Autumn enchants me. This afternoon I drove through a section of Rock Creek Park in a gray drizzle. Light rain washed over a palette of yellows, reds, pinks, purples, browns, and the occasional splotch of green. The day began fading from earth, leaving a mellow wistfulness in the air.
Wistfulness, yes, with its own strain of sadness. Yet sadness sometimes has a beauty all its own. There is something important about melancholy, something that the soul knows intimately. It is counterpoint to joy. Like Satie’s Gymnopédie, “Lent et Douloureux,” an autumn afternoon signals the descent of peace. Sometimes peace, especially when it comes after great strife or stress, is tinged with sadness—perhaps regret, fatigue, or even profound relief.
Not all fall days are wistful. Some are crisp, bright, breezy, chilly. Sunlight sparkles on frosty mornings. By noon, summer sometimes reappears for a brief reprise.
Nearly always I associate autumn with Edgar Allen Poe’s 1839 short story “The Fall of the House of Usher.” I remember sitting one October afternoon in my college dorm room re-reading the story. It must have seemed particularly appropriate to the time of year, beginning as it does on a bleak day in a place where signs of decay are omnipresent. Although the Usher house, like its inhabitants, is outside any season save that of madness, death, and disease, the tale settled in my consciousness bearing the shadow side of autumn: the loss of vitality, the degeneration of living things, the blurring of identities, the certainty of oncoming death.
Why should I not run from these things? Why let one gothic story commandeer a whole season making it not only sad but horror-bent? Because there is a part of me that knows my own autumn. It is at once natural and terrifying, beautiful and disarmingly hard, promising and depressing, refreshing and tragic. It is easy enough, in one’s eighth decade, to associate the fall of the year with the ambiguity of aging, the prelude to the final season in which the last leaf left clinging finally floats to the ground and the spirit returns to the One who gave it. But autumn is not fully known chronologically. It keeps weaving in and out of my existence and always has, a finality that I keep resisting in many ways, yet one that inevitably comes to life’s stages and projects, its dreams and its torments. Precisely because autumn can smell like maple syrup running over apple pancakes as well as the acrid smoke from piles of burning leaves, it is the outward experience corresponding to an inner state.
In his poem “Spring and Fall: to a young child,” Gerard Manley Hopkins reflects on the sentimental tears of little Margaret reacting to falling leaves:
Márgarét, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Léaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such slights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Autumn may enchant me, but its spell does not put me to sleep. I am mostly conscious of what this seasonal reverie is about. It is less about oncoming death than the dynamic of decay that pervades all me and mine, indeed the world. I know better than to feast on despair. Winter is as necessary as summer, and spring is but a short distance away. Nature will again break out into singing, beginning with the cockcrow heralding the reappearance of light.
Meanwhile, political upheaval, an imperiled environment, wars and rumors of wars, suffering among the disheartened and dispossessed: all bespeak the fall. As Hopkins wrote,
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016