Of all the natural glories offered by the beautiful southeast, Tennessee autumns may rise above the rest. The features of fall seem to draw out and enliven all that is fair and lovely about this area of the country—a welcome replacement to summer’s brutal temper. Crisp mornings and pleasant noon breezes replace summer’s muggy morning air and burning summer afternoons. The mosquitos that saturate August evenings flee, replaced by the peaceful offerings of a tenderer side of nature. The green, monochromatic mountainside (to take nothing away from the gorgeous summer trees), transfigures into dappled resplendence.
As September waltzes into October, nature extends an invitation for all to come outside and join in its pleasant song. And once you begin to notice its melody, fall takes its time to rise to a crescendo. The cool autumn wind blows in and begins to transform the singular green foliage into a symphony of color: yellow, green, red, and orange. Near the end of September, the mornings turn brisk and the evenings soon mimic. The squirrels scurry to find their acorns before an early dusk envelops the day. Then, subtly, the smaller trees, a select few, begin to change their colors and embrace autumn’s arms. The greater oaks, poplars, and elms soon imitate, replacing their green wardrobe with a brighter and fairer palette of colors. Throughout October and even into the early weeks of November, the trees proudly display their glorious hue. And then, as if discontent, the color-giants drop their leaves while the bitter winter wind rushes in and replaces all that was once peaceful and welcoming with an iron sky and an empty wood.
Whenever I think of fall, I long to visit my family’s vast property in Tennessee. Our farm, which stretches four thousand acres across corn fields, thick forests, quiet rivers, narrow valleys, and mountain ridges, is to me a haven for the soul. Some of my favorite memories are of the farm in the ardor of autumn. I love the beautiful scenery and the quiet community. In the small town, the trees are its most prominent resident and the rivers that wind through them are its busiest members. Deer trails stamped through the dead leaves number far more than roads or driveways, and the tension between bickering gray squirrels is far greater than the tension between citizens. In autumn, it is a place of wonder; throughout the year, it is a place of peace.
My family knew a wonderful woman in town whose life seemed to embody the beauty of the farm. Nora’s front porch was a place of peace and conversation, and her priorities seemed to rest in enjoying the freedom to make time for people and conversation. Her house was small and dirty: her bed was in the living room and paper covered the 7-foot ceilings and windows, yet she was one of the most hospitable people, caring little for her quality of living arrangements compared with her quality of relationships. When my dad was young, Nora placed a refrigerator on her front porch and stocked it full of Mountain Dew as a welcoming gift for the children who visited. She made time to spend in conversation with anyone, rocking on her porch and enjoying the company of nature or the company of man. In one year, she filled up an entire guestbook with no repetition of names.
But Nora had passed away by the time I was born, and I never had the opportunity to talk with her or learn from her way of life. As I look around me, surrounded by busy people in a busy city, I fear that I am being swept into its frantic lifestyle, far from the peace and relationships of people like Nora. And I fear that even the memory of people like Nora will soon be washed away.
Autumn also brings back memories of apples. My family always inaugurated the fall season with a trip to the local apple barn. My two brothers and I would pile into our Chrysler minivan and Mom would drive us to the apple barn in search of apple cider, Mutsu apples, apple butter, and—our favorite—apple cider donuts. The road up the mountain cut through thick woods, and like a welcoming party, the trees, fallen leaves, and rock walls met us at the asphalt’s edge as we drove through their dwelling. The leaves became more vibrant as we grew closer to the mountaintop.
The apple barn rested at the top of the mountain. As we drove along the narrow road, forest turned to field and field turned to apple orchard. A gravel drive led into a gravel lot between the apple-filled storehouse and the store. Employees loaded and unloaded apple carts outside the barn as the elderly rocked on the store’s front porch just across the gravel divide, peacefully enjoying the scenery and conversation, much like Nora would. In the store, apples lined the walls. They were rough and freckled, unlike the polished apples one finds in a typical grocery store. According to custom, we grabbed a bushel of green Mutsu.
After selecting our apples, a gallon of apple cider, and a jar of apple butter, we would scamper into the adjacent bakery for a box of apple cider donuts. While the bakery offered pies, cookies, and dumplings, we only wanted the apple cider donuts—they were by far the best. We rarely stopped to eat anything in the bakery, but mom always promised us a donut in the car. So we would rush to the car, not even thinking to linger and take in the autumn smells or look around at the apple orchards. In the car and racing down the mountain, we each ate a donut,satisfied and full with the flavors of fall. As we focused on our donuts, we didn’t take much notice of the colorful leaves racing past us.
As we entered daily life once again, the donuts lasted a mere couple of days, the apples and cider a few more until only the apple butter remained. Then we heard the beckoning call of the apple barn once again. Each successive trip the leaves would turn more resplendent until they fell and created a brown carpet of dead foliage that covered the woodland floor. And as the death of autumn approached, the apple harvest ceased—as did our trips up the mountain until the following year when the September breeze ushered in autumn once again.
A few years ago they stopped making the apple cider donuts. The baker said it took too much time. And while we still enjoyed the apples and cider, we didn’t visit the apple barn as often. As the years march along, the apple donuts have become a faint memory. I listen to youngsters share their excitement for the apple pies and fritters, ignorant of what they are missing. Yet I fear we are all becoming ignorant of a much more grievous loss. As agrarianism continues to wane and the busyness of commercial culture continues to rise, I wonder if we are losing the ability of making time to appreciate the beauty of our surroundings and the relationships that fill them. I wonder if we have filled our bakery full of cheap replacements and have left our guest books empty. I fear that, just as the leaves look more beautiful as they are dying and falling to the cold ground, so we notice the beauty of these values as they are already dying and falling into the winter of rush and hurry.
Nathan Johnson is a high school teacher at Greyfriars Classical Academy in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he teaches literature, history, writing, and rhetoric. He blogs regularly at De Ambigua (deambigua.wordpress.com), a blog concerning difficult things. His writing has also been featured by The Circe Institute.
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