Leaves of the Fall

A few mornings ago, I was lying down beside my son and looking up out of a high window in our bedroom. There’s a branch from a yellow poplar tree that hangs in view of the window, and I noticed that one of the leaves had turned yellow all over. The rest were still green, but this one had changed completely. Poplar leaves are fairly easy to distinguish—they’re four pronged leaves, with one side looking identical to the other, and they’re usually very wide. I pointed it out to my son and said, “Look. That yellow leaf is getting ready to fall.” My son is only 2 1/2, but I’m fairly certain he saw it. He’s proven that he has a pretty good eye—better than I give him credit for sometimes.

When I woke up the next morning, I had forgotten all about it, but when I looked up at the window as I often do, I noticed that the leaf was gone. Apparently it had been closer to falling than I’d realized.

* * *

Every year when fall comes around, I find myself mesmerized by the change. Out of all the seasons, fall seems to be the one whose coming can be felt so strongly. The smells of fall seem more powerful than those of any other—the scent of sawdust and woodsmoke coming from tobacco barns or from burning leaf piles, the pungent aroma of crushed walnut hulls, the dank smell of freshly fallen leaves, soaked with October rain. It’s a time of year that’s extravagant for the senses.

Trees seem to reveal themselves in fall, though differently than the way they do in spring. In spring, they come alive, but in fall, they speak. The mass of green changes over, and each one shines and gives its own unique eulogy, almost boasting in a way.

“Pride goeth before the fall.”

* * *

All this change has heightened my desire to learn to identify trees. I’ve tagged a few around our home to observe—a few maples, several pines, some yellow poplars, two box elders, one of which is slowly falling apart on one side, some sycamores by the pond, a lone sweetgum, and two massive oaks, just to name a few. Leaf shapes help me in distinguishing trees, but I still find myself wanting in terms of knowledge. I was out with my father-in-law the other day, when I noticed a very tall tree, far off from us, and its leaves were orange all over. I pointed it out, and he said, “Yep. That’s a hickory.” I asked how he could tell, and he replied, “Well, I just know what they look like.”

I can’t blame him for saying it, because I have the same reasoning for sensing the beginning of fall. This past week, I woke up very early in the morning—”in the wee small hours” as Sinatra would say—and I realized it was raining outside, the first rain of October. I wrote this down:

October rain

hushed and soaked with the colds of autumn

whisper on and be heard

For we are finished with this season

and our warm bodies are ready

for the cold wind to blow

Strangely, as dreary as the last weeks of wintertime are, I find myself ready for the cold each year. I’m ready for it to end by the time spring comes, but I’m ready for it to return as soon as it starts to feel like fall. Before the autumn changes even begin, I find myself watching for them. Spring always sneaks up on me. It seems that I can wake up one day, and it will be spring. But fall can be felt, and sensed, and observed—the cold fronts in the wind and rain, leaves racing across the road, stopping to spin in a circle before they cross all the way over, and the scents, which I’ve mentioned. It seems that all of nature is speaking, beckoning our attention, pleading with us: “Don’t miss this.” And so we pay attention. No one misses the coming of fall. It whispers, then it shouts, then it gleams, and all eyes are on its activity. This is the beauty we’ve been waiting for. But “Nothing Gold Can Stay” as Frost says.

Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

* * *

Last spring, I wrote a short poem in response to a visually striking spring storm. Pink and purple lightning was flashing in the sky above our home, and I was taken aback by the violence of such a thing as spring. I ended the poem this way:

Spring has come–
and with furious beauty it comes

I can’t read Frost’s poem about fall without thinking of spring, and I can’t think of spring in that way without thinking of Jesus’ words recorded in Matthew.

“Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” Matt. 24:44 ESV

When I look at the changing of the seasons, I can’t seem to shake the thought that nature is trying to tell us something. Year after year, the earth goes through a process of death, decay, and renewal. I’ve written about this before, but even so, I can’t stop thinking about it. What looks like an endless cycle seems at times to be more like a rehearsal, an annual effort at achieving lasting perfection—where evergreen trees are no longer signposts to eternity, where water’s never freeze or dry up, where forests do not burn up in a blaze. If a thing must die before it can be raised new, let fall come. Let the cold wind freeze everything, and let the slate be clean for the coming spring. And as my eyes saw the changing yellow poplar leaf, let them also see the first sign of spring. Let the coming of eternal springtime not be a surprise appearance, but a welcome presentation long anticipated.