Fall is already here in all of its glory, and to tell the truth, I didn't even notice it coming.
I don't know why — the signs of a change in season were certainly everywhere. On TV, football games had replaced baseball weeks ago; the trees have long been turning color, the leaves spinning to the ground and piling up along the street curbs. The whine of leaf blowers in the neighborhood has drowned out the whine of lawn mowers. Halloween displays have been cleared to make way for Thanksgiving and even Christmas, and Daylight Savings Time is over.
Somehow, though, I didn't put it all together, didn't take the time to pause and acknowledge the change. It's possible, I suppose, that my attention was elsewhere, too preoccupied with the ebb and flow of petty human strife to notice the cycling of seasons going on around us.
Yes, I suppose that is certainly possible.
I do like the change, though. I like cool days and chilly evenings, just right for burrowing deep under the covers at night. It's nice to see coats and jackets coming out of the closet. And the autumn sky is so clear and crisp, a deeper, starker blue than that of any summer morning.
Most of all, it puts things back into perspective. It reminds us that there are cycles to things. Day follows night, fall follows summer, death follows life, and then life erupts again. Even plants need the time to go dormant before blooming again.
And now, in the nature of things, winter looms ahead. The days and nights will turn still colder and darker. Thoughts will turn more inward, more introspective. The universe itself seems to shrink a little in winter, down to family and home and close friends. That too will be OK, even welcome.
It's anyone's guess how long the coming winter will be, or how harsh. Some people seek answers to that question by consulting the coloring of a woolly bear caterpillar; others watch to see how diligent the squirrels are in collecting nuts. The climate experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predict that we'll have an average winter in most of the country, except here in the South, where it's expected to be colder than normal.
The reporter's rule of thumb, though, requires that you seek a second source to confirm this kind of thing. And sure enough, the Old Farmers' Almanac agrees.
"The first half of winter will be near normal," the almanac says of the Southeast, "but February and March will be exceptionally cold, with snow and ice storms in northern and central parts of the region. The coldest temperatures will occur in late February and early March — much later than usual."
A long, cold winter ahead, in other words. From what I've seen, that prediction sounds about right.
Hard winters are OK, though, especially if you remember that they always have an end. Thomas Paine, in the dead of a hard winter of 1776, wrote that "these are the times that try men's souls." He dismissed those he called "the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot" who were quick to abandon the Revolutionary Army when times got tough. "What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly," Paine reminded his fellow Americans.
For Paine, as for writers through the centuries, winter was more than a season, it was a metaphor for those times that must be endured, that challenge our commitment and our willingness to fight for what we believe. Freedom is such a wonderful thing, he said, that it's little wonder its price is high.
For now, though, let's abandon talk of metaphors and politics and just take a walk, kicking up the leaves in our path and taking pleasure in the sound beneath our feet. Look, the trees are getting bare, making the sky beyond them seem bigger and more immediate.
And those squirrels sure do look busy, stocking up for what's to come, so they'll be ready when spring arrives.
© 2004 Atlantic Journal-Constitution