Seasons Magazines

Seasons Magazines

Autumn: It’s Not What You Think

Autumn: It’s Not What You Think

 

By Matthew Dicks  /  Illustrated By Sean Wang

 

The season that officially runs from September 21 through December 21 is unusual in that it has two different names: fall and autumn. Some of us also simply refer to it as “football,” but that admittedly limits things a bit. It once had an entirely different name: harvest.

I guess that once Americans consigned farming to corporate overlords, robotic combine harvesters and bio-engineered fertilizers, the harvesting of our tiny, backyard gardens hardly warranted the name. But the two names make sense for this particular season since what we think of as autumn and what it actually is are two entirely different things.

Close your eyes. Seriously, do it. I know you’re reading this by yourself (or perhaps aloud at a dinner party to capitalize on my carefully crafted wit and humor), but either way, close your eyes. Closed? Okay, when I say the word “autumn,” what do you envision?

Wait. I bet you couldn’t read that last sentence with your eyes closed. Apologies. A definite flaw in my plan. If you’re a rule follower, you probably held your eyes closed for entirely too long, waiting for something to happen. What were you expecting? I’d pop over and do something unexpected?

Let’s try this again. Keep your eyes opened. When I say “autumn,” what images appear in your mind? Maybe close your eyes now if it helps.

If you’re like most people—first, my condolences for being so tragically average—you probably envisioned apple picking, corn mazes and a colorful bounty of autumnal leaves. Depending on your particular proclivities, perhaps you also envisioned long touchdown passes (preferably thrown by New England Patriots quarterbacks), miserable weekends spent watching your child inexplicably play soccer hundreds of miles from where you live and a plate of bitter herbs. Thanksgiving, too, of course, and, if you’re smart, a seasonal reading of Colin Nissan’s everlastingly brilliant essay on gourds in McSweeney’s. Autumn at its very best.

And it’s true. All of these things represent the glory of the autumnal season. The problem is autumn is a season. It lasts for three months. Peak autumn, and even palatable autumn, only lasts two or three weeks at best.

Autumn begins on September 21, which is not autumn by any understanding of the word. The trees are still green. The beaches are still open. It’s still often as hot as hell. The average temperature in Connecticut in September is just seven degrees cooler than August and, on some days, it’s just as warm. When I was a kid, my parents called these unexpectedly warm days “Indian summer.”

I never understood what those words meant, but as a kid, I loved these days. A sprinkling of the summer in early November was a blessing to a kid who desperately wanted to play with sticks and rocks and dig holes.

But teaching fifth graders on an oppressively warm October day absent any air conditioning is hardly a blessing. Stepping outdoors in your favorite cashmere sweater on a November morning when temperatures are already approaching 80 degrees makes it hard to get excited about the unseasonably warm weather.

Except it’s not unseasonable. It’s autumn. Like Hamlet, it’s never able to make up its damn mind.

Don’t like the heat? Fear not, because you’re just as likely to need a winter coat, because it’s also freezing in fall. Sometimes it even snows. About a decade ago, an October snowstorm—when the leaves were still on the trees—knocked out power for most people for more than a week. Halloween was cancelled that year because of the enormous number of downed power lines still on the streets.

Also, if you haven’t had electricity or hot water for a week, the last thing you want is a bunch of trick-or-treaters at your darkened doorstep, demanding candy.

Thankfully, that was my two-year-old daughter’s “I’m boycotting Halloween for no discernible reason” year, so we didn’t miss a thing. Never even lost power. But I did have to shovel my driveway. In October.

The point is that as likely as it is to be oppressively hot, it’s equally likely to be damn cold, especially given that autumn stretches until December 21. What we think of as classic fall is probably about two or three weeks in October—if we’re lucky—when the air is crisp and cool, and all of our traditional autumnal imagery is on full display.

Then it all goes to hell, if it hasn’t already. Barren trees stretch across the landscape. Cold rain falls, followed by sleet and snow, turning the ground to mud before freezing into cement. Winter hats and mittens are donned, but autumn rolls on, absent everything we think of as autumn except for the date on the calendar.

Ever dream of a white Christmas? You dreamt that dream in autumn.

Ever count down the 12 days of Christmas? Eight of them happened in autumn.

Ever open little doors on an advent calendar? Nearly all of them were opened in autumn.

Kurt Vonnegut understood this all too well. In fact, he argued for six seasons instead of four. He proposed that we refer to September and October as “Fall” and November and December as “The Locking.” He had a point.

In other words, how dare we disparage the idea of fall with that colorless, soulless, hopeless two-month period wherein the landscape transforms from glorious, colorful, crisp beauty to barren trees and frozen mud?

He also referred to March and April as “The Unlocking”—the unthawing of that frozen mud and the eventual budding of those still barren trees—and May and June as Spring. Also sensible.

My warning to you is this: don’t sleep on autumn this year. At the slightest hint of a crisp, cool day or the teeniest tinge of color on the trees, get to a harvest festival, navigate a corn maze, carve a pumpkin and pick some apples because the window of idyllic, traditional autumn is small and uncertain. To remind yourself of the manic nature of this uncertain season, let us reframe the image of autumn in your mind’s eye as someone wearing a lightweight, cable-knit cashmere sweater with a bathing suit bottom and galoshes, holding a rake in one hand and snow shovel in the other.

That, my friends, is autumn. Also fall.

 

Matthew Dicks is an elementary school teacher, bestselling novelist, and a record 55-time Moth Story SLAM champion. His latest books are “Twenty-one Truths About Love” and “The Other Mother.” 

 

Sean Wang, an MIT architecture graduate, is author of the sci-fi graphic novel series, Runners. Learn more at seanwang.com.