With Fresh Eyes

Autumn Reflections

Autumn brings with it a different pace, a more formal structure. Routine and responsibility replace the unhurried days of the warmer season. It is a bittersweet time, with the shorter, darkening days calling us inside. It is also a season of expectation – of painted leaves, a heightened calendar, the rites of Halloween, and the anticipation of holiday gatherings, providing respite from our daily routine.

The fleeting nature of the seasons gives us pause. The naturalist Edwin Way Teale spoke of this years ago after an autumn woodland walk, at the peak of the season’s color: “On such a day as this everything is beautiful and pensive at once. There is a hint of sadness in the transient glory of these soon-departing colors. This is the culmination of the beauty of our northern year. Now in a relatively few days, in a comparatively swift retreat, will come the rain of colors as, dropping singly or descending in showers, the leaves drift down.”

For those of us who frequent and savor the outdoors, particularly during the warmer months, this is but a transient time. There is much to appreciate and experience during a crisp walk in the fall or, as a new year spills into winter, an invigorating venture into the whitened woods. But the extreme cold and biting winds and absence of sun have us yearning all too soon for another spring.

One of the wonders of this new season is the annual trek southward of the migratory creatures and the mystery of their instinctual drive. It is also the beauty of their flight, perhaps best personified in the monarch butterflies’ migration to Mexican wintering grounds. Author Margaret Renkl, in her book Late Migrations, offers a glimpse into that world: “Every monarch in North America is hatched on the leaf of a milkweed plant, and almost all of them spend winter on fir-covered mountains in central Mexico, in clumps so thick that tree branches can crash to the forest floor from their weight.” Adding a cautionary note on the rapid decrease of the monarch’s numbers, she writes, “... the milkweed is mostly gone now, a casualty of the herbicides that go hand in glove with genetically modified crops. Twenty years ago, there were at least a billion monarch butterflies in North America. Now there are ninety-three million.”

The fleeting nature of life should also give us pause. It is incumbent on us to be watchful stewards of this sublime yet fragile earth. In that light, I am reminded of a reflection penned by Silent Spring author Rachel Carson. This short piece was written in the autumn of 1963 after she and a life-long friend had witnessed a wave of migrating monarchs along the seashore near her Maine cabin. In letter form, she sent the following to her friend as a postscript to what they had experienced. It was written after Carson had received a diagnosis of terminal cancer that would end her life the next spring:

“All the details of that morning will remain in my memory: that blue September sky, the sounds of wind in the spruces and surf on the rocks, the gulls busy with their foraging. But most of all I shall remember the Monarchs, that unhurried drift of one small winged form after another, each drawn by some invisible force. We talked about their life history. Did they return? We thought not; for most, at least, this was the closing journey of their lives. But it occurred to me, remembering, that it had been a happy spectacle, that we felt no sadness when we spoke of the fact that there would be no return. And rightly – for when any living thing has come to the end of its cycle we accept that end as natural. For the Monarch butterfly, that cycle is measured in a known span of months. For ourselves, the measure is something else, the span of which we cannot know. But the thought is the same: when that intangible cycle has run its course it is a natural and not unhappy thing that a life comes to its end. That is what those brightly fluttering bits of life taught me this morning. I found a deep happiness in it – so, I hope, may you.”

These are the words I spoke at my father’s memorial service in 1993. It was a celebratory proclamation to a good and gracious man, of a life well-lived, of his lasting impact on those who knew him. And, these words of Rachel Carson are the lessons I now embrace in the passing of the seasons and years and the emotions they evoke. Value each fleeting moment.

Contact Rich at richmskgn@gmail.com