Autumnal Equinox & Beyond

“Always we begin again.” St. Benedict

This blog began just before the Spring Equinox, a time we in the northern hemisphere tend to associate with new beginnings, with the emergence of animals from hibernation and of leaves from the skeletal boughs — a time of sprouting seeds, tadpoles, fawns, new and renewed life.

Now we have just passed the Autumn Equinox, a time of balance before tipping into shorter days & longer night here in the northern hemisphere, a time when we think of harvest, of dwindling light and falling leaves. But — probably because it brings relief from the oppressive heat of summer (harder on me now than when I was a youngster) & because most of my life has been spent as student and/or teacher in places where Autumn marks the start of a new academic term with all its hopes and its often unexpected turnings — I have associated Autumn with a kind of fresh energy, with vibrant beginning. I have been saddened by the lengthening of summer weather each year — and, of course, by what this shifting of rhythms means to the plants and animals and to the future.

Autumn is an amazing season. It dances with so many different movements. There’s the exuberance and abundance of harvest time, both in human fields and in the woodlands as squirrels gather nuts, bears forage and fatten for their long rest, and birds feast among the ripened seeds — whether pausing on their journey from further north or in preparation for the start of their migration, or just getting ready to hunker down for the winter here.

Then, gradually, as autumn progresses, the movement shifts from feast and celebration to letting go — a kind of sacred unraveling. Many of the birds have flown on, ripened fruits have fallen and rotted, flowers have withered, leaves that have been delighting us with their spectrum of fiery colors are dimming, dying, drifting dry and crumbling to the ground.

But the movement doesn’t stop there. This isn’t some sort of final curtain on the yearly show! In fact, as the green fades, as the bright leaves fall, much that was hidden can now be seen more clearly — no longer masked in leaves, the unique shape of each tree becomes almost startling in its clarity as do the curves and ridges of the land, the rocky bones of the mountains, the animals still moving through a more open forest. And what seems to us to be fading and departing is actually just moving on into a new phase of enlivenment, as the summer’s growth crumbles, falling to feed fungi and other tiny beings, becoming the soil from which life will spring.

And something I just recently learned: The autumn leaf hasn’t simply died of hypothermia & left the tree bereft. The tree has protected itself against the hard weather ahead by absorbing the nourishment contained in each leaf back into its main body, separating itself from the worn-out leaf, and then healing the tiny scar so that new buds are possible in the spring. In this letting-go there is already a new beginning that makes space for survival and eventually for new growth.

And all the while, hidden from us, the trees are sharing with each other the sweetness of the sunshine the leaves harvested during the summer, literally feeding each other through an incredible network of roots and fungus underground. Some of the roots continue to grow, even during the colder times ahead. …And how much other Life is still busily carrying on beyond our sight, beyond our awareness?

There are so many poems about Autumn that focus on aging, dying, loss and sorrow….. Mary Oliver writes of this time of letting-go in a different way:

Song for Autumn by Mary Oliver

In the deep fall
don’t you imagine the leaves think how
comfortable it will be to touch
the earth instead of the
nothingness of air and the endless
freshets of wind? And don’t you think
the trees themselves, especially those with mossy,
warm caves, begin to think

of the birds that will come — six, a dozen — to sleep
inside their bodies? And don’t you hear
the goldenrod whispering goodbye,
the everlasting being crowned with the first
tuffets of snow? The pond
vanishes, and the white field over which
the fox runs so quickly brings out
its blue shadows. And the wind pumps its
bellows. And at evening especially,
the piled firewood shifts a little,
longing to be on its way.

And then there is this:

Autumn In The Northern Hemisphere, Spring In The South.. by Michael Shepherd

It’s autumn here: the leaves fall brown, 
the nights are cold and frosty, 
the days are shorter and shorter, 
there’s snow on the way...

is autumn asking you to be sad? 
Go take a walk: fill your lungs with air –
isn’t that good? Don’t you feel the air
singing of everything that nature needs
to keep things going the whole year round? 

Listen as you walk
to all that goes on in silence; 
secret movements pretending to be stillness: 
the trees are making plans for Spring,
the plants, the flowers too; the earth
is bubbling secretly with thoughts of Spring..

If on an autumn walk
a Persian poet met a Japanese poet
they might write
a Persian haiku: 

This autumn evening
my mind is full of endings; 
trees smile as they plan. 

I ask myself: What conversation are I having with Autumn right now? Can I feel a sense of trust in or acceptance of the changing — the preparing & the letting-go, the evanescence & the emergence — just as the larger-than-human world does so clearly in this season?

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