Autumn in Hurd Park, Dover, New Jersey, features fall foliage on cherry trees.
Editor’s Note: This is the third in a four-part series on the wisdom of the seasons. The others are spring, summer and winter.
The many elements of autumn either intrinsically deliver happiness or trigger memories of past joy from which we can keep taking bites, as from a freshly baked apple pie.
While we celebrate the seasonal joys, we should remind ourselves that they are blazes on a trail that goes deep into a beautiful forest of wisdom and meaning.
Like spring, fall is a season of transition, a reminder of the value of change, in this case from bright, buzzing, verdant summer toward the dark, quiet calm of winter. It’s a journey inward; first experiential, then intellectual and finally into the collective unconscious.
This season’s holidays remind us to be thankful for our bounty and to have fun. Our senses lead us to embrace the outdoors. Our emotions are heightened, brains kicked into gear, and our sense of time and place is nestled in big, leafy piles of autumnal joy.
Blaze one: What you feel
“The temperature of fall is perfect,” explained my older daughter. It’s neither too hot (summer) nor too cold (winter) and cozier than spring.
Those first days every year when it’s chilly enough to need a sweater or hoodie are a revelation. Feeling chill on your skin and in your lungs is both a respite and a stimulant. The oppression of summer heat is overthrown by the autumnal rebels, layered on in the form of jumpers, vests, scarves and hats.
This season simply feels nicer than the others. Some animals, like the fox, likewise grow a cozy, thicker fur in anticipation of winter. We are once again able to control our body temperature, with sartorial flair.
The emotions we feel in autumn seem more complex as well. There are many fun and enjoyable activities; it’s a season designed for communing with friends, family and nature. But there’s also something melancholy about the season.
“You expected to be sad in the fall,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in “A Moveable Feast,” because “part of you died each year.”
But there’s also a rebirth in the fall after the hot, laconic days of summer. Maybe it’s the energy field surrounding a new school year – even this complicated year – but there’s an electricity in the air. It’s the most academically stimulating of the seasons (and not just because classes resume) – I love diving into a good book on a chilly fall day.
That energy may have been what F. Scott Fitzgerald was feeling when he wrote, “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.”
So, get in touch with all the feels of the season. Go deep and have fun. Rake leaves and then feel their cushioned embrace with a classic jump in the pile.
Blaze two: What you see
“Autumn light is the loveliest light there is,” wrote author Margaret Renkl. “Soft, forgiving, it makes all the world an illuminated dream.”
It is by that light (even if there is less of it with each passing day) that we witness the harvest moon, pumpkins, football and baseball games, wildflowers blooming along roadsides, squirrels secreting away nuts, and the first frost.
I like to watch perennial fall films like “Rushmore,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “St. Elmo’s Fire” or “Donnie Darko.” Halloween, of course, has no shortage of scary films that bring us closer to that which we mortally fear and by doing so, help us feel more alive.
In election years, we can watch the final political debates and election night returns in the fall. Many political careers die in November, but many are born as well.
But it’s mainly those beautiful, technicolor deciduous trees we love to look at, your maples, oaks and elms. “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is in flower,” wrote Albert Camus.
“I think of the trees and how simply they let go, let fall the riches of a season, how without grief (it seems) they can let go and go deep into their roots for renewal and sleep,” wrote the poet and novelist May Sarton in “Journal of a Solitude.”
And it’s from Sarton that we get the stoic wisdom of the trees and their lesson in change. “Imitate the trees,” she wrote. “Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.”
Blaze three: What you taste
Is that pumpkin spice? In my coffee beverage, yogurt and Jell-O? On my donut, pretzels, Pop Tarts and English muffins? (All real.) It’s a testament to how much we love fall that food and beverage manufacturers have exploited a blend of spices that induces it. It’s reached a point where the taste is synonymous with the season.
But cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves aren’t the only tastes of fall. For many, it’s the return of warm beverages in general, like tea and apple cider. It’s harvest season after all. The apples, plums, pears and others are ripe, straight off the tree or baked in a pie.
Many of the season’s holidays are harvest food-related. The Jewish Sukkot recreates the huts that were once temporarily erected in ancient Egypt and throughout the exodus to be near crop harvesting. Nigerians have a tradition every fall celebrating their ancient crop: yams. Germany has Oktoberfest, the party barge that launched a thousand seasonal brews.
The Japanese have traditional rice harvest festivals this season with parades and a dragon dance. Japan also has a Labor Thanksgiving Day every November, seemingly combining two US fall holidays: the one we think of as kicking off the season, Labor Day, and its most celebrated, Thanksgiving.
American Thanksgiving has its historical roots in a harvest celebration between native Wampanogs and British immigrants in 1621. The next 300 years doesn’t go as well, but the American feast-ival that endures has remarkable staying power for the way it brings families together, remains inclusively non-religious and showcases (too much) delicious fall harvest food such as green beans, yams, wheat (stuffing), corn and pumpkin pie.
American kids probably give more thanks for Halloween, though. It’s fun to dress up, be out after dark, chase away the bad spirits and stuff themselves on all that sweet candy.
The tastes of fall remind us to come together and eat the fruits of our labor and be grateful for our company, and a bit mischievous.
Blaze four: What you hear
There is a Greek word, psithurism, that translates to “the sound of leaves rustling in the wind.” Add the honk of birds flying south, the woosh of wind in bare trees, cries of “Trick or Treat!” the cheering and bass drum thump of football games, and you have an autumnal symphony.
Let these sounds transport you to another plane of reality, if you can. The Buddhist Beat poet Gary Snyder starts with an insect sound when he writes:
The crickets’ soft autumn hum
Is to us
So are we to the trees
As are they
To the rocks and the hills
Tune in to fall’s frequency and meditate on our place in the ever-changing kinetic existence we’re lucky to be part of.
Blaze five: Smell
Stop and smell the s’mores.
Fall camping (even in backyards) engages all the senses, but when you add the dirt, trees, smoke from the fire and the open-air cooking that come with the outing, you have an olfactory bonanza waiting for you in nature. Walking in the woods, that smell of decay is a reminder of impermanence and fall’s place in the death-to-rebirth cycle.
Smell is the sense that is most conducive to memory, research has shown. So when you engage your awareness to the unique aromas of autumn, you not only recall and relive past happiness, but you create memories for your future self.
‘To everything, there is a season’
As the seasonal merry-go-round turns, hop on every stop. I try to align my mental and physical activity to the season I’m in. It’s an opportunity to commune with the change in nature, embrace its reminders. Celebrate the holidays, take in their meanings, enjoy the spoils of whatever time of the year you find yourself.
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“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth,” Henry David Thoreau advised in “Walden,” his practical meditation on living seasonally.
In winter, go deep inside yourself and get snug and comfortable there. In spring, let yourself break out of the cocoon because we’ve endured the darkness and need to let in the light. In summer, get outside, be free and chase happiness like a puppy after its own tail.
And in fall, welcome an inward and grateful focus as the days get chillier, darker and more meaningful.
David G. Allan is the editorial director for CNN Travel, Style, Science and Wellness. This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project, to which you can subscribe here.