Today was the apotheosis of autumn. It reached in me all of the things I love about this season: its crystalline beauty, its bold fragility, the sense of ending, receding, of time and light dwindling. The seduction of something fleeting, the exhilaration of perfection that cannot last.
I visited the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust at their offices, in a post-and-beam building on a dirt road in the middle of what was once a farm. It was a perfectly mellow autumn day. Brilliant, slanted light of the late year, air that would be cold if not for the sun. Apples from the tree behind the Trust building had fallen. The straw had been cut from the field. A steady breeze shivered the birch leaves and, from time to time, would sweep the field. When it did, I could smell dirt, the thick scents of decaying dead grass and leaves, the tart-sweet tang of rotting apples. Through now-naked branches, the sun sparkled off the brook.
A red-shouldered hawk was circling above the trees across the field. It seemed to be riding the updrafts, but not to a great height. Once or twice the hawk flexed its wings—just to maintain. I thought it would hunt. Finally, seeming to have lost interest in the land in front of me, or perhaps sensing greater luck in a different place, it took off on the wind. Barely a stirring of wing, but rather a silent, still coast; yet incredibly quickly he was gone, over the forest.
There is something about the light in fall, the way it strikes us obliquely, as if through clear water. The further north you go, the more marked is this phenomenon. Last year at this time I spent a couple of weeks working on an island in Penobscot Bay. So sharp those pines stood against the sky! The air was optically perfect—seeming to make my eyes sharper. I could see every needle, every cone, every brush of witches broom stood out like a spot on the sun.
That place and this time are achingly seductive. They beg to be lived in—that singular smell of dead and dying leaves bears no comparison, has no analogue. The smell of the earth is so sharp yet always seems just beyond sensing; shyly, adamantly present. The colors are truer, richer somehow than spring or summer ever could be.
Yet there is such weight in this time, like the unseen side of the basement door when you’re five years old. There is the certainty of winter. The shortness of the day, each day darker, sooner, and noticeably so. The earth seems to linger at a doorway, on a step by the churchyard. Time is whittled away, we are stripped down to what we are, beyond pretense. We find ourselves no longer drawn backward into the future, like Fitzgerald said, but suddenly facing it squarely, seeing it clearly. We look into time coming toward us as it blows the leaves from the trees, takes the hawk from the sky, and irresistibly reveals the pewter light of winter. Winter will cast its watery light on the bones of summer – the only truth is the bones – dark boles of maples, cold granite and schist, the faded straw of the stubble field.
For a brief few weeks, we have truth. Then, if we’re lucky, snow will fall.