Time Essay: A Season for Hymning and Hawing

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Technically, it begins next week. Actually, it began with the epic sigh of relief that could be sensed all over the U.S. right after Labor Day. Even before it arrives, Americans always manage to get into autumn. And no wonder. It is easily the most habitable season of the year.

Indeed, autumn deserves a hymn—and it has received far less tribute than it deserves. True, some mixed notices have come in over the centuries. Horace slandered autumn as a "dread" period—"harvest-season of the Goddess of Death." He was dead wrong, of course, for as Ovid noted, once he got his mind off sex, autumn is "cum formossisimus annus"—"the fairest season of the year." Had he lived a little later, Horace might have found out from the U.S. Census Bureau that the death rate is usually lower in autumn than in winter and spring. Why? Science doesn't know, but it is quite possible that the will to live is stronger in the fall. Conversely, the will to mayhem weakens: nobody has ever worried about a Long Hot Autumn.

So autumn is a blatantly vital season, contrary to the allegations of sorrowful poets who misconstrue the message of dying leaves. A more realistic poet, Archibald MacLeish, says that "Autumn is the American season. In Europe the leaves turn yellow or brown and fall. Here they take fire on the trees and hang there flaming. Life, too, we think, is capable of taking fire in this country; of creating beauty never seen."

Autumn is also the authentic season of renewal. Yale Lecturer William Zinsser hit the nail squarely: "The whole notion of New Year's Day as the time of fresh starts and bold resolutions is false." In truth that time is autumn. Popular pleasure shows itself in those hastening steps and brightened smiles encountered as the air grows nippier. Some psychiatrists have patients who grow almost alarmed at how congenial they suddenly feel. Autumn is a friendlier time.

The rejuvenating ambience of autumn is immeasurably more ancient than even the calendar. The Creation itself was achieved in the autumn, according to a tradition of Judaism—whence the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, at summer's end or the start of fall. The suspicion that even God is partial to autumn has overwhelmed others, including John Donne, who enthused: "In Heaven, it is always Autumn."

No, autumn is not always heaven on earth. The season does induce a quickening of the blood and a heightening of human kind's sensual pleasures. Yet the very jubilant excesses that ensue often lead, at last, to the well-known post-Thanksgiving "holiday blues." In darker ways still, fate and tragedy have made some American Novembers seem more cruel than April.

Autumn is honest, it does not pretend to be heaven. Yet almost everybody recognizes that the season's character transcends those familiar bracing days, crystal nights, bigger stars, vaulted skies, fluted twilights, harvest moons, frosted pumpkins and that riotous foliage that impels whole traffic jams of leaf freaks up into New England (even though Columnist Russell Baker has reminded them that "if you've seen 1 billion leaves, you've seen them all"). What is not widely recognized is that autumn is richly enhanced simply by what it is not. Specifically, it is not summer, winter or spring.

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