Tag Archive | Autumn

The Day After the First Freeze

IMG_9610 (533x800)Today is the day after the first freeze of the season, and it smells kind of funny around here.  I am pretty sure it is not me; although one can never know for certain, I did just wash my winter sweaters when I pulled them down from the top shelf of the closet the other day for the first time since last spring.  But I step onto the back patio, and I am struck by the odor.

It is the smell of decay, and I am struck by how quickly it has set in.  It was just last night that the killing frost happened.  When I went to bed a little after 10 p.m., which is early for me, the electronic thermometer in the living room said it was still 35 degrees outside.  The freeze probably did not come for several hours after that, so a good guess is that about 15 hours ago, everything was still alive, and there was no reason other than the sterotypically unreliable predictions of the weather forecasters to expect that it would actually get cold enough to kill.  But now, the leaves on the lantana have turned almost black, and their flowers, which were vividly red and orange and yellow just yesterday, have followed suit.  The blooms that shone on the hibiscus out by the mailbox have faded from their yellow and orange and pink to brown, too, and their leaves, at least the ones on the outside of the plant, are drooping, ready to fall.  The massive elephant ears have graciously passed out, falling to the ground behind the azaleas and the heather and the mondo grass, where no one will have to watch as the water in their cells is released, making them into a soggy pile of mush.  But the bolder cannas, which just yesterday burned like torches with their bright orange and gold flowers on top of the tall towers of their stems, are now just as tall and bold in their decay, the brown hue of plant death standing in front of the bedroom windows, calling all to witness the injustice and shock of their sudden demise.

All of that death has come together to generate that smell.  There is a complexity in the odor:  it is clearly sour, and if I discovered it in my refrigerator, it would be a warning to me that whatever it emanates from would probably make my stomach turn inside out.  But there is a sweetness to it, too, and when that odor mixes with the smell of smoke coming from a neighbor’s fireplace, burning against the chill in the air to make a house feel the warmth a home is supposed to have, that odor of decay evokes autumn.

I look again at the plants which are now, suddenly, generating that odor.  They are dead now, and death always brings the feelings of grief:  of sadness at the loss of things that were once so beautiful, of regret at the missed opportunities to appreciate and tend better to those things which are now gone, of fear because death is so sudden and so complete, of anger at the injustice of vulnerability, of a simple but overwhelming exhaustion that comes from having spent an exorbitant energy on a deep love.  It is best not to rush those feelings that come with grief.  It is best to notice them when they appear, to acknowledge their presence, maybe even to greet them politely, and to endure them and even appreciate them while they are taking up our mental and emotional space.  They won’t go away, no matter how hard we try to show them the door, so we do the best we can to receive them when they show up, even though they did not have the good manners to call ahead and let us know they were coming.

But even as I look at the remains of the leaves and flowers in my garden, and even as I smell death and decay in the air, I notice and I know that there is something more going on.  The hibiscus will be left with nothing but the eerie form of sticks poking out of the ground, but in a few months, new leaf buds will form on those sticks, and they will bloom again next year.  The lantana will have to be cut back to the ground, but around the base, new branches will grow in the spring.  The cannas and the elephant ears have complex webs of bulbs and tubers at their base, just out of sight under the leaves and mulch, and those will absorb more and more water and nutrients through the coming season, so that new towers of stems and leaves will shoot out again someday.  And I even have hope that the gardenia which I bought last spring but never got into the ground, which did so well in its pot in that spot out by the bird bath, which I meant just last weekend to put into the ground to protect it from the cold air, will survive and thrive again.  Death is not the end of the story; there is still the miracle of resurrection to come; I am assured of things I hope for, and I am convinced of things that I have not seen.

Earlier today, I heard the story of a man whose mother died while he was still a nursing infant.  Not many years later, his father died, too, and he and his sister were taken into the homes of relatives.  When he was 18, he set out on his own.  In the course of his life, he traveled the world, built a career advising others in the investment of their personal finances, raised a family of happy and successful children and grandchildren, cared for his wife as she got sick, and finally died at 86 years old, having decided to give up dialysis so he could leave this world with the dignity of the ability to make choices still intact.

That story gave me hope:  hope in the ability of people to survive times of deathly grief, hope in the power of family and community to make each of us feel loved and safe and strong, hope that the sorrow of the present will be redeemed by the joy of the future, hope in the abundance and eternity of life, hope even in the smell of decay that comes on the day after the first freeze.  Because that odor is not the end of the story, but only a sign of new things to come.

