There’s something ineffably magnificent about a fall day: the crisp air, the whisper of the wind as it rustles through the trees and the crunch of the leaves as they skitter underfoot. The last echo of summer’s splendor is illuminated in the fading sun’s pumpkin glow. But we often admire fall’s grandeur without pausing to contemplate what lends it its awesome power, or what lessons we can draw from it about how to live our lives.
Many religions and cultures have a festival to celebrate the fall harvest. In some sense, fall is a season of completion and jubilation. Farmers reap the fruits of their labor and, with their crops ingathered and stored away, are free to relax. But the season is also permeated by an awareness of the bitter cold and bleak stillness that will surely follow.
There is a certain sense of loss, impermanence and mortality that imbues fall with a mournful quality. The season is utterly indifferent to the process it sets into motion: leaves die gradually, animals retreat into hibernation, a chill sets in. As the trees are stripped of their foliage, issuing only faint murmurs of protest, we come face to face with their stark nudity and our pretenses of immortality fall away. The evanescence of the living things around us makes us uneasy — we recognize that we can be detached from life with just as little fanfare as leaves in a passing breeze.
The rhythms of the seasons remind us uncomfortably of the rhythms of human life, and countless writers have used fall as a powerful symbol of decay and death. In “The Iliad,” Homer likens “the lives of mortal men” to “the generations of leaves,” observing that, “Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth, now the living timber bursts with the new buds and spring comes round again. And so with men: as one generation comes to life, another dies away.”
Fall reminds us to live in the moment, appreciating the relationships we have and the wonders all around us given the transitory nature of our lives. This is a horrendous cliché, but clichés have a kernel of truth. We rush to and fro like the currents that caress the trees, but we forget that we are in fact leaves. Caught up in our delusion that we can evade death, we forget to savor the beauty in moments of connection with ideas, nature and our fellow human beings. It is all too easy to fall into the routine of texting or listening to music as we walk across campus, neglecting the layers of orange and crimson that carpet Old Campus. We occupy our minds with the next item on our to-do lists even in the midst of hanging out with friends. Yet these fleeting instants of communion are what we live for.
As we come to terms with our own mortality, we must also recognize that while we live, change is inevitable. This disquiets us — in our personal lives, we seek habits and niches that make us comfortable and then cling to them tenaciously. Politically, many people manifest the same tendency. But the truth is that cleaving to old ways and hoping change will pass you by is a recipe for disappointment. Regardless of how fiercely we resist the shifting seasons, the temperature invariably drops, so we put away our shorts and take out winter jackets.
But it’s not just about dying leaves and winter chill — fall also bears the promise of renewal. The trees renounce their old leafy garb, but they don a new coat in the spring. Nature’s cycle also embraces the discarded leaves: falling to the ground, they become fertilizer for new life.
Fall is not simply a time for apple picking, pumpkin pie and football games. There’s a reason that so many religions and cultures mark the start of the season with holidays like Sukkot and the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival. Fall provides us with the chance to reflect on what makes our lives truly meaningful. So the next time a heavy gust of wind sends a battalion of acorns tumbling down, let’s shield our heads but vow not to shield ourselves from all of life’s fluctuations and complications. Rather than buying into the illusion that you can reach some steady state, embrace change and the opportunity it offers for growth. By rededicating ourselves to what matters most, we can ensure that, regardless of what changes life throws our way, we will have no regrets.
Scott Remer is a sophomore in Piersom College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.