“Fall is my dreaded season,” says Peter, my piano teacher and friend. I look over the piano lid and through a window revealing angled autumnal light illuminating red and orange leaves.
“Why?” I ask him, somewhat surprised at this turn from his usual optimistic self.
“Because everything is dying,” he replies. With a blossoming pride, Peter loves his garden, an overly planted yard of climbing roses and fruit trees.
There are others, including me, who choose fall as a favorite time of year. I walk through Volunteer Park ducking horse chestnuts raining around me while reciting memorized lines from Gerard Manly Hopkins’ Spring and Fall : “Margaret, are you grieving /over Goldengrove unleaving? . . . By and by, nor spare a sigh / though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie.” Also, Robert Frost’s October: “O hushed October morning mild, / thy leaves have ripened to the fall;/ tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild, /should waste them all.” Both poets rhapsodize autumn, its transformations and even nature’s temporary demise. Both employ images and rhythms that lift my heart as a verbal symphony. Try saying it aloud: “worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie.” That is Hopkins’ invented “sprung rhythm,” that dances between verses. Margaret’s mourning of fallen leaves that Hopkins cleverly calls “leafmeal,” evokes Seattle’s November lawns where those leaves soak to slippery mush. I see compost there, and surely October’s leaves raked with mowed grass fill my compost bin with the slow, burning nutrients of decay. In March, I plow the compost stew in my garden, weeks before making rows for spinach and lettuce seeds.
This October afternoon, I am planting daffodil and tulip bulbs. The heavy box of bulbs I ordered late last November arrived this week. I opened the cardboard box this morning, surprised at the hundreds I ordered, a bounty of optimism: optimistic that I would have the energy to dig all the necessary holes, sprinkle in bulb food, cover the lot and water. Have you recently examined tulip or daffodil bulbs? They are plump, brown and flakey blobs carrying no clue to the vibrant yellow, delicate flowers they will create in spring. Is it optimism or denial that after my hours of effort voles won’t tunnel throughout for their winter bulb feast? And yes, optimism and vision that next spring yellow daffodils will line the split rail fence, and tulips will pepper the square of soil by the crab shack, somewhat like confetti after a parade. Meanwhile, I have six chilly months to retreat inside to my poetry books for Wordsworth.
In I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, the poet chances upon a hill of daffodils. Wordsworth comments on their beauty and the joy it brought to him through despairing months: “For oft, when on my couch I lie/In vacant or in pensive mood, /They flash upon that inward eye/ Which is the bliss of solitude;/And then my heart with pleasure fills,/And dances with the daffodils.” Fall opens to months of the “inward eye,” when memory and optimism carry us from the falling maple leaves to the first green spikes that tell me those knobby daffodil bulbs I planted in October are coming through. May they not jump the gun with a week of January’s “false spring” and shoot through soil only to be smothered with a February snowfall.
The “inward eye” is a friendly companion when nature seems dying around us. It helps us reflect on beauty we experienced during former seasons, as Wordsworth did. But it also telescopes our imagined landscapes to next spring, next rebirth.For me, the first trillium is Easter to my soul, arriving in the same place due to no effort on my part. Soon after will follow all (or most) of those daffodils and tulips, my good muscle investment in optimism.