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.
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.