All the leaves are brown

December 4, 2009

The time arrives when one knows it’s over.  The brilliant colors are gone.  The trees are bare and bony.  The sky turns mottled like rusted iron.  Despite warmish temperatures, one can sense the skeletal hand of winter reaching out over all of nature.

The end of fall is a strange, uncanny time.  Something fundamental changes, reaching far deeper than any other transition.  It never fails to grip me, and I have difficulty saying why.  For years I thought it was because the shadow of death is on this moment.  Suddenly the forests become graveyards.  (My grandmother, who lived in Florida, hated coming to Virginia in the winter, because of the trees.  They looked dead, she said, burned by some great fire.)

Now, I’m not so sure.  All of us are busy dying, as the song warns.  Some of us, longer in years, stand closer to the entrance of the valley of the shadow.  And it’s true that the light is failing, the green has withered, the flowers are gone.  Like my once-abundant hair, the leaves are down and get strewn about, without aim or purpose, by the gusting wind.

But the feeling that grips me isn’t mournful or grim.  If death and loss enter the equation, it’s in the form of a terrible loneliness, an awareness of one’s peculiarities, one’s forced separation from other individuals – even family and friends – and from the world itself, from nature.

That in turn brings on a great restlessness, for me the overmastering sensation of the last days of fall.  A restlessness to connect, to make sense of things; a need to pace, to take long walks, to brood on mysteries.  I think about my children’s future, about my old mother and my dead father, about friends I haven’t seen in years and likely will never see again.  Immense energies are spent wondering, in some bewilderment, why the world and I aren’t different than we are.

This blog is about freedom and morality, but at the end of fall I find it a struggle to align these abstractions with the powerful pressure merely to experience and exist.

In one of his finest passages, A. E. Housman imagines an ancestor, a Roman, gazing like him at the wind-tossed forest of Wentlock Edge, and enduring the same restlessness and agitation.

There, like the wind through woods in riot
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man is never quiet. . .

I like winter:  it’s clean and crisp.  The gateway to winter is another matter.  Under a giant disk of a moon, I watch the wavering trees reflect back a restlessness that to my eyes seems both alive and human.  They are never quiet.