I first wrote these words a few Octobers ago. Since then, I’ve written a memoir embroidered with stories of trees. That book will come out in March–just in time for green spring–but it seems I’ve been paying attention to the trees for a long while.
Autumn is announced by the seedling trees. The baby trees. They are the first to abandon their green in favor of orange or red or yellow.
Driving these country roads, they are like lit matches. Small, flickering flames against the general greens and faded browns of early autumn.
They are children embracing the arrival of something new. They wear their faith like Joseph’s multi-colored coat, and we cannot look away.
Soon, even the staid elders will shake off their summer sleep.
Until they blaze.
Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3)
I observed the brilliant, baby trees, and I immediately thought of Jesus’s words. I imagined I could write out the connection. That I could find some moral in what I had seen.
But trees are living things. They are not convenient object lessons.
Maybe they are parables. Easy to decode but almost impossible to comprehend. Truth so tall and deep, it avoids our grasp, seeking instead the deep well of our hearts.
I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world. (Matthew 13:34)
Yesterday, I saw a strange sight. Walking to shut up the chickens for the night, I saw a line of geese heading southeast. They were black silhouettes against the slate gray backdrop of the sky.
I stood perfectly still watching them, captured by some mystery that wasn’t immediately apparent. Then it came to me in two parts.
First, the geese traveled in a single diagonal line, but there was only emptiness where the other half of the V should have been. Was this a picture of loss and grief? Or only the notice of job vacancies in the sky?
Second, they were quiet. I could hear nothing. No flap of wings, no honking calls.
Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord, for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling. (Zechariah 2:13)
I read my Bible, and I watch the trees. I stop to consider the birds. I am learning to collect hidden things. To store them up for the winter day of my need.
And on that day I will know exactly what it means to be a young tree wearing a blaze of color.
I will understand just how much depends upon chasing the far horizon in complete silence.
Elsa Spring at Maplehurst, two autumns ago
It’s like the difference between the blue of a puddle and the blue of the ocean, this difference between the autumn of memory and autumn itself.
All year long, I say with ease, “Autumn is my favorite season.” I say it for the color of the leaves and the apple-crispness of the air. I say it for planting bulbs and going for long drives on country roads in search of our favorite old sugar maple trees. I say it for back to school and the holidays nearing, but every year I forget that vast expanse between the idea of autumn and the encounter with it.
To borrow words from W. B. Yeats, I forget that every year, on or about the end of September, a terrible beauty is born.
I begin to remember when the yellow leaves of the walnut tree rattle down on the metal roof of the old red barn, and my delight is mingled with dread. The dread is bewildering. Isn’t this my favorite season?
Why do I feel both glad and afraid?
I live in the pastoral paradise of southeastern Pennsylvania. Bridges are still covered and sized for horse-drawn buggies. Fieldstone walls meander in rhythm with the song of brooks and streams. Old stone farmhouses with leaded windows sit snug against hillsides, protected from winter winds for hundreds of years.
The beauty of this place is sweet and easy. It is a beauty resonant of home and safety, shelter and cultivation – at least, until the trees wake up and begin to blaze.
We say we want pumpkins on the porch and a gold shimmer on the trees, but we forget that this beauty won’t only warm us, it will burn us, as encounters with the deepest, truest things always do.
Every year, autumn beauty – that unbearable fire and glory – breaks my heart a little more completely.
Another Irish writer, Edmund Burke, gave us his treatise On the Sublime and Beautiful in 1756, just when colonists in these parts were busy building the “brave brick houses” spoken of by William Penn. According to Burke, beauty originated in love while the sublime had its roots in fear. It is the difference between a green pasture dotted with sheep and a snow-covered peak, terrible and tall.
It is the difference between my home in late summer and my home in fall.
I think I am afraid because in no other season does time seem so swift and so cruel.
No sooner have I spied the first color in the treetops and shuffled the first golden feathers beneath my feet, than the limbs are bare. The landscape bleak. As Robert Frost once wrote, “… leaf subsides to leaf. / So Eden sank to grief, / So dawn goes down to day. / Nothing gold can stay.”
