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.
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Is green edged with gold.
It is the first official day of autumn, but we have been observing its approach for weeks. The lingering heat and humidity made us doubt our eyes. Now that the air has shifted, now that we have retrieved our jackets from the back of the wardrobe, we cannot tell ourselves that the cherry trees with their yellow leaves are overeager.
The maples are shaded with color now. The pumpkins lined up outside the grocery store no longer seem presumptuous.
Last weekend, Jonathan and I buried two hundred daffodil bulbs on the slope above the driveway.
Every year when I trip over a just-delivered box of bulbs on the porch near our back door, I feel beleaguered. Who has time for bulbs when the younger two won’t stop poking one another then screeching and the older two are whining about after-school snacks and someone refuses to meet my eye when asked about his school reading log?
But every year when spring finally breaks through, I wish I had planted more. I always wish for more.
I am trying to remember that winter-weariness. Trying to remember what those bulbs will mean come April.
Two hundred daffodils are only the beginning. I’ll plant at least as many more when another box shows up some time in October. More daffodils, but also alliums for the new flower garden and tulips for the raised beds in the vegetable garden.
If I plant tulips anywhere else they’ll only be eaten by deer, so I fill a bed or two inside the picket fence. When the tulips are finished in May, I can fill those spots with tomatoes or peppers or beans.
I am reading Terry Tempest Williams’ beautiful book Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. Early on, she writes, “Peace is the perspective found in patterns.”
When I came across that line, I put down my book and went in search of a pen. Her words describe something I have been living for years now, but only dimly perceived. The poetry of her sentence, with its alliterative P, has made something invisible in my experience visible to me.
The earth is full of patterns and rhythms. Some we merely observe but others invite collaboration. Like the planting of bulbs in autumn and the picking of flowers in spring.
These back-to-school days have been anxious days for me, but feeling again the net bag of bulbs stretched tight against the palm of my hand is like feeling my head surface above deep water.
I can breathe again. The peace of a larger, more meaningful perspective fills my lungs.
Homework may go unfinished, my children may go on poking and screeching, but wasn’t it only yesterday I was digging in bulbs with a baby strapped to my back? And isn’t it only tomorrow when those bulbs will bloom again?
The earth spins so fast. There is so much to remember (not homework but the feel of a baby on my back). There is so much to anticipate.
The present moment is always what matters most. But it matters most when it is rooted in memory even as it reaches toward that which is still to come.