Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Great Deal Owed to Autumn





            There is very little I can do to make the perennial garden look any better or worse at this time of year. It’s liberating. 

            Maybe that’s why I always concentrate on the “mellow” in Keats’s great first line in his Ode to Autumn: “Season of mist and mellow fruitfulness.”
            This line is followed at once by “Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun.”
            More words to chew on. Once again he’s hit on something in the back of our minds and brought it to the front. (Poetry is all about finding the suitable particular.)    
            Why do the colors, especially autumn colors, seem to match up so well with the “maturing sun”? The sun rises earlier, sets sooner and sits less high in the sky throughout the day. And mature, as we know, is a nice way of saying “getting older.”
The earth’s day-night division reached the fifty-fifty point in the third week of September. Since then the “maturing” sun sets appreciably earlier all the time. We look one day and say, ‘the sun’s going down already? I just got home.’ How has this happened? Aren’t we still barefoot in the summer sun, looking forward to a beach day, walking the tide line, picking blueberries, watching the first tomatoes redden, hoping against hope that the baseball team will be good this year?
            We have done nothing and yet everything has changed.
            Thank goodness for the mellow time, the best possible of “close bosom-friend(s).” Thank goodness for the sweet deception of gentle days. Bosom-buddy Autumn tells us a few sweet fibs, a few sweet-nothings. Have no fear, I’ll be with you – some time yet. Don’t worry how much time, exactly. No need to panic. Be here now.
            And, why not (bosom buddy Autumn further urges) enjoy the colors while they last? Look up at the sweet lemon-yellow of the mulberry tree. The red sky of early sunset inflames the red and orange leaves of the maples. The low, wild shrub growth on the margins of the woodlands sends up red flares in the late afternoon. It fires the heart.
            Even the tall grasses of the salt marsh – the most “sublime” of landscapes, to use the Romantic poets’ favorite word; a word that  means solitary but also “not obvious” – turn a sun-loving bronze, inventing colors you cannot see at other seasons.
            And then we come to the season’s buoyant determination “to set budding more,/ And still more, later flowers for the bees,/ Until they think warm days will never cease.”
            Poor bees. If they buy this line, they’re in for a surprise. If they’ve been lulled into thinking warm days will never cease, they’ll have a shock when they get their oil bill. We all know how they feel.
            Keats’s great Ode is set in the country. He invokes vines rounding the “thatch-eaves.” No thatch-eaves in Quincy. We read of autumn conspiring with that good-hearted “maturing sun” to “bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees.” In our single family homes rounded with a little patch of earth to call our own we have neither “cottages” nor for the most part “cottage-trees,” and not many apple trees that aren’t old and wormy.
            But we surely have shade trees planted along all our sheets, green yards, and vegetable and flower gardens. They’re all gorgeous this time of year, particularly in the mass. Don’t take them for granted, people. We need them.