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Autumn elegy

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the west garden;
They hurt me. I grow older.
Ezra Pound

Something stirs painfully this time of year. I think it has to do with the conflicting messages autumn sends to the subconscious.

In many ways, autumn is the season of new beginnings. Last spring’s 4th grader is now a sure ’nough 5th grader, ready to take on the world. Television introduces a new season, albeit pathetically. Newspapers carry schedules of upcoming theater and opera seasons, and the MLB postseason games remain turned off when the Braves are out of the race.

Even the church year begins anew late in autumn, in the season known as Advent. The problem with Advent is that the secular world observes it too, but calls it Christmas. And it comes too soon, too soon.

No wonder I am confused within.

This is the most beautiful time of year, and should be a time of festivity. When humans were closer to the land, we observed a tradition known as Harvest Home, celebrating the cutting and storing of grain, fruits, vegetables, and sharing with the poor.

But in late 20th century North America, as I came of age, most harvesting took place in gleaming supermarkets, not darkening fields. Older folks with rural roots may remember when gratitude for a bountiful harvest was expressed by piles of fresh vegetables and newly canned goods brought into church to be shared with the less fortunate.

The practice continues in Europe, where in autumn the altar is covered with apples and potatoes, cabbages and corn, crisp loaves of bread and great jugs of new wine. Reminders of God’s lavish hand everywhere stir hearts to praise.

My heart is grateful in autumn too, but depression threatens. The leaves are still mostly green. The afternoon light pours through them, glistening off rain drops remaining from recent showers. A rosy maple here and there and the rich burgundy of sourwood contrast with the green, but among the leaves, there is no autumn gold, not yet.

Gold a-plenty, however, in the goldenrod and wild sunflowers nodding now beside the roads. Ahh, there’s my opening: Let’s hear no more of allergies triggered by goldenrod. The drab-flowered ragweed is the culprit there, almost invisible next to the goldenrod, sending sneezy allergens into the wind as you pass, all unsuspecting.

And the glorious goldenrod takes the rap. Unfair! Goldenrod and sunflowers make the happiest of cut flowers, tangible torches of sunlight wherever their brightness is needed.

So here we are in the fairest month, and sadness creeps in with the morning fog. The first frost usually marks the zenith of my gloom, and that’s weeks away, or should be. Right now, late beans are still producing, the herbs are still lush and full, and their pungent scent bursts in air when I pinch off stems.

But the hummingbirds – their passage through our bit of the flyway has suddenly ended. In lesser number this year than I can recall, they seemed constantly upon our feeders. September visitors were so swollen with energizing sugar that their flight paths sagged as they departed.

Foolish humans, who mark time’s passage with “hourglass and lengthening shadows in the grass, unaware that it is really we who pass,” as the poet says. Would I feel this way if I lived in New Zealand, where the calendar says November and the climate says May? Imagine what those latitudes must do to confused circadian rhythms.

There’s no great mystery here, after all. A year is coming to a close, another year that seems hardly to have begun. The holiday season becomes a milestone to me, not cause for visceral celebration.

Now I see just that it is falling dark when we eat dinner, and too cool, most evenings, to be on the porch. The days are already dark longer than light.

Hidden at year’s end, you see, the anniversary of my own beginning is ready to pounce and remind me of my mortality. The calendar runs out, taxes are due, the days grow short, we count down the seconds: three, two, one! Happy New Year! – and in the midst, an even crueler reinforcement.

Happy birthday.

A year is ending, another year of life that seems more precious as each day slips out of reach. Some mornings I awaken to find a week has passed, not just a night. Is it Sunday again so soon? Was there no Thursday this week?

Is it autumn again so soon? Was there no summer this year?

Be brave, I tell my soul. The beauty of the goldenrod and the fat bellies of hummingbirds signal their intent to be back again next year.

And the next. And the next.

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