I stopped the other day on a country road for a moment or two – a brief respite toward the end of another busy day.
Every day I drive by that point of rest. It’s a barn no longer in use, next to an abandoned farmhouse. The barn’s not that old; the rounded roof appears to be in good shape and the walls still have their faded red paint. Next to it is a small silo.
There are many of these scenes dotting the countryside – buildings on smaller family farms no longer needed, where the economics of farming has ended their usefulness. They stand, silent and empty, eventually succumbing to the forces of nature. But on this late afternoon I was beckoned to stop. The hillside behind the barn was a canvas of reds, orange, yellow, brown and green illuminated by the sun and framed by a bright blue sky. The setting sun was already casting a shadow on the floor of the valley and in a few minutes the scene would be lost.
I pulled off the road to capture this moment of pure autumn in Wisconsin.
The timing may change slightly each year depending on the weather, but the palate of Mother Nature comes just the same. Daylight hours diminish; photosynthesis in trees slows and stops. Deciduous leaves dominated by green chlorophyll the rest of the year show yellow, orange and brown from carotenoid pigments, and the reds from anthocyanins.
The Wisconsin Department of Tourism tracks the changing colors across the state in its weekly color report. Leaf peepers travel across the state to take in an art show unrivaled by any museum. The show builds, climaxes – and then fades away in a drab final scene as the browns of late fall turn into winter. It’s also harvest time. Farmers hope for an Indian summer, marked by sunny, dry and warm days after a killing frost. It extends the small window to bring in the crops. On our farm the corn has already been harvested, soybean harvest is underway and I have hopes of a late hay cutting.
The beauty of fall is tinged with some sadness. The shortened days and cooler temperatures are our annual reminder that we’re growing older.
The English poet John Keats captured the melancholy of fall in this poem “To Autumn,” published in 1820.
The last stanza says:
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
It was one of Keats’ last works, inspired by a walk he took near Winchester on a September day in 1819. He died less than a year after the poem was published.
Life is often as tenuous as the withering stem that holds a leaf to a branch. We know not if we’re in the autumn of our lives or whether spring will come.
She teases us, autumn does, with her fleeting beauty. “Take my hand,” she whispers through the rustling leaves. So we do and we dance amidst the blazing landscape, leaving our cares and worries behind, if only for a while. Inhale autumn’s beauty. Be still. Thank your Maker. Enjoy the dance.
Song: “Wash.” by Bon Iver