NASHVILLE — Autumn light is the loveliest light there is. Soft, forgiving, it makes all the world an illuminated dream. Dust motes catch fire, and bright specks drift down from the trees and lift up from the stirred soil, floating over lawns and woodland paths and ordinary roofs and parking lots. It’s an unchoreographed aerial dance, a celebration of what happens when light marries earth and sky. Autumn light always makes me think of fiery motes of chalk dust drifting in the expectant hush of an elementary school classroom during story time, just before the bell rings and sets the children free.
In fall, the nights are cooler and clearer, too, with the harvest moon floating steadfast in the night sky, the most reliable promise in our lives. Along the roadsides, wildflowers are blooming: ironweed and white snakeroot and the glorious goldenrod, all as high as my head and all food for the monarch and painted lady butterflies, and the ruby-throated hummingbirds, on their long migrations. Every kind of New World warbler is on the wing now, heading south like the raptors and the water birds, but they linger a little while before moving on again, and for a time Tennessee is filled with exotic songs.
The flowers that bloom in autumn and the berries that ripen on the spring-blooming plants and trees — pokeberries and beautyberries and hackberries — don’t deliberately signal the season of farewells. They are only ripening in their time, just as the birds and the butterflies are traveling in theirs, a perfect concatenation of abundance and need. But a lifetime of paying attention to what feeds my winged neighbors means I can’t help seeing these flowers — and these dust motes, and these long shadows at the end of shortening days — as an irrefutable sign: Summer is ending, no matter that temperatures keep rising here in the Anthropocene. By the time of the autumnal equinox — which this year falls on the 22nd — summer has already gone.
There was a time when I didn’t feel sad about the coming of fall, perhaps because I grew up in Alabama, where fall mostly means the end of unrelenting heat and oppressive humidity. In Alabama, winter’s approach is nothing to dread. There are plenty of sunny days in a warm Alabama winter, and camellias bloom in profusion from November until the first blossoms of springtime arrive. One of the nicest things about the Deep South is that flowers bloom there all year long. That’s not true here in Tennessee, where temperatures dip much lower at least once or twice every winter.
But perhaps the reason I didn’t feel sad about the onset of fall when I was younger is only that I was younger, with my whole life still ahead. In those days my only worry was that my real life, the one I would choose for myself and live on my own terms, was taking too long to arrive. Now I understand that every day I’m given is as real as life will ever get. Now I understand that we are guaranteed nothing, that our days are always running out. That they have always, always been running out.
And so I greet this gorgeous season with a quiet and a stillness I never felt when I was younger and in such a hurry. I used to laugh at the comical shabbiness of the bluebirds in molt, so fussy with one another as their new feathers come in. Now I know it won’t be long before these fledglings, whom I have known since their mother laid the eggs they came from, will be off in their gorgeous adult blues to search for their own territories. The hummingbirds, too, are waging war over my feeder, putting on weight for their journey, and one morning soon I will wake up to find them gone with the dawn. I am always so sorry to see them go.
The little spider, one of the orb weavers, who pitched her camp next to my outdoor faucet this summer is making her egg sacs now. She too will be gone by the time cold weather arrives, but unlike the hummingbirds, she will not be coming back. Her future lies in the perfect egg sacs she has strung together like pearls and hung in the center of her elaborate web — six of them now, with more to come, I think.
The gift of the equinox, the day on which there are as many hours of light as of darkness, is the gift of Janus. Looking behind and before at once, her vision is more appropriate to September than to January. So I am looking ahead, too, even as I look behind — as the birds fly south and my summer companion, the broadhead skink, finds a dark place to spend the winter. I will watch for her to wake next spring, just as I will watch for the warblers and the hummingbirds to return, just as I will watch for this summer’s seeds, carried on the winds of autumn and in the bellies of birds, to push up from the earth and bloom again.
And all winter I will keep watch over the little spider’s egg sacs, hoping that one of her daughters chooses this quiet spot for her own web. It’s a good place to settle in — damp and shady, a respite from the harsh light of summer.
Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the book “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”
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