As it so happens, it’s a beautiful Sunday morning and here I am thinking about death. More specifically the art of dying. Art of dying, you ask? Yes, art of dying. Nature knows that dying is an art form. How else do you explain Autumn? You New Englanders especially know what I’m talking about.
I LOVE the Fall. Football season starts again. I get to bring out my sweaters and be revived by the crisp fall breezes. Desserts are pumpkin and cinnamon flavor. Those are just several reasons why I like the Fall. But why do I love Fall so much? All the seasons have their charm, but Autumn is the only season that celebrates the beauty of dying. Its nature’s way of reassuring us that death is nothing to fear. Spring gets all the credit for being the season of rebirth. Being born is easy, surrender is the hard part. That’s why I love Autumn! Autumn is an opportunity to cultivate peace. Autumn is surrender. Autumn is a letting go, a shedding of layers. The Fall doesn’t linger in vanity. It gets rid of the things it doesn’t need. It makes itself bare, totally naked. This vulnerability actually provides the substance it needs to make it through the harshest season. The howling winds, the frost, the freezing, the heavy burden of winter’s snow, the Fall prepares for the darkness that lies ahead. Autumn looks death straight in the eye and surrenders. Autumn knows that true strength lies in letting go. If you listen to the gentle, cool breeze of Fall, you’ll hear it whisper to you, “Let go, let go, let go.” The colors of Fall are Nature’s bold expression. Have no fear; there is beauty in the dying.
There is a brilliant piece of writing I have read every Fall since it was published in the Boston Globe in the Fall of 2003. I transcribed it in its entirety below, my emphasis added. Enjoy!
The trees tell you
James Carroll; Boston Globe, Sept. 30, 2003
The trees tell you what you need to know. It is not the color that draws your gaze, the burnished gold, the red-the leaves in all their glory. What snags your eyes, rather, is the sure sign of what that glory costs.
From the spectacular transformations of microscopic chemical reactions within each autumn leaf to the stunning vistas of the distant hills that autumn leaves create, you know very well that this annual high point enshrines the instant of decline. Not for nothing do they call it fall. Autumn points beyond itself to a season of introspection. Nature makes the un-souled world so beautiful just now to conscript the notice of the soul. For once, you are quiet, as your eyes call upon your ears. Looking becomes a way of listening for what the trees are saying. You hear more than the wind. And you see more than is before your eyes.
When you were young, no one bothered to explain how experience accumulates into knowledge. You could not imagine then how the razor edge of seasonal mortality softens. So you took in each year’s poignant turn as if for the first time-and the last. Autumn was an intimation of all that would never come to be. For one so young, you had no right to the air of gravity you wore like a dandy’s cloak. Now the memories of autumn blur together-the long-gone aroma of burning leaves; the brisk dash-halt-turn of your tight-end buttonhook; the first bite of apple; the sweet bitterness of cider; the chill weather from the north, always a surprise; not to mention how baseball can come to seem all-important. Young Werther melancholy as the season’s note gave way, when you grew older, to a steadying acceptance. The sadness in time remained, perhaps, but coexisted with calm gratitude. The actuality of what had been began to weigh more than the lightness of dreams. Gravity reversed itself.
Last week a dear friend of yours died, which no doubt set you to this brooding. The news took your breath away, and you thought for a moment it was gone forever-with him. He was the funniest person you ever knew, but where was laughter now? When you found your breath once more, however, you knew that you would laugh again. Sure enough, at the thought of his last wisecrack, you did.
Your friend has crossed over into who knows what? At the very least, into the living memory of the legion who loved him, including you. Memory, therefore, begins to seem the very center of hope, consciousness itself. This is why infancy lasts long enough for memory to establish itself, and why senility, with luck, is short enough to bid memory farewell. To be a human being is to remember. Memory is how loss is borne, if not recovered from; how confusion gives way to wisdom; how the past reveals itself as relative, leaving the future as the only absolute. Transcendent memory, in which death is never final, is known to some as afterlife.
Which brings me back to autumn. How many leaves must fall from the trees for you to get the message? Human life is a snap of the fingers, a flash of green-into-gold, a handful of rotations of the earth, even fewer revolutions around the sun. And that’s it. But human life is equally the refusal to be reduced to the mere cycle of nature. As the leaves return to humus, human beings insist on something more. The ancient intuition is that autumnal longing does not go unrequited. The grateful acceptance to which life has brought you involves an accumulation of losses which still do not defeat that longing. Over time-through time-desire itself, more than accomplishment, has come to define your hope. That you still feel the poignancy of leaves falling marks you as a creature of the eternal return, imprisoned by the year’s cycle. But that your feeling is itself infinitely oceanic marks you also as one who fully expects the things that has never happened yet. What you long for is the fifth season.
A life of many autumns has made you a connoisseur of time. As much as that heightens your respect for the lessons of what went before and your tilt toward what is coming, it makes you rather desperate to grasp the here and now.
The present, if you live it, is the absolute and the afterlife both. The fifth season is come. Thus, the recent loss of one person you loved-his final gift-makes you love those who remain to you all the more. Nostalgia and longing are nothing compared to wonder and gratitude before what-and who-there is. And that includes, yes, the turning leaves. The trees tell you what you need to know.