The Maple

IMG_9134 (800x534)I really don’t know what to do with the ornamental maple tree in my front yard.

It is in the lawn near the curb, about equal distance from our driveway and the property line, and it was put there by the previous owner of the house.  The one time I met him, he proudly explained to me that he was really a country boy at heart.  One of his chief goals in designing his landscape was to ensure that, from the house, he could not see any of the neighbors’ roofs.  In a neighborhood where each house is about twelve to fifteen feet from the one next door, that is a quite a challenge.  He was supported in this goal by his father-in-law, or perhaps it was his stepfather, who owned a nursery.  He could get all the trees he wanted for free or cheap.  Within two weeks of moving in, we had nine trees removed from the property.  There were the four swamp cypress, which shove their knobby knees up from their roots, spreading in search of water when they are not planted in a swamp.  Those knees, several friends told us, were strong enough that they could crack a driveway and even disturb a slab foundation.  Since all four were within a few feet of our driveway or foundation, they had to go.  There was the enormous holly tree planted too close to the corner of the house and the two Bradford pears behind it, all of which hung over the house in a way that was not healthy for either the trees or the structure.  And there were the two ornamental maples in the back yard, which were so close to a cedar that they were being choked in both their roots and crowns.  They were never going to thrive there, the arborist told us; besides the obvious crowding, they were a non-native species which really needed a colder climate to thrive.  So away they went.

But even after the tree people did their work, there was still a small forest of oak, pine, palm, birch, cedar, and magnolia, along with at least four specimens of that same species of ornamental maple, crammed onto our average suburban lot.  Most of those trees are in the back yard near the fence, a safe distance from the house.  Only four trees pepper our front lawn:  the old river birch, a palm on the other side of the driveway, a healthy adolescent white oak, and the poor, struggling ornamental maple.

I ought to simply take it down, but the buzz among my neighbors is that, since it is planted between the water meter and the curb, the city would object to its removal.  I do not view that as an insurmountable problem, since everyone agrees that, if it should die, I would have no choice but to remove it.  I certainly have a few ideas about how to hasten its demise, but I also have a hard time vandalizing a poor tree, no matter how out-of-place it is, to the point of murder.  Each spring, I watch all of the trees in the front yard proclaim their message of life after death.  The river birch starts the process of announcing the new season, with its leaves coming out in March and April, about the same time as the blossoms burst with their bright green pollen as they fall on my cars, driveway, and front walk.  Then, the white oak leaves unfurl, changing over a period of a couple of weeks from light pink buds to the dark green, outstretched fingers of the full-grown leaves.  By May, though, the maple usually hasn’t done much; its plain branches remain bare.  And I start to hope:  maybe this year, a hard frost finally did it in.  Maybe its roots, which are planted so shallow that I can see them worming their way through the topsoil at its base, have finally withered.  Maybe a disease or fungus or some other fatal trauma has visited the maple, which has always seemed vulnerable to such things.  But no.  Each year, by late May, when the temperatures are really becoming unbearable for the northerners who live around here, a pitiful few seed pods start to appear and ripen, followed a week or two later by some small, pointed leaves.  The maple lives again, and my hope that I could cut it down after its unfortunate but inevitable death is once again dashed.

It lingers through the summer, not really doing anything interesting, never growing or spreading as much as the other trees on our street.  I have to dodge its spindly lower branches as I mow the lawn, and every once in a while, I have to trim a branch here and there which has been snapped by some wind storm or other force.  This past summer, my son conjured up a game in the front yard which involved taking a larger stick and banging it against the trunk of the ornamental maple, pretending to fight it or cut it down, I am not sure which, until the stick broke.  I might have encouraged that game with more enthusiasm than some of the other ones he played this year, since it played out one of my own fantasies.

But then, fall comes.  Each year, the river birch is the first to litter the lawn in a shower of bright yellow in late September or early October.  The oak follows soon after Halloween as its leaves turn to a dull yet rich orange that quickly and seamlessly becomes a dry brown.  The maple holds out, waiting for a chill to fill the air and tell it to go through its own process of death and preparation for rebirth.  Since we are so temperate around here, it seems like it will never get cold en0ugh to trigger the poor thing into its necessary rest.  And then, usually just after Thanksgiving, the air turns nippy for a day or two.  And the maple puts on a display that is almost overwhelming in its vibrancy.

