Monday, January 12, 2009

November 2007: The Glory of Fall

After the October letter about Genocide, I needed something much calmer, serene, and perhaps even humorous to write about. As November progressed, I noticed something odd and intriguing. The leaves around Chicago were taking forever to turn color and fall. In most years, the leaves turn color in October and by the beginning of November, the show, as they say, is over. The leaves are all down and winter is in the air. That was not the case this year.

You might be thinking, oh no he is going to write about global warming. The case for that is quite apparent. Fall is falling later because the planet is warming. In X years, with the melting polar ice caps, land masses will be smaller, coastal cities will be under water, and the interior of the continents will all be desert. This may happen in fifty or five hundred years. I thought about writing about this but it could be just as depressing as writing about the Armenian Genocide.

Instead, I thought I would write about the glory of fall, my favorite season. I have always loved fall or autumn. It is the season of back to school. It is the harvest season, the bountiful time of harvest feasts and rituals, the time of Thanksgiving in the United States. It is the season of Halloween, a spiritual season when the heritage and vestige of Druid beliefs hang rich in the air. It is the season of the leaves on the trees turning vibrant colors and falling perfuming the air with that rich ripe fragrance.

Fall is supposed to be the season of death. Things mature, ripen, and then beginning to die. Things go dormant for six months until spring, the season of rebirth and renewal. Yet, I never have really felt that way. First of all, with it being the back to school season, fall was always like the start of a new year. It was a time of excitement and renewal. It was a time of beginnings and I was always enthused about it. Plus, because of the colors and bounty, I never felt the sense of the year dying until the trees were barren and the ground began to freeze. Only then did it kind of sink in.

The reverence for the fall began back in elementary school. It was at Robert Burns School in Miss Fletcher’s science class. She gave us the assignment of collect various leaves, putting them into a notebook or scrapbook, noting the name of the tree, and perhaps some elementary classification of the leaves. It was a long term assignment. She gave us a few weeks. I recall being third, fourth grade, or maybe even fifth grade.

I really got into this assignment. I was fascinated with it. I had never really looked at trees or their leaves with such scrutiny. It was like a whole new world had opened up. I collected as many as I could. I used cellophane tape and staples to hold them onto loose leaf paper. I did not use construction paper and neither invisible tape nor glue sticks were invented yet. I wrote in pencil and crayon (Sharpies were not even a glint in my eye back then) on each page describing the type of tree and facts about the leaves. Were the leaves serrated, lobed, concave? I simply made a cover page with another loose leaf sheet and then put the whole thing in an old binder. I thought about stapling the sheets but the leaves made the book to thick and awkward for that.

I believe I had leaves from seventeen or eighteen trees. They included Sugar Maple, Hard Maple, Oak, Elm, Magnolia, Sycamore, Beech, Box Elder, a variety of fruit trees, and others I cannot remember. Given we were living in Detroit; it was impressive to collect so many different specimens in our neighborhood. The prize specimen in my collection was the leaves of a Ginkgo tree. My friends Glenn Baugh and Mary Simmons told me of this tree indigenous to Japan that was on the grounds of Cooley High School right near their homes. I followed them home from school and collected my Ginkgo leaves. It was pretty cool.

I was proud of my work. It was not the prettiest presentation but it was a most thorough effort. Others turned in works of art. Clearly, their parents helped them though that was not apparent to me back then. I just thought they were both smarter and neater. My work was my own and I got an A. I was very proud

I was so proud, that I decided this was a work worthy of keeping. So, I put it on the small bookcase in my room. The following year, I thought I would look at again and perhaps even add to it. I was shocked when I looked upon my pride and joy. The leaves which were colorful when first mounted had all turned brown. Not only had they turned brown, they became so brittle that the mere turning of the page had them crumbling and making a mess. I realized simultaneously that cellophane tape and staples were not the best way to mount leaves either. Oh well, the binder is long gone, but the memory is preserved in this letter. Because of that project, I have had a fondness for the season and the falling leaves ever since.

Back then folks used to burn their leaves in the street by the curb in front of their houses. The fall air was fragranced with the smoke of burning leaves. It was quite pleasant and something seasonal people looked forward to and actually liked. Somehow by the late 1960s, probably because of more and more mature trees, the number of leaves grew so much that the burning of leaves became a health hazard. The air, literally, became thick with smoke that burned our eyes and irritated our throats. The practice of burning leaves was soon outlawed.

All the seasons are the same length, officially, on the calendar. But in my youth, in Michigan, it seemed that summer and winter were very long. Spring was just April and May. Fall seemed like it was only the month of October. September was still summer and November definitely seemed like winter.

There was the phenomenon of Indian Summer. Indian Summer is a late fall, unseasonably, warm spell after at least one killing frost and a period of cool or cold weather. I remember a one Indian Summer day quite clearly. I cannot remember the year or whether we were in elementary school or junior high. But I remember the day. It was Veterans’ Day.

