It’s been pouring rain for two solid days now. Last night I kept waking up to listen to the drumming of rain on our roof, the wind humming through the trees out at the bluff, a lively air-river whispering something I couldn’t quite make out.
Soggy fall is a welcome respite after the exhaustingly beautiful bright summer, full of activity fueled by the knowledge that the perfect sparkling days won’t last long. But now forest creatures are stuffing themselves nut-chubby, huddling wetly under dripping cedar branches, wiggling out of the saturated soil in search of pockets of aeration. A hummingbird braves pounding raindrops the size of his eyes to suck sugar water from my feeder.
This sense of “it won’t last long” is everywhere these days. A thick yellow carpet of cast-off bigleaf-maple leaves sends up a gentle glow from the forest floor. The irises that were a housewarming present have gone to glorious seed, their brilliant orange berries brightening the kitchen window. A photo taken by a friend shows me for the first time that the top of my head is growing gray.
As winter nears, trees concentrate their efforts on their roots, branches, and buds. Their showy leaves, which have been so helpful in spring and summer in turning sunlight into tree food, now become a drain on the trees’ resources. If you look closely at the stem-ends of the fallen leaves, you can see their abscission zones: the cutoff area formed when shortening daylength triggers chemical changes that keep nutrients from reaching the leaf, weakening it so that it drops off. The tree needs to release its leaves to conserve its energy in the challenging season of winter.
Abscission zone in Bigleaf Maple leaf
I know the feeling. I’ve loved my active, out-in-the-world life and my career as a professor. Academics’ time of rebirth isn’t spring, but fall, when new students sprout in our classrooms and we start the annual cycle of the school year, watering and fertilizing our promising young seedlings throughout the winter months.
This fall, though, it feels like time for abscission, for cutting out and letting go of the things that don’t feed my roots. I need my nutrients now for writing, photography, time outdoors that feeds my intimacy with my beloved natural world. My roots need to grow more deeply into the soil, to tap new nutrients and to brace better against winter storms.
Because it won’t last long, this life of mine. Genetically, I’m likely to last well into my 90’s and perhaps even beyond. But the shadow of Alzheimer’s always lurks, and weakening bones, and fading vision: the gifts of body and mind that we give back one by one.
This is the season to choose soil over air; soul over show. Because now is never long enough.