Autumn, And the World Turns

Project: Create a Field Guide to Falling Leaves

It seems fitting to celebrate the transition from summer to fall, coming to miss the freedoms of the former, looking with a mix of dread and anticipation at what lies ahead. Here are three journal-records from Slow Road Home of autumn, selected from Slow Road Home: a blue ridge book of days.

Aural Vignette

“Come” I said, motioning for Ann in the kitchen to follow. The two of us stood on the front porch in the darkness, listening.

Morning on Goose Creek in the October of our lives sounds like this: drops falling from dew-wet branches; bush crickets whirring, one from a goldenrod along the pasture whose song blends with the next, higher up in the meadow, and a dozen more in monotone requiem to summer past; and beneath all other sounds, and around them, the rift of water over rock, falling into the hollow of itself, a spattering, tinkling liquid philharmonic of peace.

If there were no humans on earth, this is what the world would sound like. And there are two, standing utterly still, and thankful.


There is a certain exciting melancholy in the coming of the first fall-like days–a letting go and a welcome all together. I sit here in the cool shade with my feet stretched out into the slanting sun’s warmth and comfort and watch yellow leaves of walnut and locust flutter and sift toward the spent soil of summer. Tiger swallowtails lift and spiral as if to put those yellows back in place for just a few more days.

The forest is still green from a distance, but a closer inspection will show you that no leaf is untouched by changes that shorter days have brought. Their surfaces are lightly filigreed by insects that could not have made a meal of them in the healthy prime of summer. Striped maples show patches of discolored spots, red and yellow circles like ringworm, where fungal threads wind their way through the spongy spaces between upper and lower surface of the leaf.

Soon the fungi and bacteria will consume blade and petiole. Like a thrift store shirt, a leaf’s matter will pass on and on, handed down until there is nothing left but buttons and a few bare threads.

Savoring Autumn

It is a mercy that leaves in their dying do not suffer the same putrescent decay as animal bodies. There is so little to a leaf–it is mostly air and pigment. And when a leaf’s job is done, there remains only the empty carbon shell of summer industry. They steep into pleasant aromas like tea leaves in the last warmth of late autumn. In a graveyard of leaves, Death is nostalgically fragrant.

Listen. Can you hear in the gentle susurrations before first light the papery sounds of leaves jostling, still clinging, barely, to twigs where already the watery sap is heading south for winter? Summer leaves are supple and soft, and do not rustle and clatter like fall leaves after rigor mortis has set in. But the death rattle of fall leaves bears little grief since already, the young buds of spring’s translucent greens are forming in that place where a death has overtaken the stem.

Look. Underpaintings of ochre and sienna and titanium yellow show through as the chlorophyll blush passes from each leaf in dying like a watercolor wash. Watch as a walnut leaflet falls twirling about its axis, falling in a straight line without fanfare. The maple leaf, unbalanced by its heavy petiole, rocks stem to stern and twirls in a dizzying circle along a spiral path, not giving up gracefully before joining fallen fellows on the lane by the mailbox. I sometimes have to stifle applause after a particularly brilliant performance.

It is early yet, with so much more to come. I should keep a list of autumn’s pleasant details to look back on from the short days of February. Yesterday while gathering wood over behind the barn, Ann stopped as if she had heard something off in the distance or was trying to recall some thing forgotten, staring unfocused as people do when remembering. “Peach cobbler that ran over in the stove” she said. And she was right. And so here is yet one more potpourri fragrance of fall, an unknown but familiar sign of autumn we can add to our list. There will surely be more.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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