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Nashville Scene End Times

The ups and downs of autumn.

By Margaret Renkl

NOVEMBER 24, 1997:  "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness," the poet John Keats called autumn, and as always he was exquisitely accurate. What could be more beautiful than fall with its warm colors, its quiet air of a world drawing closer to the soil of its origin? What could be more agreeable than an afternoon shrouded in a delicate mist that barely beads on the golden maple leaves, on the golden skin of the backyard pears? And yet, when Keats writes about autumn a different picture emerges from the one we get at our house. Fall has always been my favorite time of year, but now that I'm a mother I have to admit that it has its disadvantages.

To name a few million, we can start with those glorious leaves. The half-acre lot that our house sits on is home to 10 mature sugar maple trees, a huge white oak, a towering pear, and several pines and assorted ornamentals. They all make a show every fall that is absolutely heart-stopping in its glory; even when it rains, our house looks bathed in sunlight, touched by unearned splendor. But every one of those gold-going-to-red beauties drops about 40 bushels of leaves onto our yard, which someone has to sweep up.

My husband and I are not fond of this kind of yard work, the kind that results in no discernible increase in beauty or convenience, the kind that must be repeated the very next day, and the day after that, and the next day following--until your hands are callused and cracked, your muscles knotted, and your back permanently stooped.

Who has the time any more, not to mention the physical stamina, for this sort of yearly test of one's true mettle? Since only moss grows beneath the shadows cast by these goliaths anyway, even in the dead heat of summer, we've considered letting the leaves just lie; if they're beautiful to look at and pose no threat to any more desirable vegetation--grass, for example--why not just leave them alone, looking like so much melted butter with just a hint of orange zest and paprika?

Two reasons: the neighbors, and their dogs. Most of our neighbors understand that the yards where children live are going to be less than showplaces. There are going to be little green tractors and red wagons and pink playhouses littering the yards. There are going to be random bubble wands and Barbie-doll legs scattered in the driveways. There are going to be Big Wheel skid marks in the bits of remaining grass. There are going to be very few unpicked flowers. Neighbors, even neighbors with immaculate grounds surrounding their homes, can tolerate this sort of neighborhood scarring because they understand children and because as a rule such flotsam remains confined to the children's yards.

Not so with leaves. Leaves are disloyal to their native ground. Leaves carry on an incurable dalliance with the wind, like flocks of starlings flying hither and yon without a backward glance. Neighbors who have kept their own autumn lawns swept and their own grass greenly gleaming become enraged with neighbors who shrug and say, "I can't bear to rake them up, they're just so darned pretty," or "I was thinking I'd wait until they'd all come down and then I'd get them up at once." In the interest of neighborhood solidarity, the leaves have to go.

And even if the neighbors were, every one of them, inclined to let falling leaves lie, there's that other matter of their dogs. More than 30 dogs live on our block, most of them wholly or tangentially some sort of retriever, weighing in at over 60 pounds. Since this is a very quiet neighborhood with no through traffic, many of their owners give them free rein on the block. Wandering from yard to yard, these huge, itinerant canines leave new deposits every day, and every day the plentiful trees collude with the drifting wind to cover those fecund, steaming piles with a light sprinkling of leaves. Restless children, chasing and tumbling and wrestling with each other through the beckoning piles of leaves, invariably locate with their bodies (and sometimes with their heads) the hidden secrets of the leaves. Laundry and bubble baths increase exponentially as the seasons wind down toward the end of the year.

The other thing that winds down with the year, of course, is light. After daylight savings time ends, darkness descends almost as soon as school lets out. By the time I've navigated the snarled hook-up line at my son's school, delivered another child to her door a mile away, and gotten my own ravenous children back home for a snack, it's almost too dark to play ball and often too cold to swing. The hell hour of parenthood--from five o'clock until supper--extends then, becoming instead a veritable hell era.

In spring and summer, when light lasts to bedtime and beyond, the outdoors offers an antidote to hell hour. The cross child and the fussy baby are easily distracted. They can wander through the yard, picking up sticks, carrying pebbles around on their tongues, watching blue jays persecute the squirrels, pointing their chubby little fingers at the passing jets. Autumn offers no such diversions. The best after-school amusement autumn can offer cranky children outdoors is a twilight tumble through the leaves and an early bath to wash the dog poop from their hair.

And yet, despite the disadvantages, fall remains my favorite time of year. I know, with Keats, that it does no good to mourn the songs of spring, that autumn has its music too. There's something about watching leaves fall from the sky and twist and turn and drop on the wind that releases the spirit, that makes a human being seem temporarily less earthbound. Even as they remind us that we ourselves will fall some day and descend to mold and dust, the falling leaves in their dazzling lightness make it possible to believe that before the darkness we too will have a moment to fly.

In the realm of ordinary natural splendors--outside the big-time performances of mountains and waterfalls--autumn's glories defy comparison. In our climate-controlled, birth-controlled, shrink-wrapped lives, autumn is the season that grabs us by the throat and yanks us back into the rhythms of the natural world. More splendid and compelling than spring, and far more final, autumn wakes us up to the beauty we pass through, unremarked, every day. There are few sights in nature lovelier than maple leaves being carried on wind. There's no call more aching than the wild geese flying south and crying as they fly. There's no smell more haunting than first woodsmoke on autumn evenings. There's no light more pure than twilight in an autumn sky.

In the end, autumn's burning pleasures are more fleeting than most and more mourned once gone. Mountains stand for eons, waterfalls plunge through time, but the mellow fruitfulness of fall lasts the briefest of days before the bleak sameness of winter sets in. Like a last, clinging, breathtaking kiss with a lover whose dear, memorized face you know you'll never touch again, autumn fills your heart and breaks it at the same time.

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