Back then Veterans’ Day was not celebrated on Mondays, it was observed on November 11th. It was originally Armistice Day when Germany surrendered and ended WWI in 1918. Congress made it Veterans’ Day in 1954. It was, from a kid’s perspective a minor national holiday because the Detroit Public Schools only gave us a half day off. It was like a waste, we were not in school long enough to do anything especially since all the students were looking forward to ending the day early. It was equally lame because for all the build-up, it was only a half day off and that went faster and with less fanfare then we all expected. Except this one year…

The leaves were already off the trees. The landscape was barren and brown. It had been cold, winter coat cold. When school let out at 11:30 or noon, we were surprised by just how sunny, hazy and warm it was. It was shirtsleeve weather. One of the guys suggested we meet at Cooley High School, and play some football. Sure, why not.

We went home, had lunch, and biked over to the high school. All the athletic fields were empty; we had the run of the place. So, we decided to play on the main field, the high school stadium. It was great. We laid our jackets and sweatshirts in a pile on the sidelines and eight, or so, of us lived gridiron dreams in a mostly touch game. I remember it being mostly Boy Scout buddies. Amazingly, it was only that one day of Indian Summer. The next day it was freezing cold again. It was the best Veterans’ Day during my years in the Detroit Public Schools.

Certainly, football became more and more part of the fall, mostly as a spectator. As I got older, the best fall Saturdays involved being in Ann Arbor and going to football games in Michigan Stadium. This November 17th we drove from Chicago to Ann Arbor on for the Michigan – Ohio State game. On the way, I could not help but notice the numbers of trees with most of their leaves still on them. For this part of the country, it was quite indicative of the late fall we were experiencing.

While living in Michigan, I thought Michigan had everything a lover of fall could want. With four seasons, there was usually a glorious and colorful fall. As a Boy Scout, I enjoyed the fall campouts. It was a great time to be in the woods. The sunlight seemed more golden amid the red, yellow, orange leaves. Usually the weather was great and there were certainly less bugs than in the spring and summer.

In June of 1990, we moved to Wilton, CT. Wilton was first settled in 1651 by the non-indigenous as an extension of Norwalk. It was incorporated as a separate town in 1802. It was a rural farming town until the mid-1990s. Since then, it has basically become a bedroom community of 17,000. It is both a Connecticut town and a suburb in the New York metroplex.

The landscape is undulating. At one point way back when, it was covered with glaciers. As the glaciers, receded they left a behind an undulating rocky terrain that basically went down hill all the way to Long Island Sound.

Until the late 1950s, Wilton was mostly farm land. I read that back then, from where we lived atop Cavalry Hill in the southeast corner of the town, one could see Long Island sound which was about seven miles away. Today, that would be impossible. When it was farmland, there were no trees; the land had all been cleared. There has been fifty some years of re-forestation. In the summers, I could not even see my neighbors’ houses for the dense vegetation.

As a result, the falls in Wilton, in Connecticut in general, are spectacular. The plentiful trees give plenty of color. This undulating countryside provides panoramic vistas. Add to all of this the charm of New England wood frame homes and the stone walls that part of Connecticut is known for, it makes for lovely views breathtaking views..

October 1990 was our first fall in Connecticut. I remember driving around Wilton on a beautiful sunny fall day. I literally thought about pinching myself, it was that picturesque. It was raining leaves, the air was crisp, the sky pure blue, and the sun illuminated all with that golden color reserved only for the fall.

When I say raining leaves, it literally did that. I recall another time in the late 1990s. It was raining leaves. I stood outside our home for a long time in amazement. There were thousands of leaves in the air about me at any given instant. It just didn’t stop.

Another memorable fall in Connecticut was in 1999. That summer we experienced both a severe drought and extremely hot temperatures. As a result, the leaves started changing colors and falling right after Labor Day. By the middle of October, the show was over, the trees were barren. The fall of 1999 was as early as the fall this year is late.

There is a phrase, “looking at the world through rose colored, glasses.” We have all heard it. It is used to suggest that one always sees things better than they really are.

I do not think I look at the world this way. The glasses I prefer are actually orange in color. After a bike crash in which the metal rimmed sunglasses I was wearing caused two lacerations requiring stitches, I decided to by sport glasses with plastic rims and lenses to minimize this kind of injury should I ever take another spill. I settled on Smith Sliders, made in France, with interchangeable lenses for different lighting conditions. The pair I bought had brown, orange, yellow, and clear lenses. I could see where the brown and the clear would come in handy. I was not sure about the yellow and orange. The salesman told me, “try the orange lenses. If you do, you will probably use them all the time.”

I did not believe him. But, I was curious. After trying them a few times, the salesman was absolutely correct. These are the lenses I use like 90% of the time. They make everything brighter and clearer. Even on sunny days they do the job. They also make everything more colorful and vibrant. There is more texture and contrast to everything you see. The world simply looks duller without them. This is why, I am certain, serious marksmen and skeet shooter don yellow or orange glasses. They brighten up and add contrast to what they are aiming at. So, in the height of fall, riding in either the Connecticut or, now, Illinois the colors of the season are even more beautiful.

As I finish this letter, all the leaves are down around here in Chicagoland and the weather has been wintry for the past week. The weather report is even for a few inches of snow this weekend. The leaves are down, it is cold, and snow is forecasted. While it is not official until December 21st, it is now winter in my book.

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