I am 74 years old and it is fall again. Again. There are a countable number of them left for me, a fact of which I am daily aware. It will soon be winter.
It is the middle of October and the leaves in Rockingham County, N.C., are falling like snow all day and clotting the ground; the woods around the house are turning brilliant colors. It is something I’ve seen 74 times and each cycle around it seems more beautiful and more precious.
Fall color can be reduced to mere postcard cliche. We drive the highway and look for the yellows of oak and the reds of maple and see them gleam in sunlight and think, Oh how pretty.
That is the view from the car window; it is too far away to see the leaves clearly — just broad patches of attractive color. I am not saying that view is a lie. It is beautiful and we should enjoy it if we take a weekend drive into the mountains to see the hues. We enjoy what it is given to our age and awareness to see.
But at 74, I walk out into the grounds behind the house and pick up one of those expired chlorophyll factories, wet and matted from under my feet and what I see is very different. Not less beautiful, but much less pretty.
The dead leaf is ribbed and spotted, with holes eaten through, worn at the edges. Patches of dun yellow, raw red and sometimes so dark in maroon as to be almost black. Few leaves fall in a perfect and whole shape. Most have been damaged, mostly by time, bit by bugs. They are curled and sere.
The highway view of the fall is a generalized one, the close up is individual, almost personal. The highway view is the short story; the individual is the novel — a great Tolstoyian or Dostoevskian epic. It is a constellation of detail. Like a great abstract painting, you can gaze at it and see a palimpsest of accretion, of time having its way, of decay not as the loss, but rather as a build-up of detail, each on top of the other. A Pollock able to reward the look at any detail pulled from the whole.
We are all sitting on the patio in the back yard, with woods acres deep behind and the sweetgum tree has covered the deck. While we talk, I pick up one and feel its roughened surface, its crisp desiccation, but mostly its bruised and patterned color.
And I recognize myself in them, now that I am old. My skin is also sere and crisped. It has its mottling and discoloration. The sheen of youth is rasped away. This is not a lament, but a recognition. Surely there are recompenses for the years’ brutality.
Primary among them is an equanimity. Motes that seemed essential are washed away; acceptance promotes forgiveness; the need to advance in the world vanishes.
And, perhaps most important, I find beauty in things that, when I was younger, I could not recognize, or found ugly. After such long experience on earth, I look for different things — very different from when I was young and ignorant. Now I am aged and ignorant, but have learned to see things with a wider eye.
So those failing leaves speak to me of a profound beauty. A beauty of mortality. Of multiplicity, of profuse accretion — of time as a building up of one thing on top of another, a layering of meaning. A depth.
I don’t know if this will be my last fall season. I could live another 20 years, although no reasonable actuary would advise placing a bet. I do know that it forces me to appreciate the worn leaf and see its innate glory.
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