I grew up in a small town, as a very bad pop song once had it. Our local paper was frequently hard put for stories, and bore up under no inconsiderable indignities to fill page space.
Once, a photographer of theirs was compiling a photo essay, “Locals Earning Their Daily Bread,” or something similarly quaint. He was considerate, or desperate, or both, and seeing my sister and me playing in the front yard amidst the newly fallen leaves, he asked my mother if he might snap a few shots of us. They appeared in the weekend paper. My sister, then as now, was quite photogenic.
This was a week before my birthday, and the all the leaves were at the high pitch of their redness; all that is, save those that grew on one tree. This one faced our house, and her leaves were those which chiefly ornamented the front lawn for the few short weeks before winter. These were a mixture of the brashest yellow and a tenuous red which touched on orange. This tree was my favorite, for unlike her neighbors, she never exhausted her fund of variety. One of the other trees’ red leaves was the exact twin of another. Of all this tree’s offspring there was never a pair alike. Each bore its red and its gold in proportions singular to itself. The two colors never divided from each other jaggedly, but bled together in a show of mutual acquiescence. There was no sudden border between them. Their blending was so gradual that a third tone showed a subtle insinuation of a presence between them. While it proceeded from the first hues, it had an essence of its own. Here was a royalty of foliage. The tree was a sermon by herself. Here was one thing that produced after its kind: after all, what were her leaves but so many elm leaves? But among all her leaves, where did she submit to repetition? The mind was tempted once more to reiterate
“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale…”
She “made most hungry”, if there is an appetite for atmosphere and season that does not hope to fill itself. But the first part of the quotation applied to her becomes mere sentiment, the cud of Hallmark fifty times rehashed. Her leaves withered, and no mistake. They withered and rotted on the lawn like so many leaves less regal. Finally every last arbor-flame dried up into a morbid anonymity. The first week of November did its work, and a wind storm usually gathered the bodies to their forbears in so many gutters and ditches.
Whatever dourness obscures the surface of autumn, or our understanding of it, it is not the likeness of the season itself. Autumn is not tragic. It would be, perhaps, if there were no other seasons. Inconveniently for the congenital pessimist there are. A season makes sense only as part of a sum. We commit a fallacy when we remove it from that fullness and concentrate on the bare thing itself, the skinned minimum. That we do this so often and with so many things is the root of our thoughts’ common poverty. It is impossible to believe that we are the first to sense a real dreariness in the death of leaves. It is probable that we are the first to sense nothing else. Ends and passings signify nothing to us, or at least nothing outside the bounds of our own paltry experiences. More expansive reflections, reflections like those that fill Villon’s great poem with the refrain, “Where are the snows of yesteryear?”, are foreign to our somberer contemplations.
It is not certain whether occasional despondency–the despondency we meet and wrestle at midnight–is purely vicious. Its more prosaic varieties are unquestionably luxurious. Even Solomon could not afford them. While a living lion, he saw clearly and without self-pity that he would one day be counted lower than a dog, and (proof of his liberality) never appeared to hold it against the dog. He took his conclusion in bread and wine and a smiling heart. Half the world’s lasting poetry begins with the same set of premises. Those who make them have ended variously, some in happy bonhomie and some in shabby self-indulgence. This exactly is the difference between a Villon and an Omar Khaayam.
My tree chose rightly. This is especially impressive in the case of inanimate objects. She was on the right side of Solomon, and her leaves made an end of it in parade ground uniform, taking delight in their toil. Like so many created things, she was garrulous in her homilies, ones to which I was deaf or blind or both. At six, one is oblivious to most things, I suppose. Neither do I remember ever to have been moved at that age by a sermon of the more conventional type. Here too were significances I could not spell. As it is with most people, my aesthetic sense began to grow at that same age when one begins either to love or resent the discipline of worship.
I found the picture the photographer took some years later. It had yellowed less royally than the half of its subject. In it my six-years’ self appears caught in the indolent, easily frustrated happiness which is that age’s regular accompanist. My sister is in the photograph as well, her expression something calmer, something that has achieved a more mellowed and temperate joy. More than either of the pair by far the leaves look exultant. They are dead when the picture was taken. On finding the picture, I felt a rebuke the trees did not intend. “Here is an end of the matter.”