On Autumn

Published in On Landscape, Vol. 200.

Notice that autumn is more the season of the soul than of nature.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Every Autumn, in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere, deciduous trees undergo a radical transformation, climaxing in an explosion of color before shedding their leaves and becoming dormant during winter, preparing to start the cycle all over again in Spring.  It is a miracle of Nature brought about by seasonal changes in diurnal light cycle, temperature and prior rainfall that halt production of green chlorophyll and allow yellows, reds, oranges and purples to show through.

We all know this story, which for all its splendor also is so predictable and commonplace that it is easy to miss as we go about our daily lives.  Mired down in work and domestic responsibilities, the Fall color change can happen without our notice.   And if that happens, we lament that we missed it.  We examine ourselves and ask why and how we drifted away from Nature, why we don't look up at the stars on a clear night anymore, why we didn't notice the scent of sage this year.  

One morning, in the Autumn of 1994, I took a shortcut across a field in Connecticut, hurrying to get to my destination, when I looked down to ascertain why my shoes were soaked through to the socks.  The answer halted me.  The ground was covered with richly colored, dew soaked leaves made even more saturated by the soft, lightbox effect of cirrus clouds high overhead.  Luckily, I had my camera with me loaded with Velvia.  The beauty caused me to pause long enough to marvel at Nature and to record that feeling on film.  

That's what photography is to me, an effort to record a feeling - really, an emotion - that I can share and recall.  I often read or hear photographers talk about the importance of having something to say through our work, but I've rarely felt that I had something to say.  I don't even really know what that means.  It's the landscape that is speaking to me.  On the rare occasion that I do reportage I have a story to tell, but mostly I am not trying to say anything.  Usually, I am trying to listen.

Ever since that day in the field in New England, Autumn has been a favorite time for photography because Autumn is more than a visually spectacular color change.  Autumn is Mother Nature singing, with all her heart and soul, her song that we can hear if we remember to notice.  But how can we not notice such a loud phenomenon?

Whereas the solstices are subtle and slip by unnoticed, the autumnal equinox is a time of great upheaval, a beautiful death throe before the cold stillness of Winter.  The shedding of leaves is a great entropic event that deposits countless tons of biomass back onto ground, to be recycled by worms, insects and bacteria into basic nutrients that will, once again, climb the cambium layer of the very tree from which they fell to grow new leaves.

In Nature, Spring is a time of birth and childhood, of newness and learning, of adolescence and maturation.  Summer is the important and necessary time of production, like the prime of our adulthood.  Make hay while the sun shines.  Autumn is a time of fulfillment and harvest, when Nature rejoices her accomplishments by showing off all her resplendent colors as she prepares for Winter.  

That's me.  I am at the autumnal equinox of my life.  Strong and virile for the past 64 years I now find myself changing, even failing in certain ways.  I've always loved the colors of Autumn but now I identify with them.  I am them.  Autumn is a whole new level of maturation.  Autumn is a time for appreciation of life, for reflection on accomplishments as well as failures, a time to rejoice in the bounty, and a time for peaceful resignation and preparation before the inevitable.  

The challenge is to recognize it and enjoy it to the fullest.  Just as we miss the Fall colors if we don't look up in our busy lives, we can miss the Autumn of our lives if we don't make an effort to fully live it, to be fully in it.  It is a time to reflect, but it also is a time to live in the moment, to make the most of each day, to appreciate the beauty around us in Nature and in our friends and family.  A time to get outside with our cameras and listen.