This is the indecisive season. Shivering one moment, sweating the next. Rain and sun switch back and forth like a vaudeville act. We can't even settle on a name for it. "Autumn" is lyrical, but the pragmatic finality of "fall" marks this as the season of transformation. In death, the leaves make this their time.
As far as science is concerned, they change colour because the trees have stopped their flow of carbohydrates and minerals. Deprived of nutrients, the leaves are unable to replenish their chlorophyll, whose green colour normally masks the orange and yellow pigments.
But cold indeed must be the person who doesn't sigh, even just a little, at the realization that those autumn colours were always there. It's as if the leaves, sensing the suddenly approaching cold, now strain to show the hidden, unloved parts of themselves before the end. The result is not unlike the flames that spring up impossibly from the dead wood thrown on autumnal bonfires. I can only hope to be as graceful in death as the trees.
For practice, I've stumbled into judo, an unexpectedly seasonal celebration. A judo beginner has to confront the fact that, ultimately, confidence lies on the far side of vulnerability. You will not stand a chance in judo unless you know how to fall. And you won't truly know how to fall until you've been thrown.
Metaphorical comparisons kind of write themselves from that point, but here's one anyway. In many ways, our culture is a bad judo student one who doesn't want to be thrown. We don't take the small risks, the gambles, make the constant minor adjustments that history demands. So we end up facing the huge risks.
We never learn our own strength, and cities atrophy, choking on pride and carcinogens. We can't grab hold of the next moment because our hands are still clenched tight around the corpse of the last one. We are leaves that refuse to fall, ultimately draining the tree of nutrients so there can be no renewal.
It's hard not to notice how the wind starts to howl at this time of year. You could say this is simply because there's more of it, as our hemisphere tips away from the sun. Warm air dissipates and cold air comes in to replace it, with blustery results. The added gusts find their way through the tiny cracks and holes in our structures and, it's been noted, make telephone wires hum as they contract like guitar strings in the cold.
But it's also not hard to imagine that late-season wind as a wailing dirge, looking for the chinks in our unnecessary emotional armour, mourning how tight we keep ourselves strung. It does not mourn for the leaves or the flowers it mourns for the poor who go needlessly cold.
We have always been guests in death's house, and I believe death might appreciate it if we could use this season to mark its true accomplishments rather than squander its gifts. Death worked for millions of years to make fossil fuels, and just look at what we're doing with them. We are ungrateful rookies, dangerous amateurs playing with powerful forces we don't understand.
Death's counsel is for the farmer at harvest, not for the warlord. The warlord seeks destruction. Death only hopes to make room. Death's aim is not deprivation. It is and always has been simply concerned with balance.
Of course, as judo is teaching me, balance does not mean you stay upright. Sometimes balance is most important when you're bound to fall. But the only way you can learn this, like almost anything, it seems, is to make mistakes.
This became clear to me during a minor bike accident on my way to a class. It also became clear, in the altered, effusive emotional state that followed, that physical injuries can be the tips of emotional icebergs. And sometimes an icebreaker is needed.
The embarrassment of recent U.S. elections has made some long-standing problems visible. Oil prices are beginning to do what radicals and progressives always talked about. Cancer, the pure omega to science's alpha, is spreading at an alarming rate, drawing attention to everything from environmental destruction to class inequity. Death feels that maybe this is the best opportunity it's going to get in a while to bring up an awkward truth. Or two.
Now, don't worry. Calm down. In fact, sit down. Watch the moon out the window. With the nights growing, this is the moon's season as well. It's a reminder of the desolation from which we began and toward which we are heading. Extinction, it's been said, is not death. Extinction is the end of birth. But the moon, ruler of the tides, is also considered a midwife.
So here. Have a cider. Relax. Death isn't coming to take you yet.
But death would like a word.