For millennia, the season of fall has been identified with, been a metaphor for, old age. The Greeks did it, the Romans did it, the Bible does it. Poets do it. And there is a correlation; as the leaves get old and change color and fall, so do we age and wither and fall. There is a difference, though, isn’t there? The trees will bud up again in the spring and new leaves will replace the old.
For me, the new year begins in the fall. I grew up in an academic family, and I spent my working life on one college campus or another. Labor Day signaled the start of a new year. When I was young, I got new clothes and new textbooks. A fresh start. But of course, fall is when nature (at least in the northern climes) starts winding down. And in New England where I grew up and (a little less so) in North Carolina where I now reside, the woods pass into mellow golds and flaming reds and oranges. The air gets crisp and cool, the air conditioning gets a rest, and I feel reinvigorated.
In his “Autumn Day,” Rilke reminds us that the fall of our life means “it’s time”:
Lord: it’s time. The summer was magnificent.
Lay your shadows upon the sundials
And o’er the isles allow your winds to vent.
Command the final fruits to be full and fine:
Give them two more days in the southern sun,
Push them to completion and then run
The last sweetness through the heavy wine.
Fall reminds Chesterton that the gold of old age is easier to find than the gold of youth:
In youth I sought the golden flower
Hidden in wood or wold [moor],
But I am come to autumn,
When all the leaves are gold.
When “all the leaves are gold.” If we could only think of old age that way. If, at least, old people could look at autumn that way.
In “Spring and Fall” Hopkins gives us the “golden groves” through the eyes of the young. He sees the “unleaving” season through the eyes of a girl, a girl with a name – Margaret – who grieves for the leaves without realizing that she is really grieving for the mortality of all things including ourselves. He starts:
Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
The losses of autumn can make us, like Margaret, melancholy at times. As Robert Frost says in his poem “Reluctance”:
Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?
And yet I love the fall with its final gasp of color and last flutters as the wind fills the air with the weightless corpses of the verdant summer. As the wheels swirl and crackle, I am reminded of the end of Rilke’s Tenth Duino Elegy: “And we who always think of happiness rising would feel the emotion that most startles us when a happy thing falls.” (Trans. By D. Young). Yes, we must “accept” the end of a season, of our youth. And yet, if we are willing to be “startled,” we may find happiness in the falling, I think.
There are many ways to handle the “end of a love or a season.” My story for this week, “Livability,” looks at one (somewhat humorous) way of making a new life when an old one ends.