Between Restlessness and Rapture: Autumn and the Sensual Urgency of Aliveness

A wildlife ecologist’s serenade to the season that makes you “want to linger long enough to hear every sound and look far enough to see into forever.”

Between Restlessness and Rapture: Autumn and the Sensual Urgency of Aliveness

When autumn comes with its ecstasy of sweetness in the orchard and its symphony of color in the forest, it staggers us with something difficult to name, some bewildering harmonic of the transcendent and the transient — each ripening apple an aria of delight, each bright falling leaf a sigh, a homily, a dirge without music.

Looking back on her life in its final year, the great French writer, actor, and mime Colette celebrated autumn and the autumn of life as a beginning, not a decline — the season of “those who have nothing more to lose and so excel at giving.” Two generations later, while navigating a season of bereavements, Pico Iyer discovered in autumn existential training ground for finding beauty in impermanence and light in loss. We call it “fall,” but something swells in us as the days grow shorter and the trees more skeletal — the quiet uprising of resilience that readies us for the self-renewal of wintering.

Cowarne Apple. 1811. The Nature Conservancy can benefit from this print as well as as face masks and stationery cards.

In The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature (public library) — his love letter to the spirituality of science and the wonder of the wilderness — the poetic ornithologist and wildlife ecologist J. Drew Lanham considers the singular and sensual enchantment of autumn:

Fall is the time when nature speaks most clearly to me. Autumn can offer a wealth of sensory experiences that can overwhelm. Overnight cooler temperatures help to ease the heat from late summer. It is now easier to breathe and your sweaty stifling heat evaporates. Inhaling deeply is essential to absorb every bit of wind-borne energy. The tired sameness of September’s deep green fades then flames into October’s vermilion sumacs and scarlet maples, lemon-yellow poplars and golden hickories. In these days of crispness, I long to be able to hear all sounds and gaze far enough to see infinity.

Reflecting on the natural restlessness the season seems to stir in us and other animals, he writes:

The Germans have a fine word for it: zugunruhe. A compound derived from the roots zug (migration) and unruhe (anxiety), it describes the seasonal migration of birds and other animals. Wanderlust makes me want to move far from home, or fly to a place that I believe is important to me. Nature too is constantly moving, both in terms of migrating and storing as well as dying. All things are either moving faster or slower. Some are racing to get seed ready for next generations. The monarch butterfly is rushing to grab the sweetening sweetness from a goldenrod field. The weight of the muscadines and apple trees hangs heavy. For the wildlings, there is a last call from fruit-dense orchards. Wild turkeys, coons and foxes all enjoy the feasting. You can smell the dying leaves in the air. As wild berries become wine, the air is scented with decay. The sun is different in autumn. It sits in a slightly darker place in the sky. This creates a more mellower, more nimble light that signals the end of the world.

Tired from months of singing in the heat, the droning Katydids hang on to October. Soon, the choirs of thousands shrink to a few dozen and eventually disappear into dozens. The first freeze is a major problem for a persistent cricket, who tries to keep his beat. The rustling riot of turning, falling leaves and the mysterious moonlit chirps of migrant songbirds winging their way to faraway places make my heart race… When the moon glows in a mid-November sky like a pallid sun, I, too, am so soaked in wanting and wood’s lust that I might as well wander like a warbler in the joyous urgency of it all.

The Triumph of Life by Maria Popova. Available as a printed version.

Complement with Henry Beston — a father-figure for generations of such lyrical nature writers — on harvest and the human spirit, then revisit poet Diane Ackerman’s wonderful notion of living as an “Earth ecstatic” and a breathtaking animated poem about our connection to nature and each other, inspired by the seasonal migration of starlings.

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