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Autumn Song

by Julia Sneden

Nearly every house in my neighborhood has some sort of autumnal celebration by the front door: a sheaf of corn stalks; a pumpkin; a stack of pumpkins; ears of Indian corn hanging from the door knocker; a basket of chrysanthemums or a playful scarecrow sitting on the porch; a wreath of dried flowers. It seems as if a love of the season, or perhaps an atavistic demonstration of the bounty of harvest, is deeply ingrained in all of us. It even touches those like me who are several generations removed from agricultural roots, and whose experience of harvest devolves from the produce section of the local supermarket.
      Crunching along over the shards of acorns littering the sidewalk, I am reminded of the simple pleasure the children in my classroom derived from a bucket of acorns brought in by a classmate. We sorted them by size and shape. We sprouted some in wet paper towels in the darkness of a closet. We fitted loose caps to acorns of appropriate size. We estimated how many we could scoop up in one hand; in a cup; in a quart pitcher. We estimated how many there were in the whole bucket, and then verified our estimate by counting out 10 at a time, putting each set into a paper cup and putting the cups out in a long line which stretched far down the hall. Then we counted the cups by tens. We found pictures of different kinds of oaks and their acorns, and classified them by type. By the time we were through, we knew a lot about acorns and oak trees.
      I was blessed with a co-teacher who was a master gardener. From her, I learned how to help the children harvest seeds each fall from the plants in our garden, so that in spring we could plant again. Peeling back the marigold petals to find seeds deep in the center, or cracking open the dried pods of our hyacinth beans, or shaking out small seeds from the withered heads of the Mexican sunflowers, was a lesson in wonder. How could an entire plant grow from such a tiny, dry thing? And how could a single flower produce so many seeds? Perhaps, we decided, the purpose of a flower isnt to look pretty. Perhaps the purpose of a flower is to make more plants.
    From the same teacher, I learned about our indigenous persimmons, not those plump, Orange-lacquer-colored Oriental ones you find in the supermarket, but the one-inch globes with a frosted skin that gives new meaning to the term rosy glow. You dont eat them straight from the tree, not unless you want to live the rest of your life with a permanent pucker to your lips. You wait for the first frost, and harvest them when they fall to the ground (if you can beat the deer and raccoons and ants and other critters that appreciate them, too). The ground under a persimmon tree is usually littered with the large, coppery seeds left by the hordes of animal gleaners. When you go to pick up the fruit, you must be careful where you step, or you will spend a long time trying (unsuccessfully) to remove the orange stain and the sour stench of mooshed persimmon from your sneakers. Really ripe persimmons are good to eat fresh off the ground, but mixed judiciously with eggs and sugar and flour, they make a heavenly dish known as simmon pudding.
     Schoolteachers all over the country, at least in those areas where leaves turn in the fall, have art and science and math lessons literally all around them. Exhilarating walks to hunt for nuts and leaves and other signs of autumn are only part of the story. Learning to sort and classify the leaves; learning how and why they turn color; learning to count them and to make prints from them; examining their veins; learning about transpiration (and yes, even very young children can grasp the concept when you fasten a plastic bag over the end of a branch on a sunny day, and see the moisture the leaf gives off), learning about composting  oh, there are thousands of variations on leaf lessons.   Possibly the best lesson of all is the lesson in aesthetics. The changeable beauty of autumn moves from subtle to flaming to subtle, but beautiful it always is. For a teacher, the best part is that autumn will be there again next year, for the next group of children, and all without special ordering or budget worries or approval from curriculum committees!
      Perhaps, given my age, I should be viewing autumn differently, but it remains my favorite season. I remember a wildly romantic cousin of my mothers who gazed out the window, and with her eyes full of tears, murmured: Autumn is such a sad time of year. She was referring to the leaves falling, of course, and equating it with her own late middle age. Now that I am in my 60s and can see that my own winter is not too far ahead, I should probably feel the same way, but I dont. I am exhilarated by this season. Autumn brings a message of survival: the trees call back the nutrients manufactured by their leaves, storing the food deep in their roots to sustain them through winter, a harvest all their own. Autumn even brings the promise of renewal, as the falling leaves make room for springs new leaves to grow.
      On a personal level, fall means the start of school, all those bright faces and the smell of a freshly-varnished gym floor and the crispness of new textbooks. It means needing a warm sweatshirt for an invigorating walk on a cool morning. It means making soups and stews and baking bread. It means a fire in the fireplace, and lights on against the early dark. It means the promise of family gatherings and celebratory times. It means my birthday, when I hear from friends whose attention makes me feel terrific. 
     My feisty little grandmother referred to being in the autumn of my life well into her 90s. Thats probably a good attitude if you can sustain it. I am certainly going to try, because the only trouble with the real thing is that its far too short. Go out and kick some leaves and check out the clear autumn sky. Theyll be gone before you know it.

 

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