It’s been fall for a while.
It’s been fall since the first yellow buses stopped at the corner and the parents on the corner waved goodbye.
It’s been fall since the lights blinked off on the State Fair midway in the small hours after Labor Day.
It’s been fall since we saw the first yellow leaves on the green grass, and didn’t give them much thought because the sun blared down as loud as it had the day before. There’s always one tree that jumps the gun.
But now it’s really fall, the only season with two names. Fall is the season’s public name. In our hearts it’s autumn — a word that sounds like a soft exhalation of assent.
Why? Fall is a sad story. It never has a happy ending. But it’s so beautifully written.
• • •
We feel industrious when fall comes. We want the return of order and detail and routine. It’s baked in our code: The lean times are coming. Get ready. Sheaf the wheat and put up the beets!
Add the memories of school days, with all the excitement and anxieties we felt when we re-entered the machinery of formal education — same door, different room.
In fall, everyone feels as if they should be buckling down and opening their books and turning to page six. Everyone hears bells and smells No. 2 pencils. Of course we feel industrious.
But do we actually do anything about it?
There’s spring cleaning, when you throw out the old because now there are tulips, or something like that. There’s summer maintenance, when you tackle the heap of hoses and pots in the shed. There’s winter resolve (usually after New Year’s Day), when you decide to be better, thinner, more organized.
Fall might be the only season where our desire to do things is exceeded only by our total indifference toward doing them.
The reason is simple: The days are rare.
• • •
No one ever thinks fall has pushed north into summer; a chilly August is just a lousy August. No one ever thinks fall sprawls into the latter chapters of November. Spring flows into summer; winter never dies, but retreats for a while to bide its time. Summer is three months.
And fall? If we’re honest, it’s six weeks long.
It starts with the first fatal tint at the top of the trees. The seasonal aisle in the stores has shifted to orange and brown. We need jackets in the morning, but the sun is strong at noon. Day by day the trees ignite until the full palette paints the city — and then, if we’re lucky, comes the perfect fall day.
It’s warm. (Fall is the only season we allow to be hot and cold and anything in between. Whatever it wishes.) The trees are glorious, every leaf turned as it prefers, and it’ll be like this tomorrow, too. Weather forecaster says 70s all week. At night, wood smoke in the air. Possibly crickets, if they’re up for it. This is fall. No, this is autumn.
But then, after that, comes the other perfect fall day. It’s crisp. The trees have lost half their crop; the sun has a certain indifference, but you don’t take it personally. For the first time in a while, the thought of cider appeals. This is autumn.
But then, after that, comes the perfect fall day. Halloween. The trees are mostly bare. There’s a chill in the air, but not the sort of cold that goes for your bones. The lively bustle of the one-day holiday masks the verdict of November, handed down at midnight: That was autumn.
Tomorrow will be stark and pure, bare trees reaching up to the gray ache of the sky.
Autumn had the warmth of summer and the portents of winter. It made spring look like the trivial overture for an operetta. It’s no small accomplishment to make Minnesotans feel at ease with summer’s end, but it’s something else entirely to make them love its replacement.
Autumn is a bonfire. It can snow hard the day after the embers are cold, but we’ll still smell the smoke in our sweaters.