“Summer’s almost gone,” sang Jim Morrison wistfully in 1968, regretting no doubt the imminent aerial migration of flocks of wild drug-dealers from the beaches of Los Angeles. But Jim was a child of the sun, a summer swaggerer. For others -- me, for example -- the passing of summer, and the turning of the year toward darkness and imagination, is a cause for quiet rejoicing.
No more the sunlight bouncing puppy-like at your window, hopping and panting, demanding that you do something with it. No more the meditation of the air conditioners, clenched in their industrial om. We have entered a vivid and interstitial time, a time of alterations. Between the jet-ski and the snowmobile, the trapdoor opens: fall.
And you know it’s fall because the trees tell you. A wink of yellow, a flutter of saucy red... Hints at first -- clues. In Brookline, Massachusetts, where I live, it happens as if at the flick of a switch. Foxy strains appear overnight in monuments of greenness. Stolid beeches go discreetly on the razzle. Boring chestnuts turn flirty, displaying tints like unsuspected personality traits. And then -- hey, presto -- the armies of fall have hoisted their banners, blurted on their rustic horns, and swept in Tolkienesque splendor across the treetops of New England.
The thing to do, obviously, is go leaf-peeping, although for God’s sake don’t call it that, the word “peeping” having no application at all to the wide-screen, high-definition experience that awaits you. In the fall, a drive along Vermont’s Route 100 can repaint your inner skull-walls. The least-assuming roadside spinney in New Hampshire -- say, Route 124 near Jaffrey, for example -- can pin back your eyelids like a drug. Or you can stay in the city, if you like, and creak around like a Saul Bellow character, the better to admire this slow combustion of color as it spreads from street to street.
On a cellular level, the science of autumnal foliage may be summarized (I think) as follows: chlorophyll out, carotenoids and anthocyanins in. Daylight weakens, shortens, and as the green sun-gulping chlorophylls lose their power, the deeper hues of the tree emerge: the orangey-yellows (carotenoids) and the reddish-purples (anthocyanins). Each tree undergoes this individually, of course, and at its own pace, but the effect is collective: a rolling or a rippling or even a crackling-across of pigmentation. There is a note of fatality in the process, but also of celebration and, yes, defiance: nothing rages, rages against the dying of the light like a deciduous tree in October.
Autumn's Strange Inner Heat
In Massachusetts, the whole thing is painfully brief -- briefer by the year, it seems. O poignancy! O global warming! Between the opposing monoliths of summer and winter, autumn flaps its colors self-consumingly -- and then is gone. Why did it even bother? But it is this very volatility that makes the season so beloved of writers and other weirdos, as it invites us to put on our woolly hats and rise in a blaze of expression from the secret sources of our being. A strange inner heat excites us come September, a strange flush hits the introvert’s cheek. In the fall, though I have never smoked a cigarette in my life, I experience powerful cigarette-based urges, as if to light up and grandly exhale would be my own little contribution to the general burn-up.
And when the leaves have fallen, and the bare trees stand like shatter-patterns against the sky -- what then? Ah, well then you need a rake. If you have a yard. If not, you’re in the clear -- your only duty is to stay warm and sip Yamazaki whiskey until the sticky buds of spring come a-popping. But you will not forget the fall, the sense of possibility, this fieriness near the foot of the calendar.
Once, in late October, I left Brookline and traveled to England. I left at the peak -- the sizzling prime of foliage -- and returned to my homeland. When I got there, I was appalled: who had doused the fires of autumn? In leaky woods, between blotchy fields, the trees were drab, dun, drained, syringed-looking. No tragedy, no gusto. I realized that Massachusetts had branded me, and I sighed to return.
You can keep the New England winter: I have no love of shoveling. And you can keep the New England summer: it drives me mad with its banality. Spring is for lovers -- and I’m a married man. But the fall, last call at Nature’s dive bar, when the tottering trees signal desperately to one another in shades of yellow and mauve, that I think I’ll have. That’s when you’ll see me, a Brookliner, skipping.
James Parker was born in London and now lives in foliage-rich Brookline, Massachusetts, with his wife and son. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, where he writes the magazine’s Entertainment column.
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