A Tale of Autumn’s Light

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.

A Mid-Winter Hiatus

The American South does lots of things well, but Winter ain’t one of them.  While hardy New-Englanders take February like a dose of nasty-but-fortifying medicine and mountainous regions celebrate the annual return of snow bunnies to the slopes, the denizens of Dixie roll ourselves up in fleece and wonder why God sent an Ice Age our way.  He didn’t, not really, but when you live in the sun belt, it’s hard to cope when the sun goes away. Our houses and wardrobes don’t accommodate perma-frost that well and neither do our moods.  We like living outdoors in a world drenched in green instead of staring through the window at a universe of muddy browns and grays. It gets depressing. That’s why Wednesday was such a ray of hope.  It was a Mid-Winter Hiatus.
Winter doesn’t look so dreary
when the sky is this blue!

After two fairly solid cold snaps and an impressive amount of rain, the sun came out on Tuesday and Wednesday and put some blue back in the sky.  Not that thin, watery blue sky that makes a cold day colder either, but the deep azure we’ve come to accept as a birthright.  I knew it was time, not only to seize the day, but opportunity, and my gardening gloves.

For all of our grumbling, the Deep South has a short dormant season, and this is it.  Now is the only time of year I can make headway against the kudzu, sawbriar, and Jimson weed that threatens to take over my yard each year.  My allergies return with every spring, and this stuff starts to grow…well, like weeds. So, if I want to get in front of the enemy and encourage real grass to grow, this is my chance to do it. With my wheelbarrow and implements of destruction in hand, I began uprooting and toting away the scrub.

My hero

Sometime after carting away the sixth wheelbarrow load of thorned and prickly fauna, I realized something I hadn’t noticed for weeks: it was too hot to work in a sweatshirt.  A quick check of the phone app verified the miracle: the temperature was 70 degrees and climbing!  I started back to the house to change my shirt and then saw my annual miracle: the first flower of the year.

Almost thirty years ago, while my home was being built, the wife of the owner-contractor planted narcissi in the yard.  Since then, these flowers have returned every mid-winter, as if to affirm that, no matter how impossible it seems, Spring will return.  Of course, narcissi are so common they may be a floral cliche but they are the first flowers to appear each year, and that’s why I treasure them. They give me hope and color when I need it the most.  As far as I’m concerned, they’re heroes.

And, for the next few hours, everything seemed right with the world. I cleared out weeds, while I listened to a book on tape and felt the sun on my face. When the work was done, I sat outside with a drink and decided the returning cold does not dismay me.  It’s part of the cycle of life down here and, at worst, it’s temporary. Spring is coming. I’ve seen the signs.  They were there in a mid-winter hiatus.

Winter Country

Like all our other seasons, Winter came a bit early this year.
Just between you and me, the South doesn’t handle Winter all that well. This is the sun-belt, where central air and sunglasses are more than accessories. Our winters often hold off until January and some years they don’t show up at all. Instead of a frozen wasteland, we get a dormant rainy outdoors explored only by aficionados of the hunt.  The rest of us curl up with a book and a drink until it’s time to replant the garden.
But not this year.  This year we’re going to get winter and it’s going to be downright cold.

A sure sign of winter – smoke
coming from the fireplace
The South becomes a different place in winter; more like the spot they wrote about decades ago. Although most Southerners are not tied to the land like they were in previous centuries, weather becomes an important factor to us during these three months of the year.  Our houses are not heated the way New England homes are and bitter cold can sometimes seep indoors.  Bereft of their gardens, our houses seem to pull in on themselves these days, like a freezing man huddles inside his parka. The surrounding verdant landscape reverts to a more somber palette.
Still, I love the look of winter in the South with its subdued shades of brown, grey and green.   I cannot look at our winter landscape without thinking of Kenneth Grahame‘s Wind in the Willows.