That display happened this week.  One morning, my son walked out the front door, and I think I actually heard surprise take his breath away.  The sun was just coming up over the enormous live oaks at the end of the street, so the air was bright with that golden hue coveted by painters and photographers.  And with the leaves on the other trees already faded, the maple radiated in front of us.  He declared that it looked almost like it was on fire, and he was right.  It was glowing.  It was explosive.  It was brilliant, in the way that I imagine the appearance of God’s Holy Spirit was brilliant as it danced like tongues of fire over the heads of the disciples fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection.  It was breathtaking.

And it was confusing. What do I do with a tree like that?  Most of the time it is in the way.  It is out of place.  It is uninteresting.  It doesn’t fit in the bigger picture of my landscape or in the cycles of this climate.  And yet, for a few days each year, it shocks me again with the power of its beauty.  And I can’t just cut it down.


IMG_3269 (800x533)I don’t rake leaves.  Sometime between Halloween and Christmas each year, everyone else in my neighborhood hauls out their lawn rake, or, God help us all, their leaf blowers; carefully makes their piles of fallen leaves; then stuffs them in those expensive brown paper sacks which you buy at the big box stores to temporarily contain whatever yard waste you want the city to haul away.  Those bags seem useless to me.  I understand why the city needs homeowners to use them:  plastic bags cannot go through the chippers which process the yard waste into mulch.  I am glad our city uses yard waste the way they do.  But I haven’t purchased those paper bags for a couple of years now because the only yard waste I leave for the city to use is big enough that it can simply be stacked by the curb.  Everything else just stays where it is, because I don’t rake leaves.

Instead, I mulch them.  Each year, usually sometime after everyone else has taken the time and effort to interrupt the cycles of nature with the lawn rake or those God-awful leaf blowers, I go after my own leaves.  I pick up a few which have landed on the driveway and mix them in with the vegetable scraps in my compost bin.  This year, I pulled a few out from under the camellia bushes in front of the porch; I have had a miserable time with white flies on those camellias lately, and I read somewhere that cleaning up the ground underneath can help keep the pests away.  But I did not bag those leaves from under the camellias; instead, I carelessly pushed them across the sidewalk and onto the lawn.  Then, I hauled out the mower and ran it back and forth over the lawn, chopping the leaves and whatever small sticks are mixed up in them to little bits.

The result is not as pretty as my neighbors’ lawns, if by “pretty” you mean even and uniform and green.  But there is little about my lawn that is even, uniform, or consistently green.  In some places, the leaves had fallen thicker than others, so naturally, there are some places where the brown, chopped-up remains of leaves are still partially covering the grass.  In other places, the grass and weeds which make up my lawn have not fared well with the change of seasons, so there are just empty patches of dirt with some leaf pieces strewn about.  Those are the places I hope the leaves will congregate; I assume that the grass is weak in those areas because the dirt is poor and most needy of what the leaves can do for it.

I see no reason to rake leaves.  In a wild meadow, the leaves would fall from the trees and remain wherever they land.  They would turn brown, they would get wet in the rain and dry in the sun, and they would be trampled, nibbled, rearranged into nests, and otherwise manipulated by the local wildlife.  But eventually, they would break down, rot, and become a part of the soil.  And what a valuable part of the soil they would be!  They would return to the dirt the nutrients used by the trees, and those nutrients would make a fertile place for grasses, wildflowers, and even more trees to sprout.  They would trickle into the clay and break it apart, or, more likely on our coastal plain, they would trickle into the sand and hold it together.  They would encourage little critters to linger in that meadow a while, so that their droppings and other remains could infuse the ground with microbes, bringing otherwise-dead dirt to life in a way that is essential to support other life.

My lawn is no meadow, but it lives on the same principles.  Leaves are precious, and they belong in the dirt, not sitting on the curb in a paper bag from the big box store.  In fact, I have been tempted more than once to help myself to the bags my neighbors leave out for the city to pick up, just to get more leaves for my own lawn; my sense of suburban propriety and the potential humiliation to my family are all that has prevented me from engaging in this kind of radical redistribution of organic wealth.

