Clippings by Karl Lindholm: The autumn leaves of red and gold
“There are two good reasons to live in Vermont,” I often tell people: “May — and October.”
(Conversely the reasons not to live here — “March and November!”)
I am writing this in the second week of October, the best week of the year in Vermont, when tour buses rumble through the state, and we grumble about and make fun of “leaf peepers,” interlopers, from our superior position as natives in this autumn paradise.
A Yankee myself, born and bred in New England, and the son of a Swede, I am imbued with Nordic reserve, hard to move, emotionally and otherwise. I speak with the irony and understatement that are the coin of the realm of our region.
Yet for this week or so, I am powerfully moved and prone to hyperbole. How can it be otherwise? October is glorious.
At the beginning of the week, I felt I could sit outside, or at my window, and literally watch the leaves turn color.
The landscape which absorbs us, whatever the season, is so thoroughly transformed in October into a spectacular array of fiery colors, transformed in a short time from the lush green of summer, to subtle russets and golds, to the “OMG, look at that!” reds and yellows.
It seems to happen all at once. We say, “gonna be late this year”; or “not gonna be as colorful — too much rain” or “too hot” or “not enough rain” or “no big deal, happens every year,” and then it happens, all at once, and takes our breath away.
I think of my friend Ben, from California, who has been coming here for the middle two weeks in October for over 30 years! For most of that time, he recruited high school students from New England for the University of Redlands, which paid his way.
Now he does it on his own dollar. He comes “to see the outrageous and glorious color that staggers the imagination,” he says.
“New England again?” his wife asks. “You already have a picture of every maple tree and covered bridge in Vermont!”
“Not this year,” he says, “because today I have never been here before.”
We claim we live in Vermont because we like the changing of the seasons. In fact those changes are a tyranny of sorts: WinterSpringSummerFall, WinterSpringSummerFall.
Say it fast. That’s how quickly the seasons change for those of us who have more yesterdays than tomorrows.
We seem always to be preparing for what’s next. On these beautiful early fall days, there’s a chill that reminds us to break out the winter clothes and make sure to put on the snow tires before the first snowfall.
Local sage, the late Fred Neuberger, once said in my presence, inelegantly (and probably not originally), “the passage of time is like a roll of toilet paper: the closer to the end, the faster it goes.”
The seasons are how we tell time, or how we feel it passing. I borrow a lyric from Joni Mitchell’s anthem, “The Circle Game”: I’m at a point when I’m “dragging my feet to slow the circles down.”
I don’t think I could manage a whole year of peak foliage. That would be flying too close to the sun for this Yankee, but I do wish it didn’t pass so quickly, and so radically.
We turn our clocks back on Nov. 4. Coming right up!
This October explosion of color, like fire itself, is soon extinguished. But when the leaves are gone from the trees, they are hardly gone; they cover the ground and must be raked.
We have three large maples at our house, two in the back, one in the front. They turn at different times in this brief process, the one in front the last. They drop thousands and thousands of leaves to the ground.
Raking them is the price I pay, the pain I endure, for the pleasure of their gorgeous presence in my life, even so briefly.
I tell my friend Ben that he should hang around for the whole process, another week or so, and help me rake these leaves. I say there’s no such thing as the pleasure/pleasure principle, as we Vermonters know well. He chuckles and heads back to LA.
Emerson in “Nature” tells us that if the stars only appeared once in our lifetime, we would talk about nothing else (how we would “believe and adore”!), but “but every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe.”
I feel that way about the fall colors, peak foliage. That it is so transitory is important. What if we didn’t have these explosive colors every October, these autumn envoys of beauty, only had one experience of them, like some of the leaf peepers from away?
The most dramatic day and night of the year for me is coming right up: it’s that day late in the month when it’s windy and rainy, and even the last, most resilient leaves flutter to the ground like giant red and yellow snowflakes.
They cascade onto the roadways at night, a colorful cover glistening in my headlights on the blacktop, a slippery surface, so beautiful, so melancholy.
We are all familiar with the trope of the seasons reflecting the stages of our lives, autumn being the last before the darkness and austerity of November and winter.
Just last week I was overcome, somewhat to my surprise, by a rendition of “Autumn Leaves” by local jazz musician, pianist Chuck Miller: “the falling leaves drift by the window/the autumn leaves of red and gold.”
This time of year, with its spectacular effusions of color residing at once with our expectation of the coming austerity, this powerful outward spectacle, these gorgeous colors, existing alongside inward apprehensions: “Since you went away the days grow long/and soon I’ll hear old winter’s song.”
Thoreau argued that October is that time in our lives “when (we) are no longer dependent on (our) transient moods, when all (our) experience ripens into wisdom.”
May it be so.