Spring’s color may be just as lovely, but it goes easy on our hearts, tapering out slowly into summer greenness until one hot day we realize that the circle of the year has shifted, and we are somewhere new.
Autumn is simply one season of four, but it isn’t a safe season. Autumn reminds me of Aslan of Narnia, “He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”
We can avert our eyes, shield our hearts, and try to keep this beauty from breaking our hearts, but winter will come whether we do that or not.
Floodwaters will rise.
Hurricane winds will blow.
The earth will tremble, and we will suffer. If anything is certain in life it is that we will suffer. The only question is whether we will suffer well?
There will be terror and there will be beauty, and some days, the line between the two will blur completely, and all our certainties seem up for grabs.
It helps, I think, to enter the barren season with eyes still full of glory.
The poet T. S. Eliot famously wrote of “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”
What will I shore up against the coming ruin of winter?
So many fall delights.
The beauty of this coming season may be terrible, but fortified by small beauties, perhaps we can bear it with more ease. Delights like apple crisp flavored with chai spices, a melancholy old novel, a bouquet of dahlias on the table, and, yes, a pumpkin on the porch.
Just in time for this new season: an Autumn Giveaway!
When I first imagined the book that eventually became Roots and Sky, I pictured an old-fashioned treasure, something like the books I seek out in thrift stores and used bookstores. I thought my stories would be interspersed with seasonal tips and recipes and nostalgic pen-and-ink illustrations.
Almost as soon as I began writing, I realized that the story I needed to tell was simpler and leaner. Those first four seasons at Maplehurst were more quiet and watchful than busy and industrious, and the book needed to reflect that.
But the idea of offering more – seasonal stories, tips, recipes, and beautiful illustrations – has never gone away.
This summer we celebrated five years of cultivating home in this Victorian red brick farmhouse.
I can’t think of a better way to mark that anniversary than by finally giving you the more I imagined so long ago. In fact, I plan to give you more (and more, and more, and more). I have four gifts planned, each one arriving with a new season.
In collaboration with the talented designer and illustrator Jennifer Tucker of Little House Studio, I’ve created four autumn-themed pages from that book of my dreams.
They are free for every one of my email subscribers to download and print.
One comes from my kitchen, two from the garden, and one from my bookshelves. Each page offers something practical and beautiful wrapped up in my own lyrical point of view.
I’m planning to print and frame mine, but they’ll do just as well tacked to a bulletin board or tucked into a garden journal or recipe box. Feel free to share this post with friends who might like to print their own.
Simply click the subscribe box below, enter your email address, and a confirmation email will be sent straight to you. Confirm your address, and you’ll be taken to the link in order to claim your download.
If you are already a subscriber, check your inbox. Your link should be waiting for you.
Here are two things to remember:
One: Autumn is fleeting, and so is this gift. TWO WEEKS from today, the offer expires, and the prints will no longer be available.
Two: Winter follows fast on autumn’s heels, and my winter pages should appear some time in December.
September at Maplehurst is for birthdays and books.
And birthday apple pie.
Both of my daughters were born in September. This year, only four days apart, my big girl turns fourteen and my little girl turns five.
September at Maplehurst is also for full hearts and grateful tears.
My favorite gifts to give are books, and this month I have a stack of new favorites to give family and friends.
Shawn Smucker’s beautiful new novel The Day the Angels Fell would be perfect for the fourteen-year-old in your life. It would also make a great family read aloud with younger kids, and, honestly? I’m also telling the adult readers I know all about this winsome fantasy. If you’re a fan of Madeleine L’Engle, Neil Gaiman, or even Wendell Berry, then you’ll appreciate this beautifully written, spiritually rich story. This is a gorgeous, gift-worthy hardback edition, too.
