For me, autumn is a wistful time of year. It is especially dramatic on the prairies where I spent several decades. Fragments of memories come slipping back to form vignettes of sight, sound and smell. I remember September walks to school in sturdy shoes and knee high stockings, wearing a pleated wool skirt and an warm sweater. We looked forward to the turning of leaves because that was when Dad would take us for weekend drives north on River Road to Saint Andrews on the Red, a historic church near Winnipeg. The spectacle of colour whizzing by the car window was absolutely intoxicating. We would do a walkabout of the cemetery surrounding the ancient stone church, searching the lichen spotted markers for cherubs and lambs that signified babies and children who had died of diphtheria or influenza in the early twentieth century epidemics. I would say the names and try to imagine their short lives.
As the season ripened, there were leaves of red, gold and brown to be raked together for the endless ritual of leaping on and re-raking. It was an activity that had an urgency to it. We could smell the change coming and knew that all would turn brown and soggy, ending our exuberance. When I view that scene in my mind, I marvel at how unselfconsciously we children moved amongst the elements of nature.
Fast forward a few years to see a horse-crazy teenage girl riding alone through another golden scene. It is mid-October and most of the leaves are on the ground. Through the trees, the sky is so blue it hurts the eyes. As I tell of it, I can smell the pungency of the earth and feel the damp of recent rain.
There is so much more to the experience than just a ride through a forest in autumn. Something changes that day. Nature and I make a grown-up pact of sorts. I know where I need to be to find solace and to make sense of my world. Here is where I can be at rest to sort things out. It’s where inspiration lies.
Twenty years later, I find myself walking down a busy city street near the end of November. I am on my way to art school and lost in thought. Cars are speeding by, mere feet from me. Over the street noise, I hear a haunting sound coming from above.
It is the honking of hundreds of geese in several flocks, flying in formation. They fly so low I can hear the rush of wind in their wing feathers and I am dumbfounded. They mark the dying of autumn and Nature’s coming sleep of winter. I don’t remember how long I remain watching waves of those mighty birds changing places to give their leaders rest, all the while frantically urging each other on.
I am not certain that autumn wouldn’t have been as memorable to me if I had grown up where I was born in the West Kootenays. I do believe that our environment shapes how we see our world to a significant degree. The prairies, like life, are extreme by nature.
There is a joy in autumn that gives a person a chance to gird the loins for the violence of winter storms. It is a time to enjoy the depth of beauty in ripeness and a time to look inward to prepare for the sleep of winter.