As I was running the lawn mower back and forth across my leaf-cluttered lawn a couple of weeks ago, I got to thinking about the leaves.  They started the year early; around here, the first leaves start poking out of their buds sometime in March.  The leaves on our River Birch usually come out first, and that tree is tall enough that I cannot watch the process up-close.  But when the leaves on our adolescent oak tree start unfolding, they are at eye level.  They start by exposing only their pointed edges.  Those edges are a soft, dusty pink color, and they are small and lacy and delicate.  Soon, though, the green comes out behind the edges, equally soft and dusty and light at first, then turning to the verdant emerald one expects of oak leaves.  Usually the oak finishes unfurling its entire canopy before the small, non-native maple that the previous homeowner stuck in the ground near the curb starts to swell in the buds.  That tree has never done well; besides the fact that, as they say, it ain’t from around here, I think it was planted too high in the ground with too many roots exposed.  Each year, when the leaves do not come out before mid-May, we wonder if that tree has finally died, only to be reminded that it is simply slow to develop.  I suppose there is nothing wrong with that.

As I was lost in my nostalgic reminiscences of the early life of the leaves which lay that day in the path of my lawn mower, I got to thinking about faith.  Most of us can remember something about when our faith was like those spring leaves.  For me, that time was when I was in high school and college.  I remember a particular late-night hike up a ridge in the woods of Northern California with some other faithful young people.  At the top, we could see about every star God ever put in the sky.  We sat up there for some time talking about big matters of faith:  where we came from, where we are heading, what we are supposed to do in the mean time, why the stars were spread out before us like that, and just how big is the God who put them there.   When I was young, those ideas were new and fresh; they emerged from their buds with pointed edges in colors and textures that were not quite what I expected, but which were more profoundly beautiful than any ideas I had run across before.  Those ideas made my faith come alive and sustained it for several years.

Most people have times in their lives when their faith is like those spring leaves.  The problem is that many people expect their faith to remain that way.  They want it to always be new and exciting and wondrous and beautiful.  But faith doesn’t remain in springtime forever.  The ideas we encounter early grow and expand and change, but eventually, they reach their greatest size and shape and color.  And the feelings that come with those ideas change over time, too:  we get used to them, we take them for granted, we move on to other concerns that require our best energy and thought.  We have new experiences which make us realize that those ideas and feelings of our youth just don’t captivate us with their beauty any more.  In those times, our faith is not necessarily unimportant; it may sustain us for a while, maybe even for a long season, like the leaves sustain the tree through the long, hot summer.  But there is no longer anything remarkable about it; we may realize at some point that our faith has become simply the way we breathe.

And then things change again.  Sometimes, when the days start to get shorter, our faith may start to turn a little different color, or we may find  spots on it,  or it might dry out at the edges.  The base of the stem that holds it to us might weaken a little bit.  Eventually, storms come; a strong, biting, nasty wind might shake us to the roots, or a light breeze might sweep by on just the right kind of day.  But we notice that our faith just isn’t in the same place anymore.  It might have fallen to the ground, a shriveled, dried-out, lifeless shell which only sort of holds the shape of its once-sustaining form.  Whatever happened, we notice that its color and texture and beauty and vigor are all gone.

We have a choice to make when our faith gets to that point.  We can just rake it up and stuff it in a bag and stick it by the curb as something useless and lifeless.  That may seem like the only choice if we believe that good faith, real faith, strong faith, God-given faith is always supposed to be like those vital, beautiful, unfolding spring leaves.  But I regularly look at my faith and see that it no longer has the vitality it had on top of that ridge in Northern California years ago, and when I notice that it is dry and lifeless, I try to make another choice.  I try to see that dried-up shell of my springtime faith as simply a part of the world working the way God made it to work.  And I leave that dried-up faith where it is for a while.  When I have the energy, I sometimes even chop it up into smaller pieces so that it is more easily comprehended and absorbed and made useful by the microbes in the dirt around it.  With some patience and with some effort, I know I will watch the remains of my former faith become something new which makes the place where I am more fertile.  That former faith will feed all manner of life around me in different and perhaps surprising ways.  Eventually, I will witness as it becomes no longer a shell of dried-up death, but a part of life again, with its own new delicacy and color, its own newly-surprising process of unfolding, its own new beauty and vigor that may or may not look just like it looked before.

Faith has cycles, just like those leaves in my front yard have cycles.  Sometimes it excites us, sometimes it sustains us, sometimes it even seems to shrivel up and fall when the wind comes up.  Therefore, what sense is there in raking up our faith, stuffing it in lifeless bags, and leaving at the curb?  Why would you throw away faith because it no longer looks like it did way back in the spring?

I don’t rake the leaves in my yard; instead, I let them feed new life.