You might worry that your child is too young or too sensitive for a book about death, but I can think of few better ways to introduce the topic than through the work of a gifted storyteller like Shawn. Local friends, I’ll be hosting a reading and book signing by Shawn at my home some time in October. Please do reach out to me for more details!
My friend Sara Hagerty has just released Unseen: The Gift of Being Hidden in a World That Loves To Be Noticed. This is also a beautiful, hardback edition with a cover design I love, but, of course, the real treasure is inside.
Sara’s quietly powerful story will transform how you think about success. I am personally grateful to her for giving me a fresh, new perspective on what it might mean to change the world.
GraceLaced: Discovering Timeless Truths Through Seasons of the Heart, by my talented friend Ruth Chou Simons, may be the ideal book for gift-giving. Ruth is a devotional writer and visual artist, and her book is the most exquisite thing on any of my over-stuffed bookshelves. Featuring her own watercolor floral art, luminous photography, and special touches like pretty endpapers and a cover begging you to touch it, this is a book lover’s book.
The seasonal meditations are written in a classic, not at all sentimental devotional style and include beautiful spaces for personal responses and notes. I’m convinced we all know someone who would love to receive this book for an autumn birthday or Christmas gift, or, goodness, maybe just because?
One of my favorite mystery writers, Louise Penny, has just released Glass Houses, the 13th installment in her Chief Inspector Gamache series, set in the quaint Quebec village of Three Pines. You could read Glass Houses on its own, but I highly recommend beginning with the first. The story builds from book to book, and you’ll appreciate the slow unfolding of these characters’ lives.
Louise Penny isn’t the most literary or polished of the mystery writers I appreciate, and yet there is something about her cozy village and philosophical Inspector that has earned this series a very special place on my bookshelf. Penny’s authorial presence can be a little heavy-handed. In writing-workshop speak she is more likely to tell than to show, but that style suits her material. I, for one, want to hear everything Penny has to say. In the character of kindly Armand Gamache and the evocative Quebec setting (not to mention the delicious details of food and drink!), Penny offers serious but cozy reflections on the human heart, relationships, and the nature of evil. There aren’t many mysteries with the heart and soul of these.
If you are a book lover then you probably already know Anne Bogel’s fabulous podcast What Should I Read Next. If not, well, you’re welcome. Anne’s first book (with its own beautiful cover) releases very soon. Reading People: How Seeing the World through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything is the book many of us have been waiting for.
In it, Anne uses personal storytelling to distill the wisdom of various personality tests and templates. If you’ve ever wanted to understand yourself and others better but found the big books on the Enneagram or Myers-Briggs or the Five Love Languages to be too technical or time-consuming, then Anne’s book is for you. Or if, like me, you already love the discoveries these personality frameworks make available, you’ll appreciate this fresh, enjoyable, and personal perspective.
That’s all for now. I’m off to make a little girl’s birthday cake.
But first, which new books do you have your eye on? I’d love to hear.
P.S. I’m giving away a calendar of my flower photography on instagram this week.
Earlier this week, I drove the curling, twisting country roads between my house and my youngest boy’s school. We carpool with neighbors, and I make that same drive on most afternoons.
It is twelve minutes, precisely. Twelve minutes of fieldstone farmhouses, enormous red barns, undulating fields, and one silvery, meandering brook. I see more cattle and horses than cars. I pass not one but two little houses that once were one-room schools.
We’d had sun for days, the kind of low autumn sun that blinds you all day long, but this day the sky was whitewashed. We have reached that point in November when the only green left is the dense, foreboding green of the hemlocks, the spruces, and the pines. Many of the deciduous trees are bare, and looking at them is like looking straight into the face of winter.
What remains is like a volcanic eruption: crimsons and coppers and a gold so gold it smolders. I had thought the autumn colors still here at the end of the season would be faded and delicate, but the trees I saw were heavy. They were fierce. They didn’t need sunlight to make them burn.
Those trees were disturbers of the peace.
This week, I’ve been remembering that moment in Luke when Jesus gazes out over Jerusalem and weeps.
