Why does autumn touch our souls so deeply?

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Around the fall equinox, when everything is shining with fall colors, everyone I talk to mentions that it is their favorite time of year. Mine too, but I always wonder what’s behind the obvious reasons – the blazing red maples in the Snake River canyon and the torch-like aspen stands on the mountain sides, the calls of sandhill cranes. migrating, the slab of elk deep in the forest, the crisp air and quality of light as the sun moves south, illuminating it all in a dusty yellow wash. For some it is the hunting season that they have been preparing all summer, for others the carefully tended tomatoes which are finally reaching maturity.

While these are more than enough to make fall a favorite time of year, it’s the way the sum of them hits your heart that makes me wonder why. Something primitive stirs inside during this time of year, something I want to hold onto and define, maybe put it in a bottle so I can open it for a sniff in the middle of Winter.

While the fall is occupied by the harvest and the preparation of the cold to come, it is also a period which asks me to put aside my perpetual state of doing and take the time to deeply appreciate the beauty of the season. . The flaming red leaves of the big-toothed maple will soon turn brown and dry. The shadows will lengthen and the fire will be extinguished.

While it is obvious that leaf watchers loaded with cameras along the road appreciate what they see, I am looking for more immersion, beyond mere observation. I can’t think of myself as the, in that special autumnal place, if I don’t get out of the car and wander around for a bit, surrounded by the amber light that gathers in a stand of aspens, listening to the crunch of the leaves fallen underfoot.

Surrounded by leaves that filter the sunlight like a stained glass window, I drag, stand up and look up and make a full circle to admire it. I sit down on a log, lie down in the dry grass. Trees have a special sound and smell when their leaves die – a breeze sends them whispering as the warmth of the soil collects a growing season’s worth, its scents blended and concentrated through the drying and hardening process.

Fall in the Greater Yellowstone.  Photo by Susan Marsh

Fall in the Greater Yellowstone. Photo by Susan Marsh

Insect visit – grasshoppers that somehow survive the frosty nights, a last fritillary butterfly, now faded and translucent like leaves. The silent buzz of a bumblebee watching over a late-flowering lupine, the snap of a castanet grasshopper before it falls into the grass (they can’t seem to hang on to the landing). These welcoming sounds invite me to linger for a moment in a cocoon of rest as one season folds into the next.

The fleeting nature of this beauty adds to its depth and poignant character, reminding us of our own short lifespan. Sweetness and melancholy mix to put me in a thoughtful and contemplative mood. It’s an atmosphere that I often look for at other times of the year, that mental space that I need for meditation, art, writing. In the fall, I don’t have to look for it; the atmosphere finds me.

A few days ago I walked around a favorite aspen den and noticed how different I felt when I stopped walking and sat for a while. I tend to stay on my feet most of the time, my legs (like all of ours) designed to move. But when a fallen log or a patch of dry pine forest beckons me, I sit down. Sometimes I stay long enough to live a few minutes when time seems to stand still.

Photo of Tetons in Autumn by Susan Marsh

Photo of Tetons in Autumn by Susan Marsh

On this recent day the wind picked up and its noise in the leaves asked me to take a break. Besides, I was hungry. I chose a spot in the shelter of a Douglas fir, perched along a ridge line on the windward edge of an aspen stand, and sat in the needle down below. below. My stomach satisfied, I just sat down and listened, my forearms wrapped around my knees and my eyes following the leaf beating above my head. Without effort, my mind emptied, conscious only of my presence in the place. The sound of the wind rocked me and the ground was soft. I’m laying down.

I rolled onto my side and curled up in a pose usually reserved for sleep. There I felt a strong connection with the earth, head in the needle, nose close to the warm ground, eyes at insect level until I closed them and returned my attention to the wind. My dog ​​must have felt the same feeling of peace; she too is lying down instead of loitering and fiddling and squirming like she usually does when I’m on the floor.

I may or may not have dozed off a bit, but either way, I felt a deep serenity wash over me. Being in that place like I felt so right, which exactly I needed at that time.

