• Dr. Jill Bakke

Autumn is in the Air

Where we live makes each seasonal change different. South of the equator, you are leaving winter and about to enjoy spring. Here in the USA our southern states find their temperatures moderating, a respite from the scorching days of summer. Where I live autumn has arrived, and Mother Nature is changing her dress. Instead of her plain green garbs of summer, she adds a soft aspen yellow as her fall accessory in Colorado, but in the northeastern states and the Appalachian Mountains she dresses boldly in mixtures of oranges, reds, and golden yellows amid the green.

Although I seldom think of fall as a time of ending, the temperature takes a dip and the days slowly shorten. The farmers crops are in. The birds begin their migration to warmer climates, and households have found their way back into the routines of work and school with vacations only a memory. In this time of endings and new beginnings, I begin to dream of smoky wood fires and the youthful joy of jumping into a pile of autumn leaves to once again scatter them over the landscape.

This is my favorite time of the year.

After the hot, riotous summer, fall settles down almost, but not quite, into an adult quietness. Her dress becomes more somber as the days pass, but not yet dark and elemental like winter’s. She feels serene and at peace with herself, not pushing to grow or blazing down upon us with her fierce, hot sun. She is gentle and tender with us.

I grew up on the eastern coastline of New Jersey in a time when there existed abundant space and nature. Life was different for me than for those who live there now. For me, long, lazy summer days laying in uncluttered soft beach sand and swimming in clean inviting water gave way to a sense of purpose in fall.

My grandmother would go out and dig up the gladiola bulbs and dahlia roots to protect them from winter’s harshness that was sure to come. In some ways, it felt like the spring house cleanings we do with our homes. And despite my not feeling it was an ending, it was. Mother Nature was cleaning her house. I would watch the ducks migrate in their orderly vee formations and miss the fireflies and dragonflies that mysteriously vanished in early fall. Even the trees would divest themselves of their beautiful colored leaves at the end, an absolute marker of an ending.

And, in the midst of this fall season would come a tradition I enjoyed more than any another: The burning of the fields. New Jersey back then existed as a land of forests, small streams that meandered into the bays, and its population count cited more deer than people. Forest fires were always a huge danger to those of us who lived there, and the Forest Service decreed burning of underbrush along roads and open fields in the fall. My grandfather would burn the space between the house and our large garden tract and along the county road. To my joy, I got to help as soon as I was old enough.

In October, when the leaves carpeted the ground or hung by threads on the smaller bushes, and the corn had been husked and put in the corn crib to feed the chickens, it would be time for our burn. Grandfather waited for a day when the wind was behaving; then he would get out the shovels and things needed for the burn. After he set a small fire or two, we’d walk their perimeters to keep the fire under control while the underbrush burned and released its piquant, smoky scents into the crisp fall air.

While I have many tender, special memories of my grandparents who raised me, this one frequently comes to mind. I’m not sure whether it was my grownup chore and its fragrant offering or whether it was my companionship with my beloved grandfather that made this such an important event in my life. All I know is that every time over the decades that have come and gone when I am at fireside I think of him. He’s been at the beach fires in Jersey, the mountain campfires in Montana, and he is here with me at fireside in Colorado. As for autumn herself, she continues to reign as my favorite season of the year.

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