The tears come just after he has been hailed as king. The adoration and praise were so chaotic, so exuberant, and so politically charged, that the religious leaders cried out, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” But Jesus said, “I tell you … if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”
And then he weeps for this city. He cries because peace is so near yet so hidden from them.
All I want in my house is a little peace and quiet, and most days I’ll pay any price.
My youngest two erupt together with such regularity that I have no patience for detangling the threads of their accusations. I don’t care! I yell. Just be quiet!
In my better moments, I beg them to apologize. I ask them to share a hug. Please, guys, just patch things up. All I want is a little peace and quiet while I cook your dinner.
Yet I know that the prophet Jeremiah’s rebuke is for me: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.”
“Peace, peace,” I say, because I do not want to face their anger, I do not want to feel their hurt, I do not want to see the wounds.
I come by my avoidance, honestly. In the south we are nice to a fault. We say bless her heart, and while we sometimes mean exactly that, we sometimes mean, would you look at that fool. The true meaning of our words can be elusive.
I have missed that southern niceness in every home I have ever made since first moving away. Chit chat with the store clerk and a friendly wave to the passing driver can make the world go round more pleasantly. Southern niceness says, I see you. It says, I may not know you, but I am sure you are worth my time.
Southern niceness has not always served me well. I will always remember the teaching evaluation I received at the end of a semester-long course that included a few particularly disruptive first-year college students. One student wrote, “Dr. Purifoy is very nice. Perhaps too nice.”
Niceness is sometimes loving and sometimes anything but.
Peace and quiet is sometimes peaceful and sometimes it is its very opposite. It is sometimes a wound so well-bandaged, so hidden and obscured, there is little hope for healing.
Maybe it is enough to hail Jesus as king. Perhaps all we need do is wave our palms and sing a chorus of praise. Will that still the stones? Will that quiet the disruptive song of the trees?
I think not. Ours, after all, is a weeping king. Ours is a king with a heart broken for us. Could it be there are days when the only way to sing his praise, the only way to acknowledge his kingship over us, is to cry with him, to ask, Lord, what wounds do you see? Lord, what is hidden from me?
For months, I’ve been stumbling over the same few verses. I don’t go looking for them, but they are there when I open my Bible, there in an email from a friend, there in a sermon on Sunday morning. They are chasing me down.
The first comes from the story of Nehemiah. The walls of Jerusalem are in ruins, and repairing them is an impossible task. Nehemiah inspired a few to begin rebuilding, but the willing are mocked for their efforts. Nehemiah is not deterred: “The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding.” Having been confronted by those words for the fourth or fifth time, I sat in my office trying to puzzle them out. Did they have something to say to me? But it was difficult to focus with the sound of a grinder chewing up mortar right outside my window.
Brick by brick, we are repairing the walls of this old house.
The second verse comes from Isaiah: “Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.”
Repairer of Broken Walls. I don’t even understand the meaning of that name, but the sound of it is like music. I know it’s the name I most desire for myself. For my family. For my church and for my community.
Yesterday, after dropping my daughter off at preschool, I drove the curving, narrow road down toward the center of our little town. Just before I crossed the railroad tracks, I noticed a building with a graffiti-covered wall on my left. Harsh triple K’s crawled like spiders toward the roof. On my right, directly across from the wall, was a little Missionary Baptist church. The flower pots on either side of the church’s front door overflowed with the fiery lava colors of autumn.
All it took were a few phone calls and a message on the local message board, before dozens of neighbors had mobilized to become Repairers of Broken Walls. As is often the case among neighbors, there is more passion than consensus.
Some are sure the vandalism has been there for years, some are convinced these particular stains are new. Some see racist hatred and some wonder if it might not actually be a protest against racism? The graffiti is a little ambiguous. Like many messages shared in anger, it has not changed anyone’s mind, merely given birth to confusion and outrage.
We are not sure if we’ll paint a mural or merely wash on some beige. Should we plant shrubbery? Install a light or a camera?
