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WHEN AUTUMN PASSES
LAST night the superstitious leaves, forced to part from the home branch and begin a journey on Friday, knocked on wood as they went by, hoping thus to make a change in their luck, for the omens were all bad. The gibbous moon was peering over the eastern wood and they saw it over their left shoulders. Hence in their fall they turned round three times, still for luck!
They suspected also that they were being sent off in batches of thirteen and shivered lonesomely all the way to earth, where they scrambled together in groups and held their breaths, listening. Now and then one of them saw a ghost, and rustled the fact to the others, who took up the dreadful story with little spatting sounds of terror till all rose like a flock of frightened birds and shuddered into scrambling heaps behind tree trunks and in fence angles. They made the night eerie with their outcry. As fresh platoons came down the wood-knocking had the effect of xylophone solos, the dead march in Saul played by goblins in the lonesome trees that tossed their bare arms to the sky in mute grief.
All the out-door people seemed sorrowing, and more than half a prey to superstitious forebodings, for the passing of the hunter's moon marks the passing of autumn. November, it is true, is rated as an autumn month in the almanac, but I have no doubt that The Old Farmer knew better. He had to divide the year into four equal segments, and he did it very well, If November must be classed with either autumn or winter it belongs rather with autumn. But it simply ought to be classed with neither.
November is a month by itself, just as March is, and neither has more than the most casual connection with the season that has gone before. The year might better be divided into two seasons, the one of growth, the other of rest, with November and March sort of dead centers, as they say in mechanics, interstellar space as they say in astronomy voids between the two.
These wood-knocking leaves are the last from the elms. The native maples and ash trees were bare though some of the still birches hold their yellow nimbus, many others are bare already. Only the oaks stand up to be counted with their rich crowns of retransmitting the sunlight till those at the right angle between you and the sun flash like fire rubies.
Yet, when I say this it is true only of the native trees of the forest. None of the foreigners hereabout seem to ripen up in glory or, indeed, to understand what a winter is before them and duly prepare for it. The purple lilacs of my garden hedge show a green that may be a little grimmer than it was in midsummer, but there is no hint of a ripening color in them nor have they lost a leaf. Their pith is trained to continental winters still, and though they have faced a half-century of New England cold, they still have the habit of the Persian uplands, which are their birthplace.
The white lilacs have n't even that dark green, but are a gentle shade, almost like that of early springtime, when the leaves are hardly as yet half grown. The apple and pear trees have lost some leaves and others are browned by the frosts we have had, but none of those remaining show autumn coloring as we know it. They are simply darkened. and grizzled. The Norway maples are showing a bronzy-yellow now, but holding their leaves bravely still, as if in the memory that, though the winter night of their homeland is long and dark, its shores are bathed by the Gulf Stream and the cold is late in coming, I think none of the imported trees and shrubs of Europe show the gorgeous coloring of our native ones, though they may have been here long enough to have been trained to it by the climate, if that is the cause of it.
Englishmen know nothing of the glory of autumn foliage until they come to America and see it. Then they are duly impressed, though you cannot always make them acknowledge it. Search English literature if you will, through prose and verse, and you will find no reference to any gorgeous reds and yellows of autumn. They don't have them. Thomson in his " Seasons " speaks, referring to autumn, of
". . . a crowded umbrage, dusk and dun.
Of every hue from wan, declining green to sooty dark."
It is a pity Wordsworth could not have been born in Cumberland County. Maine, instead of Cumberland County. England, and have tramped the hills of, say. West Mansfield, instead of Westmoreland, that our rich autumn ripening might have fruited in his verse. I wonder that the English do not plant our maples and our red oaks in their parks. It would be an interesting experiment to watch for fifty years or a hundred and see whether the trees changed to the English habit and lost their gorgeous hues, and whether, if they retained them, some English poet did not rise to the occasion and make them immortal in splendid verse.
Perhaps it would all be a failure. Our American men and women, transplanted, so soon lose their native characteristics and ripen, over-ripen in fact, into English men and women that there lurks with us an underlying fear that the trees might suffer from the insidious blight also. Perhaps it has been tried with the trees; it would be interesting to know.
I think the leaves were afraid to go home to earth in the dark last night, because it is rarely the custom of leaves to part from the tree in the night time. On still nights you may camp beneath a maple whose leaves have long glowed red and seemingly been ready to fall, and not hear a single spirit-rapping of falling leaf against limb. The frost may be white upon them in the morning, but not until the rising sun touches them will they loose their hold and fall to the waiting earth. Then with the kindly light upon them you may hear, if you listen intently, the little chirp of contentment with which they let go and flutter quietly down to their winter's rest. On a still frosty morning when the sun has first touched the trees these faint clucks make an infinitesimal chorus that is as sprightly as the morning light.
The xylophone ghost-march of last night was a far different thing. It came with little puffs of south wind after a bright, still day, puffs that died out as soon as they had done the work, and left the night white and still tinder the gibbous moon. On all the leaves that had not scurried into shelter a white frost fell that filled them with ice-needles until they were crisp, and then sprouted miniature ghost-ferns all along their stems and upper sides.