It is finally autumn where I live.  Around here, autumn is a bit different than in other places.  When we lived up north, we could count on the air to turn chilly around Labor Day.  The leaves would turn yellow and red and brown and start falling soon after.  The first frost would come, sometimes accompanied by a bit of sloppy wet snow, in mid-to-late-October, and the lawn mower would be tucked away after it finished its work of mulching the leaves by the time the turkeys had their worst fears realized.  Around here, not only are things pushed back a bit by the sub-tropical climate, but there are even different signs to mark the change of season.  I first know fall is coming when the grass stops growing; that means the nighttime temperature consistently drops below 70 degrees.  The leaves fall gradually from the trees; the first ones come from the River Birch, which start cluttering the lawn in early October.  The non-native maple trees planted by the previous owner of this piece of land do not turn to brilliant reds and warm, rusty oranges until about Thanksgiving time, and my mulching mower does not gobble up the last of the white oak leaves until just before Christmas.  Although it is possible to have frost in Savannah as early as mid-October, we do not really expect it before November 15, and we sometimes get into December when the leaves on the annuals and perennials all turn to that greenish, brownish mush before they dry up and rot away.

While the signs of autumn are delayed around here, the flowers seem to know even now that summer is over.  The tropical perennials have not exactly stopped blooming, but the quality of their blooms seem to reflect their understanding that time is short.  I have noticed a vibrancy in the yellow and fuchsia of my lantana in the back yard that wasn’t there in the heat of August.  The yellows, oranges, and bloody reds of the hibiscus in the front near the mailbox have seemed more intense lately, too.  The yellow canna that is still blooming out there is different, though.  Instead of greater intensity, it has taken on an almost translucent quality, so that the lowering sun seems to make its petals glow with their light, dusty color.  Those petals are turning brown around their bottom edges even as new flowers spike out the tops.  Everything seems to understand that this is their last chance to put on a show before they go down to the dust.

I do not witness this season, and appreciate its beauty, without remembering an autumn wedding I attended a few years ago.  The bride and groom were in their late 60s or early 70s.  She had never been married; he was a widower.  They had known each other as young people, and I think they had even been in love, but circumstances had changed, and they had gone their separate ways.  They were both successful and self-sufficient; they had their homes paid off and their retirement savings stored safely away.  After his wife died, they found each other again, and they also found a connection which they each, for their own reasons, probably thought they would never find again.

And they purposely chose an autumn wedding.  They did not rush to the altar wearing the costumes of a young bride and groom getting married in the springtime, with their voluptuous off-the-shoulder white dresses or their strong, square-shouldered tuxedos.  Instead, they each walked in dressed with the dignity that was appropriate for the retired professionals they were:  the bride wearing a flowing crepe jacket over her dress in a muted yet vibrant lavender, and the groom wearing a suit in similarly muted colors that fit his body well.  They included music and readings of poetry in the ceremony which highlighted the realities of the season:  a time when flowers still bloom and branches still grow and life is still filled with water and sap and blood moving forcefully through stems and veins, but also a time when everything living seems to be aware that the frost is coming, and with it, the flowers and leaves will close up and the liquids will slow down and finally come to a stop.  We danced at the reception, and there was cake for them to feed each other, but it didn’t go late into the night, and the guests all understood when the bride had to sit down for a few minutes so her bad knee could rest.

The wedding was a beautiful celebration of the season of the year and the season of those two peoples’ lives and love.  They knew they will never have to rent a hall for their 50th wedding anniversary.  But they also giggled and smiled like two people in love, beginning their marriage together the way any bride and groom ought to.  Autumn is like that:  life isn’t over yet, but neither does it seem to roll out all the way to the horizon like it does in the springtime.  There is still plenty to celebrate, and plenty of energy left with which to celebrate, but there is also a wisdom and even a dignity which spring doesn’t have.  Life in autumn is experienced life; it is life which has seen flowers bloom and flowers fade, and watched leaves in bud and leaves which have fallen too soon, and felt the ups and downs of infestations and droughts and strong winds and driving rains.  Life in autumn is life which has endured.  And life in autumn knows fully that life will end, so it might as well have its fun and live its passions and show its color in whatever way it chooses, expectations and conventions and other judgments be damned.

I hear the wind of the late-season hurricane which is passing us by outside as I settle in with the first cup of hot tea I have brewed since last spring.  I know that the wind means more leaves will blow off the River Birch, sending them across my yard, across the neighbors’ yard, down the street, and across the marsh.  I hope I can find a way soon to photograph the flowers still blooming in a way that captures their vibrant colors and bold determination to show off in the crisp light of this season.  And I am grateful to God for the way that autumn bears witness to the full beauty of life.