Thankfully, we need not agree in order to begin the work.
We can gather. Talk face to face. And pick up that first stone. That one. Right there. The one just crying out.
Go on, says the stone. Disturb the peace that is not really peace, says the tree. Because one thing creation knows, has always known, is that we hail him as King by making his kingdom visible.
Brick by brick and stone by stone.
We planted a tree on Friday.
It is a red oak tree, and we planted it for Shawn.
I’d ordered it in June for fall planting. It arrived at the nursery weeks ago, but somehow I never received the message. I found out it was ready only a few days before my family, the family I so rarely see, came to stay.
We have two shovels. My husband, brother, brother-in-law, and nephew took turns digging. My brother’s wife held the baby who was born the day of Shawn’s memorial service. The baby who shares his name.
The wind was a little too blustery for a nine-month-old more accustomed to Texas heat, but instead of carrying him back inside, I tried to block the wind with my body. I thought of how the tree will grow as he grows.
We tipped the tree out of its container and watered it well. I suppose its leaves were green when it was first set aside for us at the nursery, but now they are mottled with dark red like dried blood and bright red like the berries on our winterberry shrubs.
This tree is young, but it already knows what every tree knows: there is a space between life and death, and it has its own particular beauty.
The story of our world is a story of three trees.
In the beginning there was a tree of life, but we fell from that flourishing green perfection and went on falling until it seemed that death and evil and suffering would always have the last word.
He was like us, yet he did not fall. On a cross fashioned from a broken tree, he submitted to death and suffering, and so defeated them.
Now the power that carried him from death to life is transforming us from the inside out. And it is transforming our world from the inside out. One day that transformation will be complete, the distance between the way things are and the way they were always meant to be will be erased, and we will live in the green shade of another tree of life.
The leaves of that third tree, we are told, “are for the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2).
I can think of few things I want more.
I can think of few things we need more because words wound as well as sticks and stones and bombs.
Is it only a far-off dream? A happily-ever-after story we pull like wool over our eyes during days of trouble?
The radiant leaves of Shawn’s tree say otherwise. When the wind picks up, I hear them whisper, “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life” (Proverbs 11:30).
Because of Shawn, a tree of life has spread its roots through our family and among many friends. It is as real as this red oak tree. Things that were broken in our hearts or our relationships or our ways of living in the world are being made right. Healing we did not even know we needed has begun.
Our world is caught somewhere between death and life. It is like a tree glowing with autumn color. It breaks our hearts even as it dazzles our eyes.
But the seeds for that third tree have already been sown.
Controversies may swirl and bullets may fly (both metaphorical and all too real), but we are not afraid. We are not dismayed.
We are too busy planting and tending trees.
And that will make all the difference in the world.
Has turned a corner and is picking up speed.
The trees are racing to drop their leaves. Everything is sunset colored. Only the evergreen trees stand still and unchangeable. They do not rush about seizing the day.
I do rush about but mostly regret that by nightfall. Strange, how all the hurry never seems to amount to much other than a headache.
Now the days end in sudden darkness. We light a candle every night at dinner. We read Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing, and we eat pumpkin chili or an orange lentil curry.
I ordered a stack of new fiction from my library before realizing I am really only in the mood for gardening books. Like this one. Or this one.
My good friend Amy served me this tea recently. I do not exaggerate when I say that the taste is astonishing. It’s a cup of tea even a coffee drinker would love. A steaming cup is a very good antidote to hurry.
Tell me, what’s slowing you down these days? It may be lovely (like tea), it may be awful (like autumn allergies or the way young children pay no attention to the new time on the clock), but I hope that, together, we can say thank you.
For this dark month is for saying thank you.
I am grateful to be sharing my words in new places. Today, I am at The Laundry Moms writing about motherhood and calling. You can read it here.
Have you read Wild in the Hollow, the beautiful new book by Amber Haines? I recently shared a few words about church for her “Wild in the Hollow” blog series. You can read them here.