In Praise of Autumn’s Rotting Beauty
I say “autumn,” you say “fall.” Obviously, I’m right. But maybe we can compromise with “harvest,” the season’s traditional name.
At this time of year, anyway, what one really needs is adjectives, and “fall-like” just won’t do. Look at those gold and red and russet leaves, blown roses, fruit on the verge of overripeness. If one has an ounce of poetry in one’s soul, how can one not want to describe such morbid beauty? Unlike Japan, with its seventy-two traditional kō, or micro-seasons—I write this in “chrysanthemum-blooming time”—the West has a paucity of good seasonal descriptions. It hardly matters, so long as we agree that it’s the best time of the year. ’Tis the season of mist, nature’s Photoshop; trenchcoats; barley; licensed melancholy; munificence; and glorious rot.
I was introduced to the loveliness of rotting nature by my grandparents. It was the Christmas holidays, and they were desperate; they dragged me to the Serpentine Gallery, in London’s Hyde Park, which happened to be exhibiting the art of Rory McEwen. The British have to Google him, too, yet McEwen was a great of botanical painting: a microscopically precise master of decay. His portraits of black-eyed anemones and pinstriped fritillaries are his better-known works, but his greatest ones are the pulpy Indian onions, shedding skin; the glinting ridges of drying chilis; the curling petals of theatrically dying tulips; and the series “True Facts from Nature,” which depicts rows of, for example, two dry sycamore seeds, three disintegrating leaves, and a bit of straw.
Was it the whiff of death that spoke to me? I think, rather, it was myopia. We gardeners are short-sighted types, getting our nature thrills in closeup; not the rustling forest but a dollop of lime-green moss, not the rousing seascape but the pebbles on the beach. Is there a good view from here? Who cares. I’m too transfixed by the elegant fluting of a single coriander seed, by burr spikes like a Borgia’s favorite gadget, or by the private silken folds inside a beech-nut case.
And, at this time of year, when even the most ordinary vine leaf is pink-spotted, when a simple Cox’s Orange Pippin apple is striped and freckled as a Paul Klee landscape, it’s extraordinary that I ever make it down the street. The hedges and pavements are littered with temptation. I may try to pass as an elegant novelist, but my pockets prove that I’m secretly Huck Finn: Japanese quinces; interesting tree bark; discreetly nibbled, acrid sloes; pretty twigs; glossy, thoroughbred-brown horse chestnuts and their flat-hedgehog shells; the crumbled remnants of a dozen exciting leaves. Theft becomes a duty; only a fool would leave the frilled discs of hollyhock seeds or the Muppet frenzy of a nigella pod when it is fat with next season’s flowers. As Thoreau, an admirer of lichen shapes, well knew, nature is full of strange beauty, and seed heads and pods are among its greatest glories.
Everything in the garden is lovely in autumn. Without the compelling chaos of new growth, the soothing wash of greenery, or the blare of blossom, one has time to examine the life cycle in full: a bunch of grapes offer both tiny, acid babies and impressively home-grown raisins; a wilting plum leaf contains a spectrum of yellows; a chokeberry bush is in Technicolor decline. Autumn is a snappy dresser; those flowers that remain, tangerine-orange calendulas, vein-dark dahlias, the lipstick sting of pineapple sage, pop spectacularly against a bright blue sky. And, at night, the cloudy puffs of breath and the mulchy stink of soggy leaves remind us that the garden is ours again; no obligation to clear the table of potting trays for al-fresco lunches, no visitors tumbling into the tomatoes. Put away that cocktail shaker. After the hell of summer, autumn is the introvert’s revenge.
But, before we can retreat to the bath with a seed catalogue, to plot the next growing season, there is so much still to do: leaves to bag for leaf mold, snails to massacre, pruning and gathering and clearing. Small, interesting tasks amid such beauty; how can one not feel at peace? My mental soundtrack is the verse of the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, a sexually frustrated priest whose quiet passion for the natural world made Thoreau look like a jaunty frat boy. “Margaret, are you grieving / over Goldengrove unleaving” may seem like an evocation of entropy and the inevitable passage of time, but to any gardener it’s a paean to the glory of botanical decay. I think of Hopkins’s “worlds of wanwood leafmeal,” and am happy.
Charlotte Mendelson is a prize-winning British novelist and the author of “Rhapsody in Green,” a memoir about her passion for gardening.Read more »