(Broadcast on WCMU-FM Morning Edition Fall 1981)
One morning this week, when I began my early morning walk to the university, autumn was in evidence all around me. The air was chill and moist, and wood smoke drifted in it from somewhere, reminding me of the smell of burning leaves that pervaded the autumns of my childhood. In the sky the bright fall harvest moon was low above the western horizon, reluctantly giving up the night, but still not dimmed by the onset of the dawn.
My usual route to school takes me down a street of older houses, where the neighbors seem to worry little about the trespassing of leaves from one another's trees. No homeowners here have scurried out to rake the lawn free of evidence of fall and prop up plastic bags at the curb like an honor guard saluting their compulsive tidiness. You can still hear the rustle and crackle of crisp dead leaves under your feet and occasionally plow through ankle-high drifts of colorful decay. Occasionally, disheveled mounds of leaves reveal the places where the disorder of nature has been improved upon by the chaos-making of children. Even in the stillness of the morning, more leaves detach themselves from the branches overhead and drift to the ground. About now in the season, the trees above your head and the carpet of leaves below your feet seem almost to mirror one another. The passage down an autumn street is hard to complete without thoughts of the season.
I've always been fond of fall, but never so much as this year, perhaps because I'm finally accepting the onset of my own autumnal season. The metaphor of the seasons for the stages of a man's life may be a commonplace, but it's durable because it's apt, even though we never realize its appropriateness fully until we've gladly given up attempts to make our summers linger.
Summer seems to me to be too intense, too extravagant. It celebrates its lush fertility in bursts of excess, expending the virility of its heat upon lengthening days with no acknowledgment that the days grow shorter midway through the season. Summer is all heat and light, all sensuality and ardor, all undirected energy and undifferentiated passion; its color is green, a sign of fertility but a mark of conformity as well, a willingness to be regimented in the pursuit of pleasure.
Autumn moves at a different pace. Its days are temperate, nights gradually cooler. As its heat retreats, and its light grows less intense, it heightens other senses, making you more aware of color and tastes and smells, making you more discriminating and alert about subtler pleasures. It's a more sober season, more reflective and thoughtful. It teaches you to understand, accept, and expect change; it focuses your attention on transition, on what you've learned and what you have yet to learn, on what you've done and what you've left to do. Autumn never deceives you about its ability to last; even as, in Indian summer, it lets you remember fondly the seasons past, it never lets you forget that winter is coming, that you have to accept its onset, that you have to be prepared for it.
I think there's something to celebrate in autumn, and I apply the season to my own life. If I take it more seriously than I do summer, I don't take it somberly. After all, I see myself as only beginning my season; there's hope that I'll display my brightest colors, channel my energies into a stirring achievement, right at the moment before I begin to let my powers fade. You could do worse than be a tree at the height of its individuality, its color, its perception and acceptance of the change of seasons. You could do worse than be a harvest moon, full, serene, brilliant, illuminating more and more the lengthening night below you.
I find comfort and reassurance in the autumn season. I'm really going to enjoy it while it lasts.
Note: "Autumn" was included in Limited Sight Distance: Essays for Airwaves. Glimmerglass Editions. 2013: 36-37.