For the Birds Radio Program: Evocativeness of Autumn

Original Air Date: Sept. 29, 2002 (estimated date)

Why is autumn so evocative?

Audio missing


What is it about autumn that is so evocative? A walk in any season can be quiet and lovely, stirring feelings from deep inside, but somehow the feelings conjured in autumn are the deepest and most complex. Why is this?

Is it simply a matter of color combinations? Winter is the minimalist season in terms of color—blacks and whites sometimes brightened by an icy blue sky, deep green conifers, and red berries, Christmasy grace notes that underscore the frozen starkness. Summer’s rainbow of leaves and flowers is more quiet and mature than the wild effusion of spring colors. Even the greens of spring are more vivid and varied than the greens of summer, or is it simply the hungrily-anticipated burst of regenerating life that makes spring seem more colorful? Spring walks are uplifting—I rejoice at every sign of new life, from geese honking overhead to robins hunting for worms between receding snow piles. I love to search a forest floor for tiny and delicate Dutchman’s breeches, spring beauties, and Trillium grandiflorum.

I seldom actually search for flowers in summer, and never in autumn, though goldenrod and hawkweed are still in bloom. Have I habituated to flowers, or does autumn’s epic arboreal grandeur simply pull my attention upward from such intimate delights? Bold, vivid leaves draw my eyes skyward where honking geese are departing, no longer arriving. Geese fly north and then south in an annual rhythm, and in either season they’re just passing over my house, moving towards lands unknown in either direction, but the flight south always seems tinged with sadness and longing, as if they carried winter on their beating wings.

Flocks of robins gather in my mountain ash, and I feel a surge of triumphant joy to see so many speckled young of the year even as I mourn their imminent departure. My rejoicing at the first robins of spring is a simple feeling compared to that of seeing the last robins of summer. A mid-winter Bald Eagle circling above seems a sign of hope, and by early spring, any eagle evokes anticipation of warmth soon to come. The exact same vision in autumn has a deeper meaning, and suddenly I’m writing haikus in my head:

Bald Eagle circling,
Spiraling up towards heaven,
On black angel wings.

The vision that conjured warmth and hope a few months ago suddenly stirs thoughts of longing and loss, and of death itself, yet the exquisite beauty is undiminished.

Perhaps, like our brother and sister birds and trees, we feel the decreasing day length deep within our bones. Or perhaps it goes even deeper than our bones. We rejoice at most seasonal transitions, especially rejoicing at winter’s release into spring. We barely notice spring’s imperceptible transition into summer, but summery warmth and simple pleasures are deeply welcomed. As summer ripens into early fall, we savor the fruits of the season.

But as autumn slowly edges toward winter, even as we thrill at lovely colors and frosty mornings and crackling fireplaces, and streams of birds flying overhead, we suddenly yearn for the seasons to slow down a bit as we suddenly remember our mortality. Even as the rhythms of the seasons play out, proof that the earth’s rotation is steadfast and eternal, we feel how minuscule our place on this planet really is, how the earth will continue to rotate and birds to migrate long after our bones have disintegrated to dust like so many fallen leaves. The reassurance of steady rhythms juxtaposed with the sadness of that final transition gives autumn its depth, its evocativeness. As I collect acorns and maple leaves and eat toast covered in blackberry jelly and stand enthralled at streaming northern lights, I think about this paradoxical planet where the saddest season of all is also the loveliest.