Bitter-sweet Decay


Someone recently voiced a repugnance to the use of the word “decay” to describe what happens to fall leaves. Yes, it can mean merely to rot, and for most organic matter, this isn’t a nice sensory image.

But this off-putting by the word’s use reminded me of something I had said in a passage called “Savoring Autumn” in Slow Road Home, in the hope that term could be redeemed from this rotten connection:

It is a mercy that leaves in their dying do not suffer the same putrescent decay as animal bodies.

…In a graveyard of leaves, Death is nostalgically fragrant.

This morning, in my mind-browse over coffee, I find that the word decay is just exactly right to describe what happens in autumn. Ah, word roots (and stems and trunks and leaves…)

Middle English decayen, from Old French decair, from Vulgar Latin *de-cadere : Latin de–, de- + Latin cadere, to fall.

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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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  1. Beautiful and insightful. I have always loved how autumn leaves looked, but never thought of them as dying. The fact is that they are, I just didn’t realize it because the colors it gave off were entrancing. Nice thought for the day.

    I’m also leaving a comment to say that your poem exercise “Where I’m From” haunts me to this day — in a good way. I prepared a similar exercise on my blog today and I hope you can drop by. I gave credit to you, as you and your format were what inspired me to write this post.

    Thank you Floyd.

  2. dear ‘floyd’ first (hehe!)- gorgeous photo! and interesting to know the true meaning of ‘decay’. that decay will bring new life next spring as it composts outside our house this winter. the circle of life…. 🙂