“The country lay bare and entirely leafless around him, and he thought that he had never seen so far and so intimately into the insides of things as on that winter day when Nature was deep in her annual slumber and seemed to have kicked the clothes off. Copses, dells, quarries and all hidden places, which had been mysterious mines for exploration in leafy summer, now exposed themselves and their secrets pathetically, and seemed to ask him to overlook their shabby poverty for a while, till they could riot in rich masquerade as before, and trick and entice him with the old deceptions. It was pitiful in a way, and yet cheering– even exhilarating. He was glad that he liked the country undecorated, hard, and stripped of its finery. He had got down to the bare bones of it, and they were fine and strong and simple.” 

Stripped of the usual covering of kudzu and leaves, here is our essential country: strong, simple and not totally without colour.   Every December, our neighbour’s unpruned shrub decks itself in scarlet berries as if sprouted just for the holiday.  The pine trees grow like weeds from the rusty clay earth.  Even the layers of sedimentary rock expose their striated beauty. This is our home, without artifice.  The earth we cling to is strong.
Yes, Spring will return in just a few months with its riot of flowers and birdsong.  I’ll be there to welcome it.  But in the meantime, let me cherish winter, with its long, dark nights and silent, peace-filled earth.  This season has its beauty as well.

October in Alabama: A Love Story

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.

The Harbingers of Change

When the stores said fall was upon us, I didn’t believe them.  Stores put out their “Back-to-School” signage before the summer is half way through.  On the other hand, the calendar’s decree of fall’s arrival comes far too late.  By that time, classes are well-started and my old school has won at least three football games.  No, you can’t predict the seasons by anything man-made.  The long, slow slide away from summer started about 3 weeks ago, according to my early warning portents.  I know when the year starts to turn by the leaves, the nuts and the spiders.
A 2 day haul of acorns and pecans.
Anyone want to pick up the rest?
Some people say they see the signs of fall.  Me, I hear about it first from the trees.  When the leaves are still green and the thermometer hovers above 90, trees signal the change of season with a series of small bombing raids generally known as the falling of nuts.  Phooey.  These nuts don’t fall.  From the sound of them hitting our roof, they are hurled and God help what they hit when they land.  The impacts and ricochets sound like gunfire and the noise initially scares the hell out of me and the cats. Now, we are so inured to the occasional bangs and rattles that I doubt we’ll even notice when they cease. At least then, I’ll be able to rake the leaves without fear of a concussion.

The trees begin their annual strip routine about two weeks after the nuts start falling.  The whole business takes about three months so these are early days.  But in the meantime, I sweep the leaves off the deck in the morning…

…and sweep more of them away at noon.
I keep telling myself that sweeping is good, low-impact, exercise and this is just the first of the season.  So I re-clear the deck and rearrange the modular seats for good measure.  (If reincarnation exists, I’m probably the idiot who shifted Titanic’s deckchairs around while the liner foundered.) Sweeping leaves at this stage is no more useful than reshuffling the chairs but it gets me outside. And there are guests waiting to meet me.
Thanks to E. B. White and Charlotte’s Web, I know something of the life-cycle of spiders.  Late summer/fall is their time to start new lives before their own are complete.  So dense webs and egg sacs are starting to appear in all of our corners and eaves.  Now, my husband deals with cat-hunting dogs, varmints, and rattlesnakes without ever turning a hair, but when it comes to spiders, I’m in charge. Arachnids trigger an atavistic terror in him that no therapy can assuage.  So I capture and remove the disoriented spiders that bungle their way inside and I clear away their errant webs.  This time of year, they keep me busy.  Sometimes I want to apologize for knocking down these complex, silken edifices.  An exhausted, furious arthropod probably crouches in some a corner and curses my name while I tear down all of her hard work.  If someone demolished the nursery I’d just built for 3,000 soon-to-arrive babies, I’d be boiling mad.  I wish I could tell her my intent wasn’t malevolent.  She just constructed in the pathway to our house and I hold the right of eminent domain.
We’re still a long way from the technicolor of fall and the parade of plaids that lead to Thanksgiving.  But it’s definitely on the way.  The Heralds of Autumn have spoken.