By the time the clouds finally moved out after days of rain, and I actually had clear sunlight to see by, I could tell that autumn had reached its zenith. Under the shroud of gray rain, it had been hard to notice. Now, with the calico hilltops standing in relief against the powder-blue skies of early October, the full weight of color was easier to see.
Like most people around here, I wanted to glory in the richness of the color and had felt disappointed that the rainy weather had robbed me of my chance. Nothing mutes autumn colors like gray skies.
So thankful was I to finally soak in the spectacle that I almost didn’t notice: it was five minutes past autumn’s peak.
Amidst the reds and crimsons and maroons and yellows and golds and ambers and auburns and oranges and tangerines—brown had slipped in. Lots of brown. Plenty of it.
Granted, most of the hillsides were still exploding with color, and some trees still boasted a fair amount of green. The giant maple in my old front yard, for instance, still wore its light-green leaves proudly.
But in the side yard, the tulip poplar I had brought home as a seedling from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello a few years ago had already shimmered from green to yellow, and the leaves were now curdling to brown and falling off.
And so it was on the hillsides—almost drowned by the cacophony of color around them, some trees had begun to go the other way, first to the brown that comes from turned leaves then to the brown that comes from bare branches.
I almost didn’t notice the subtlety of the brown, and once I did, I didn’t want to believe it. No. No. No—I had just finally discovered autumn and was busy trying to enjoy the spectacle of it. I didn’t want to even think about the fact that it was already on its way out.
Just that morning, in fact, I’d gotten a strong dose of summer when I arrived at the office. Maintenance crews had broken out the lawnmowers to give the campus one final trimming for the season, so the air was abuzz with the sound of the mowers. But even more evocative was the smell of freshly cut grass. Nothing says “summer” quite like that smell of freshly cut grass.
It was summer’s last hurrah—powerful, yet ultimately unconvincing amidst the autumn colors.
I’d hardly noticed the arrival of those colors. Certainly I saw the flush of red in a random maple tree along the road or the fluttering birch leaf carried along by a breeze. I didn’t take the signs seriously, though.
Then one morning, as I drove up Oil Valley from Duke Center to Knapp Creek, I saw a dozen or so yellow beech leaves scattered in the road. They looked like a flock of sparrows, and as my car zipped by, the leaves took flight around me. Momentarily surrounded by their flutter, I realized, “Woa. Autumn.”
But soon thereafter, it seemed, the rainy weather moved in. The sunlight, so important for illuminating the autumn colors, vanished behind a slate gray roof.
The dreary skies brought a beauty of their own, though. The hilltops were covered in misty clouds. The trip over the hill was like a journey through a primordial forest filled with shadows and specters. One morning, a dozen turkeys waddled down the road in front of me before dissolving into the ferns along the right-hand bank. Another day, I saw a big porcupine shuffling, like a needle-plated tank, through fallen leaves.
And so, when I finally noticed it, when the rainclouds had finally blown away, I reveled in the colorful spirit of autumn, already pained by the knowledge that the season was passing.
The crescendo of color can be a tough thing to spot. Easier to notice is the airbrush of white that comes with the season’s first frost. That, for me, is the official turning point of the season. That’s when autumn turns to fall—a subtle but important distinction that differentiates the cozy colorful days from the crisp, barren-tree days before the snow falls.
Fall is, after all, a verb. Fall happens. The leaves fall. The temperature falls.
Autumn, on the other hand, is state of mind, a state of being, a state of color. Autumn has vibrancy. Autumn has spirit.
I woke, the day after the weather broke, to find my front lawn frosted white. I’d been given exactly one day of autumn before fall arrived.
Yes, there’s still plenty of color on the hills. There are still plenty of apple cider days ahead.
But the furnace has kicked on already. The pumpkins have frost on them. The cornstalks are bundled in the fields.
And there are more leaves in the yard than on the trees.
Welcome, fall. Autumn was glorious while it lasted.