The Excellence of Autumn

The joy of traveling is, if nothing else, a distinct change of scenery. It seems impossible to me that in the last three weeks I have gone from the green, mountainous coves of Puget Sound to the fir-encircled lakes of Northern California to the balmy beaches of San Diego, and now finally to the cold shores of Lake Michigan and the gray, dilapidated suburbs of Chicago. Some might say that this latest stop along my journey is a step down from the others, but as I took a walk this afternoon and experienced an old familiar sensation too often missed in Southern California, I must disagree. It is here in the Midwest where I have once again met an old November friend in a blustery season that cannot be experienced in the same way in warmer climes.

Autumn is absolutely my favorite season. Growing up in Indiana and attending college in Ohio, every year I relished the vivid moments of crinkled leaves, spiced cider, and the gradually cooling air which day after day brought a gradual crescendo of nippiness. As the days and weeks moved on through November, the biting autumn air that flooded my nose and lungs seemed like a harbinger, bringing an oracle not only of the swiftly approaching winter but of mortality itself. In the midst of midterms and term papers, it was as if Death, whose specter had managed rather successfully to remain hidden during the bright summer months, now grew bold and jumped out from behind every early-darkened shed, summoned by the smell of ponds turning over, leaves decaying, and harvest fires everywhere giving off lusty billows of smoke. It was intoxicating then, and I am equally enthralled today.

But my love for autumn is completely tied to the inevitable advent of spring. True, I may savor the bittersweet, melancholy sensation of sheltering myself indoors with a cup of tea after spending a gray blustery day in the open elements. But autumn leads to winter, and though joy may be found in the days of dark and nights of ice, it can only be secured and maintained with great personal sacrifice and exertion. When nature round about us lies in the grips of winter, nothing grows, nothing comforts, nothing warms, and nothing forgives. Death himself, who with coquettish insistence merely flirted with us during the fall, wins in winter over the world of living things and drives them into the still hardened earth.

To put it another way, spring must come, or we must die. For me, it was never a surprise that, in his Comedy, Dante arrives at the heart of hell to find it a veritable block of ice, a frigid prison from which he and his classical guide would finally emerge on Easter Sunday. The poet’s instincts ring true to me, though not simply with respect to the coldness of Death and Hell (as well as the hellishness of cold), but also in regards to the radiant victory that the Resurrection of Christ brings. Our Lord Jesus rose from the dead in the first month of the Jewish calendar, coinciding in the Northern Hemisphere with the first emergence of spring: the time of warm winds bringing fresh rain, of greenness and new life, and of the promise of summer to come. From the empty tomb emerged a Savior who had borne the wrath of God and who in the process had not only defeated Sin and Death and but had also begun a radically new life, the first fruits of the new creation of all things. Every year, the glories of springtime gesture towards a coming moment of cosmic regeneration, the general resurrection of all flesh at Christ’s coming, without which there remains no hope for a gritty world of ember days and hoarfrost nights.

Still, the reverse is true: not only must we look forward to the waxing of spring to endure the waning of autumn, but spring is never appreciated without the preceding howl of winter or the bite of autumn. I find that those who most celebrate spring are those suffer through the sternest measures of darkness, snow and ice. We must reckon with the “newness” of new life before we can experience its mystery, joy, and power. As Christians, we keep Advent before we celebrate Christmas, and we fast through Lent before we feast on Easter. If we would taste the joy and blessing of the world to come, we must savor the pain, sorrow, and curse of the present world and, in the process, stand against it in hope of greater things on the horizon. The Apostle Paul writes that “Death has no sting” for the one who will rise with Christ, just as autumn poses no despair to the one who knows that the frost’s own doom is coming; and so, to continue the analogy, we do and must stoke the fires, rake the leaves, mull the cider, and howl back into the night as we await a month that comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.

I have made a short story long, and it is time to put the kettle on to make more tea, after which I will probably take a walk in the nippy eventide. With any luck, my cheeks will grow rosy from the wind and my lips may even chap. It may not seem like much, but it is a small reminder that I have come and am going home.