Thoreau was right when he said that paradise is under our feet as well as over our heads. If the sky stretched out beneath me, under the dust of fir needles and the soil and glacial deposits and bedrock below, maybe the spirit in charge of the sky dwelled there too. Maybe he lives wherever you might want to notice, appreciate, and have some quiet time.

Thoreau was right when he said that paradise is under our feet as well as over our heads. If the sky stretched out beneath me, under the dust of fir needles and earth and glacial deposits and bedrock below, maybe the spirit in charge of the sky dwelled there too. Maybe he lives wherever you might want to notice, appreciate, and have some quiet time.

When I finally got up, rested, I turned to take a picture of the Douglas-fir, leaning sharply out of the wind as it had learned to grow, as if it wanted to join the aspen stand behind it. I called it the Dwelling Tree, the place where the holy / great spirit dwelled. It wasn’t that I thought this place held more power than any other, but while I was there I remembered all that is unknown, unknowable and beyond the reach of human understanding. A place where a moment can stretch into eternity, where we can comfortably sit with the great mysteries and unanswered questions of our lives.

Lately I’ve been reading about these unanswered “big questions” about humanity, about purpose and meaning, life and death, who we are as humans in this world of diverse and abundant life. A branch of philosophy makes us part of a greater whole connected to the earth with all our relationships, including animals, plants, rivers and mountains. Another presents us as the summit of creation, the species for which the universe was made. Science traces our lineage back to an ancestor we share with other primates, while a poem I read this morning portrayed the body as that thing that we carry for a few decades and then throw away (and where are we going?).

The glow of the aspens means we're closer to winter than summer, a metaphor that touches the emotions of many MoJo readers or their loved ones, especially in these uncertain times.  Photo courtesy of Susan Marsh

The glow of the aspens means we’re closer to winter than summer, a metaphor that touches the emotions of many MoJo readers or their loved ones, especially in these uncertain times. Photo courtesy of Susan Marsh

I remember an excerpt from an old Joni Mitchell song, “I still sent my prayer
asking me who’s there to hear ”which talks about the state of my personal research. My prayer, unlike the next line in the song which only asks for a partner with a minimum of sincerity, has no words, no requests, only a rudimentary desire to become a “better” person, whatever I may be. mean by that.

As I write these lines, I remember the contrast between the time I spent under the Inhabiting Tree and my waking up last night: total peace versus total anxiety. I couldn’t stop the fire hose of thoughts, mostly related to everything I’ve done wrong in my life that I’m ashamed of. Why am I beating myself up for small wrongs done decades ago? Does everyone do this? Don’t mentally healthy people forgive themselves and move on?

As I write these lines, I remember the contrast between the time I spent under the Inhabiting Tree and my waking up last night: total peace versus total anxiety. I couldn’t stop the fire hose of thoughts, mostly related to everything I’ve done wrong in my life that I’m ashamed of. Why am I beating myself up for small wrongs done decades ago? Does everyone do this? Don’t mentally healthy people forgive themselves and move on?

Compared to a night of self-flagellation over mistakes and faults, lying in the woods among the glowing leaves instills a tenderness towards the earth and all living things, including one’s imperfect little self.

Not all hikes are like the one I described above. Most of the time, I’m just another leaf watcher for a seasonal walk, enjoying the day in my normal state of mind. Time does not stand still, the spirit does not descend or rise, and my mind is not empty of all kinds of anecdotes. I haven’t a clue what made this singular experience different, but I think about how rare such moments of utter openness are, as if we only have a few encounters with clarity in a lifetime. Most of mine were memorable, and all of them took place in nature. My kind of temple; my form of sanctuary.

Who knows where my prayer goes? Maybe it just matters that I have one. I’m writing one right now, I guess, as a thank you for the lonely Douglas fir and its aspen stand that has shown me how to slow down and retreat into the part of me that is my best, true self. Not the one who was rude to a friend forty years ago, not the one who stays awake at night wondering why.

It is perhaps in search of this me that I seek calm and unspectacular natural places, off the main paths where I expect to be alone, knowing that moments of spiritual rest are rare and fleeting, and knowing that for this one person and perhaps several more, they are an entry into a reality that I can only glimpse.


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