Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Tipping Point

Turpentine bush on the verge of blooming
or Ode on the Autumn Equinox

Today we are at balance, poised between day and night, summer and winter.  For one brief moment both sides of the story are equal, even though we know how this scene will end—the balance tipped toward frost, toward breath clouds in the morning air, afternoons that never warm up and that end early, piles of comforters on the bed, an outside world reduced to its bare bones.

In Vermont the tipping point comes fast and strikes out hard for the downhill side.  Autumn is a brief fire soon spent, sparking vividly against a cool, blue sky, every maple leaf an ember that burns gloriously before fading into ash, into the dull gray of November.

In the Finger Lakes region of New York, autumn is Thanksgiving Day writ large.  It waxes slowly into fulness.   It glows with the joy of harvest rightfully earned, of grapes heavy on the vine, of butternut squash and cornfields, of apples to be put up in haste and tasted at leisure; a celebration of bounty and Providence and community; a last toast, a final burst of fellow-feeling, before the light wanes into winter, and the gray months strike, and your settle in just to endure.

Here in south-central New Mexico, autumn is a long, slow sigh of relief, a gentle relaxing into the sleep of winter.  We reach a tipping point, but the slope is an easy one; we tumble into winter softly.  The trees turn kind by kind, week by somnolent week, first the honey locusts, then the desert willows, the desert olives, the ornamentals from China, Japan, the Mediterranean, the pears and hawthorns and ashes, and finally, most spectacularly, the giants among Western trees—los alamos, the cottonwoods.   They set the bosques along the Rio Grande to shining with a gold that reflects the sun's mellow warmth—its newly welcome warmth—back skyward.

Rabbit brush, or chamisa, after a rain shower

Closer to the earth, the Maximillian's sunflowers open their towers of golden blossoms; sulphury clouds of rabbit brush balance on supple, sage-green stems, blowing gently in the slightest breeze; the flowers of turpentine bush glow against resiny, juniper-needle leaves; and the angelita daisies continue to emblazon the most bruised, abandoned places with life and color.  These are not the happy-go-lucky yellows of spring; they are deep golds that resonate with knowledge and loss and profound joy, that have seen a brutal summer and lived to tell the tale.

In the sky, too, each day is like gold—the sun still just too hot for comfort, but slowly—oh, so slowly—passing from the white heat of summer through autumn's honey warmth and back again to the cold, white gleam of winter; the sunsets are liquid, rose-gold, the color of cooling metal.

We stand at the cusp, poised between moments.  The earth and its axis are about to tell against us.  The sun retreats to the south; the long, slow journey into nighttime lies ahead.  But the journey, as always, is the heart of the tale, the story of earth and sky and their passage worth more in the telling than the loss of the summer behind us.

We take a long, deep breath and descend into the shimmering valley of autumn.


  1. The last day of summer brought tornado watches, multiple inches of rain, baseball sized hail and flood warnings to South Dakota. But we have had a few evenings where the temperatures got into the 40's, so a few of the trees have begun to shift into orange and red, which is visually quite pleasant.

  2. Goodness—do you ever have pleasant weather there, klbrowser? It's tempting just to drop ship a bunch of pamphlets over your whole state saying, "California was invented for people like you! Move! Go ENJOY yourselves!"

  3. What a wonderful story that was! I was transported to New Mexico.