Nat King Cole’s old melody, “Autumn Leaves,” is about sadness and loss, lost love, and the waning of summer’s warmth. “Since you went away the days grow long. And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song.” But are those lovely leaves “of red and gold” gone forever? Where do they go after all? Is winter an ending, a time for the death of things, or a time to look at things afresh before some new burst of life?As I walk my familiar neighborhood paths, the leaves are not drifting by my window. They have mostly fallen. One occasionally floats down, a red maple, and taps me gently on the shoulder. It says, “Look at me! Enjoy my color before I join fading leaf litter along the curbs and am washed into some storm sewer. Take in the beauty of life before I am swept up by huge, horrible trucks that will dump me behind chain-link fences some place far away from here.”
For weeks, with summer overextended by climate change until well into November, I have enjoyed butterflies and bees, gathered acorns and hickories and walnuts for my squirrels. And, I have worried about the fall foliage — a strange mixture of green leaves, curled, dry brown ones dropping early in a near drought, and colorful ones whose cloaks of burnt orange and deep crimson and burnished brass seem a little duller, more patchy, than their fashions from previous seasons.
White Oak leaf
Uneven coloring on Red Maple leaf
As I walk past fallen leaves, I try to savor the almost infinite variety I see in the street, even after county trucks and men with metal rakes have swept most away in the name of cleanliness, order, and efficiency. I take them home to examine on my desk. There are large, round-lobed white oak leaves with the patina and color of antique mahogany furniture. Their size marks them as old-timers in the neighborhood, as does their majestic height and the loose, gray bark that comes with age. The best color in Bethesda comes from the abundant red maples that range from newly planted saplings to hoary veterans from World War II. But looked at closely, I can see the marks of urban pollution and the unevenness with which this unusual autumn and its color has unfolded with dry, hot weather.
Red Oak leaves
Surprisingly, given its warming climate, Bethesda reveals occasional, but growing numbers of newly planted sugar maples, the iconic tree that draws tourists to drive around the mountains and small villages of Vermont. Here, the oranges and reds of the sugar maples are not so bright and appear unevenly on the trees where large patches of green remain.
As I walk each day, I see huge, foot-wide tan leaves beneath the sycamores whose display of stark white limbs adds contrast to the foliage. There are yellow leaves from hickory and golden, toasted brown ones from the tulip trees. And, of course, many, many kinds of oaks. Sharp-pointed, plain brown pin oaks with their tiny acorns, and the deep red, incarnadine leaves of the red oaks whose color rivals maples. And there is the rich, almost ruby color of crab apples, brilliant against dull leaves. They symbolize John Keats’ “Ode to Autumn” and its “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.”
I find myself heading outdoors more now that fall is finally here, now that the heat has faded. The air is cleaner, the skies are clearer, my pace is brisker, less troubled. I feel somehow part of something larger with the cycle of the seasons – even seasons that we are clearly changing.
These days, I leave my own leaves from the pin oaks and tulip poplars and dogwoods in my yard to rot and dissolve and turn their nutrients back to the Earth. But first they have become playgrounds for the very first arrival of winter birds now that the weather has finally changed. I see my first Dark-eyed Junco, a “snowbird,” come south from Canada scratching and hopping amidst the leaves looking for some minute morsels I cannot even see. The next day he is joined by a White-throated sparrow with its referees cap and formal white tie. Come spring, I allow myself to hope, these same leaves will lure in Rufous-sided Towhees to also scratch about as if I lived amidst the woods.
Ultimately, the fallen leaves around me, that have captured my imagination and my heart, will dissolve and be carried slowly and inexorably back to the sea where life began. As will I, and all the living things on Earth. Their beauty and ours lies both in our fragility and in our ephemeral nature. Each moment, each season must be cherished, fully observed, fully lived. As I revel in the leaves of autumn and wait for winter, I hear again the velvet voice of Nat King Cole. He no longer sounds sad. “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Jack Frost nipping at your nose…” The sound is sumptuous, serene, satisfied.