Thus they lay stark until the white of the night gloomed into the gray of a daybreak fog that seemed to scatter all life in a formless void. After leaves have once been thoroughly frozen they dance about in the breeze no more. The forming and melting of ice crystals breaks up their cells and leaves them sodden and no longer elastic. They sag and sink and the chemic forces of the earth soon begin to work on them and resolve them into salts and humus that will go the rounds and form and nourish new leaves for another year.
You may see the ghost of autumn go up, these last mornings of October, in this dense white fog that often lingers late into the day. Last night was breathless with frost, after the leaves had done their ghost dancing, until the wan moon had begun to cushion down in the velvety blackness of the west and the gray of false dawn had stopped the winking of low-hung eastern stars.
The world was blank with silence. Until now, no matter how dark the night or how still, you had but to listen outdoors to hear the pulse of nature beat rhythmically, to hear the blood surging and singing through all her arteries, In that last hour before dawn the pulse had ceased and the blood stood stagnant. Then some outside presence held the mirror of the universe down close to the lips of the earth to see if she breathed. At first it was unclouded.
Then little wraiths of white mist shuddered up from meadowy hollows and others danced in hog tangle as will-o'-the-wisps might have done two months ago. These quivered together in soft gray masses that shut out the meadows and swamps, absorbing them and numbing them into a white nothingness. It was neither a rising tide nor a growth, but a sort of absorption. From my hilltop, in spite of the gathering darkness that seemed to be crowded together by advancing day, I could see the world gradually slipping back through chaos into the white glimmering nothingness of the nebular hypothesis.
On such mornings, even after the white light of dawn has filtered through this gray darkness and made its opaqueness visible, the world stays chloroformed. The keen frost chill which has endured until the coming of the fog is merged in the dense damp cold of this which goes deep. The frost chill just touches the surface and does not penetrate, It numbs your fingers or tingles your ears maybe, but it gives the blood a fillip that makes it dance merrily, and you are warm though it is cold. The fog chill works in your marrow and you are cold inside first.
I think the birds know the night before when one of these marrow-numbing fogs that wrap all the ghosts of autumn in their folds are coming on, for they seem to seek closer shelter than usual in the heart of the evergreens, and even when the cold, gray light of dawn filters through the opaqueness they still resolutely hold their heads under their wings. There is no song on a morning like this, no cheery chirping even. They all know that they will get bronchitis if they try it.
The red squirrels are a little hoarse already; they have been caught by a little one earlier in the season and they have no mind to add to it. So they stay snug. They have made their winter nests now, often in the close, crinkly limbs of a large birch, often in a good-sized cedar that stands well among other trees, that they may have easy access to the squirrel highway. Some of them are in hollow trees and others still have taken a crow's nest for their foundation and have built a dome over it.
Wherever it is placed the material and architecture is the same, a soft, silky lining of the finest shreds of the loose-hanging outer bark of the red cedar, wound round and round with coarser fiber of the same material, the whole making a round ball as big as a derby hat, or bigger, the walls being several inches thick. Entrance to this is by a round hole, just big enough for the slender animal to squeeze in from a convenient limb. The elasticity of the cedar fiber practically closes this hole after the squirrel has passed, and the family may cuddle together there snug through the coldest snap.
On a bright frosty morning you may hear the shrill pζan of the red squirrel ringing through the wood as soon as he can see. Then he is out and alert. On mornings like this when the chill fog hangs dense I never hear him, and I am quite sure he sticks close to his family, cuddled up in comfort in the middle of that warm nest.
The morning light breaks through such a vast cold cloud with difficulty, indeed we may not truthfully say that the morning breaks. Rather, it oozes, coming so slowly that without a watch in the pocket you would not know the lateness of the hour. By-and-by, if you watch the east carefully, you will be surprised to see how high the pale image of a morning sun is riding.
On such a morning few leaves fall. The chill dampness seems to revive their waning energies and they apply them to clinging just where they are. Perhaps the chill reminds them dimly that they still are protectors of next year's leaf buds that nestle close under most leafstalks and may be injured if the leaf is torn away too soon. These are well wrapped in tiny fur overcoats or resinous wrappers, to be sure, but I think, as the leaves seem to, that if anything could penetrate these clever coverings it would be one of these morning fogs which mark the passing of October.
But, though to us who stand at the bottom of the fog that ghostly image of a morning sun looks pale and impotent, its work is really vigorous and aggressive. Looking down on it from a sufficiently high hill we may see it shredding the upper surface into breakfast food and eating its way so rapidly downward that the rolling billows of mist ebb before its rays like a Bay of Fundy tide.
Long before mid-forenoon it has finished its repast. From below the fog seems to gradually grow warmer and to be dissolved in its own moisture. The frost that crisped underfoot before the mists began to shiver together in the lowlands now glistens as dew under the yellow sun. The day warms toward the noon and we note with satisfaction what a perfect one it is. But not till the little winds of afternoon begin to bustle in among the trees do the leaves again begin to fall. The moisture is again dried out of their petioles and the xylophone solo tattoos once more the elfin tune to which they march on.
But now they do not go shuddering and in superstitious terror. Instead, there is a lilt to the music and they dance their way down. Some jig it alone. Others waltz cosily; but by far the larger number like best the sociable square dance and foot it in groups to the merry-go-round of the Portland Fancy. It is in such mood that we like best to say good-by to them.