds decide to change or a front comes through and the trees that were covered in vermilion and bronze before, now stretch nude limbs to the sky. The beautiful leaves, now sodden, cover the ground at least until the the leaf-blowers get going and my infatuation with autumn will be finished again for a year.
So, yes, I’ve become a romantic fool, a fool for the South every October. If our romance is short-lived, at least it’s beautiful while it lasts and I always have next fall to anticipate. And I am willing to wait. So maybe this is more than an autumn romance. Maybe this is true love.
Fall is unequivocally here, on the calendar and in the air. Daytime highs are comfortably lower, nights are longer and the primary religion here has changed to college football. The leaves are just beginning to turn and fall but there are some early spots of color. Everything is changing along with the books we’re choosing – there’s nothing quite like autumn reading.
Perhaps it comes from the years we all spent in school, but autumn is the season when we reach for meaningful books, for stories that bring something with them besides primary characters and plot. History, both fictional and non-fiction, become more relevant in this season since autumn reminds us that time is passing. A new generation is starting school, while another has reached maturity and still another is passing on. After a summer of living in the moment, fall is a good time to reflect on life and to find your place in the scheme of things.
That doesn’t mean autumn tales are lacking in story. The greatest holiday for stories, Halloween, is in the middle of fall and reams of words surround it. Everything about Halloween stirs the imagination from elaborate costumes (Come As You’re Not Parties)…
…to the belief that a point of the earth’s orbit thins the membrane between life and death until it becomes permeable. All kinds of things can happen in the world like that and there are stories for every possibility. There’s a reason so many writers love Halloween. It’s a holiday composed of memory and imagination.
More than anything, autumn is a time of gathering in, for the harvest and for the soul, a time when an evening’s chill can make a good book and a warm fire the best company in the believable world. Fall may not contain the same verve that drove spring and summer but there’s a generosity here that favors and enriches the season. Here is the welcome of hearth and home and loving friends, real and in fiction. Enjoy this gold-spangled season and the tales that it offers. They are wondrous to behold.