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.
Summer came to an end at approximately five pm on Sunday night.
At five pm on Sunday night, I was sauteeing squash ribbons (that four out of four children would not eat) and flipping cheese quesadillas (that two out of four children would not eat) while hollering at the boys to clean their room and listening to the firstborn debate first-day-of-school outfits.
I was mentally prepping school lunches, signing an emergency-contact form for the oldest, and telling the youngest that now was not a good time for playing in the sink.
The youngest threw herself across the floor while I two-stepped toward the dinner plates.
And there, at utter loose ends in my kitchen, is when I knew summer was over.
Summer may be chaotic and intense, but in summer there is less pressure to chase down every last loose end.
Did we eat popcorn for dinner instead of vegetables? Well, it’s summer. Tomorrow we shall raid the garden.
Did the five-year-old hop into bed with dirty feet? Well, maybe we’ll wash off with a visit to the creek tomorrow.
In Fall, we remember the calendar and the budget and the email inbox.
In Fall, the overgrown garden looks sad rather than abundant. In Fall, the baby’s hair is plastered to her forehead with applesauce instead of sweet baby sweat.
In Summer, loose ends twine like pea vines on lattice. They tempt us to stay up past our bedtimes. They draw us on to look deeply at sunsets and the freckles on our loved one’s nose.
In Fall, loose ends scatter themselves like beads from a broken necklace. We scramble and cry, but we know we will never find them all. We will never manage to gather the details. We will fail to live up to at least a few of our responsibilities.
I long for my own little chore chart. With three neat rows and a gold star for each grid.
But there are no gold stars waiting for me at the end of my email inbox. No gold stars when I have packed three healthy, nut-free, school-approved snacks.
So here is a reminder – for me, for you – to hold on to summer’s lessons.
Let us remember where the gold stars live.
They live in sunsets and freckles.
They live at the ends of every loose strand of a young girl’s hair.
They shine in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome them.
“It is our desire, after all, that makes us most like God.”
(Fred Bahnson, Soil and Sacrament)
We are, all of us, so hungry.
My children dream of sugar, and I crave hot, buttery toast. I spied the first white flowers in the strawberry bed, and now all I can think about is warm, rich red.
We hunger for food and drink. Not once or twice but every day with regularity, like well-loved timepieces. Our hunger is new every morning.
We hunger for touch and for love and for happiness. We hunger for purpose and meaning and beauty.
But we are so terrified of our appetites. So afraid of our hunger. Desire is a dirty word.
Maybe we are terrified by thoughts of sin and shame and selfishness. Maybe we are haunted by a fear of scarcity. My hunger is too big. There can never be enough.
But the Bread of Life has appeared to us, and he has told us: Do not be afraid.
“This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes!” (Psalm 118:23)
Our constant hunger bears the image of an even greater hunger. A beautiful, generative, truly terrifying hunger. This is the hunger that gave birth to spring. To stars. To nations.
Within the small boundaries of my own backyard fence, this hunger birthed wild, waving forsythia and two spinning daughters. Unleashed, this hunger envisioned nodding daffodils and wild violets that pour themselves out like a river.
This hunger spoke a tree so shocking, so pink, it burns my eyes like a sun.
“This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes!” (Psalm 118:23)
The sour cherry tree beyond my kitchen window is in bloom. The flowers are dainty. They are white ghosted with silvery green.
But the smell … it is nectar and roses and honey on the wind.
The air, like the breath of God himself, teases us. Tempts us. This is purposeful scent. This is devious scent. We can close our eyes and stop up our ears. We can harden our hearts with walls of fear, but the breeze slides past all of it.
And nectar and roses and honey say what are you hungry for?
What is your heart’s desire?
One name for so many seasons: magnolia season, daffodil season, tulip season, and, now, dogwood season.
Each day, something is lost and some new beauty is born.
I could never pick a favorite spring season (and I haven’t even mentioned the lilacs), but I do know what it is I love about the dogwoods: they light up the shadows.
Here, from where I sit at my desk, I can see a thick, dark line of trees along the fence. It might look foreboding except that there is a lacy pink-and-white dogwood dancing on the edge of the darkness.
It is so pretty I have wasted more than a bit of my writing time googling hammock.
On Mother’s Day, I went for a drive. Alone. Because the irony of Mother’s Day is that I lose all patience for even the usual tasks of motherhood. Like wrangling four kids into carseats and listening to them bicker.
Just down the street from our house is a church like something from a child’s picture book. It is almost perfectly square and has a tall white steeple.
Of course, the child’s picture book never shows the tacky roadside notice board. This one said: We know life is hard. You are not alone.
I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated anything spelled out on one of those yellow plastic signs. Even the sentiments with which I agree bother me with their cheesy puns or too-cute rhymes.
But this one … Well, honesty is eloquent. Love sings.
I have nothing against John 3:16, but these may be the very best words for a churchyard sign.
I’m tempted to write them on my hand. Life is hard, but I am not alone. I think these words, and remembering that they apply to me and to everyone I meet, might help me respond to life with more gentleness. More compassion.
Life can be hard. It can be hard even on the good days, the days we feel at home, the days in which thank you, thank you tumbles easily from our lips.
Our lives are edged with shadow.
I write my own thank yous out in this space. Thank you for my family. Thank you for my home. Thank you for bringing me out of the wilderness and into this good, green land.
But we all live with shadows, whether we are walking through a wilderness or not.
Here is where you might expect me to point to those dogwoods and say something about silver linings or unexpected blessings.
I refuse to do that.
I think we sometimes act as if truth isn’t worthwhile unless it can be summed up in one sentence or organized into five lessons or bound up with bullet points.
I am a writer, I love words, but I know that words – more often than not – fail us.
Sometimes the only true thing is to say as little as possible. Perhaps, to say only this:
“Look! Do you see? A dogwood tree like pale pink lace dancing at the edge of darkness.”
I watched these old, old maples bend in the wind of that hurricane. Because they yielded, they are still standing.
That is how I want to live. I am more and more sure that art and beauty and love grow best not by raging against the wind (or the storm, the dark day, the hard, unasked-for circumstance). They come through yielding.
To yield is not to give up. It is not throwing up my hands in defeat. This yielding is more like being carried. It is moving with what moves and watching – always watching – for the One who does the moving.
And then singing of what I see.
The need to work this land to fit my wants
I yield. I vow no more to walk with plans
like gossip falling from my mouth. I choose
to go in silence, learning, in my sure
refusal, the truth that yields to yielding.
At Equinox, before the flood of light
sets water loose, I covenant to give
the downward rush beneath the grass its head.
I’ll dam no stream. I’ll dig no pond. Nor will
I plant willows to suck the wet spots dry.
My work shall be to say the nature
of Creation’s slow unfolding, to name what
becoming new has always been, to praise
what lives without my praise unto itself.
– John Leax