If summer is the extrovert and winter the introvert, fall and spring are the seasons when all bets are off, when every corner of our lives seems charged with purpose and possibility. Though we know fall is the beginning of the end in terms of tender garden plants and abundant vegetable harvests, it is so laden with bounty we may be forgiven for missing the first signs.
Before we called it autumn, this segment of late summer was known in English simply as ‘harvest.’ In an era without big box stores or large-scale farming, harvest was the portion of the year when that was all one did. For weeks on end, t’was the season to gather from the garden, the orchard, the fields and forests. Birds and squirrels in my garden follow the same age-old tradition of compulsive collecting, fattening themselves and their larders for the harsher days ahead. Their busy, sometimes irritating work enlivens the autumn garden with a sense of urgency.
And while the general trend in fall is a movement inward, to the outside observer, the world flares with color and exuberance. High and low pressure systems oscillate, bringing rain and wind one day, sun and crispness the next. Summer’s dust and haze are washed into wonderful focus. Deciduous leaves turn shades of yellow, red, orange, or brown, painting the ground with pools of color and filling the air with their chattering percussion.
Likely a shortening of phrases like “the fall of leaves,” and “the fall of the year,” fall is an old name for the season, one that came into common usage in the 1600’s as “harvest” phased out and “autumn” (of French origin) phased in. The terms fall and autumn followed colonists to the New World and remain interchangeable names for this season. Back in England, autumn took furtive hold, and ‘fall’ fell the way of ‘harvest.’
I’ve always liked to say fall—verb as season, like spring—as if through the trimming of our language we embraced the equinoxes’ transformative nature. Fall is a decline into winter, spring the rebound from it. Plants and leaves fall to the ground, the year falls to its close. And the gardener, too, wants to fall from the relentlessness of a garden in its prime.
And yet, when it comes time to cut back the summer plants, I always hesitate. Inevitably, there are tomatoes left unripe, basil with a few more leaves, pole beans still sputtering out pods. In my small garden, if I want to have winter vegetables, I must make a choice; to wait until the summer crops’ natural end means winter plants would start too late. So, in the span of an hour my summer garden falls into the compost, leaving bare soil and the certainty of seasons changed.
Though it appears that autumn brings death to the lushness of summer, its nature is more contractive than destructive. Leaves fall from the trees not because of sickness or frailty, but to preserve nutrients. When day length shortens to a certain number of hours, the woody stems of deciduous trees and shrubs begin to seal themselves at the point of attachment, cutting off nutrients to the leaves so they may keep a store of energy for spring growth.
Though the leaves are still attached, they no longer have access to the materials necessary to produce chlorophyll. As the leaf uses up its supply, its green begins to fade away. Orange and yellow carotenoids, present throughout the summer underneath chlorophyll’s pigmentation, suddenly become visible. Purple and red anthocyanins synthesize in the leaf’s changing chemistry, creating spectacular, glowing hues. Eventually, the leaves drop around the base of the tree and break down throughout winter, returning their minerals and nutrients to the soil and, over time, back to the tree itself.
Our lives go in as well. Like a tree, we gather what we can and leave the rest to winter’s decomposition. In spring, we look forward to abundance, imagining our bare gardens laden with food. Once the garden’s branches have been laden for a while, we imagine them gone, the work done, the squash roasting and a good book on the lap.