Well, it’s autumn again. Or Fall, if your prefer. There used to be only two seasons: Summer and Winter. Either you wore a sweater or you didn’t. Practical people who weren’t trying to sell you on the idea of hot cider and flannel shirts from a major retailer knew that either you planted or you mucked through the snow to the barn and that was that.
So, how did this four season business happen? It started with autumn, the season with a split personality. Either it’s warm and the leaves are the stuff of bad poetry or it’s sleet and bare trees. There’s no two ways about it with autumn. Unlike spring or summer where no matter the weather the flowers are still upright, autumn can be a nasty customer. And winter is just winter and you get through it.
The word autumn made its appearance around 1300. Lacking pumpkin spice lattes to define this time of the year, the season of the year known as Harvest or Harvest Time seemed rather obvious. Peasants gathered the fruits of a summer of back breaking labor as the year cooled off and celebrated the season with harvest festivals and the culminating event: Halloween. We’ll get to Halloween later.
But it wasn’t enough. This was the era when the richness of the English language was rapaciously stealing words from Latin and retooling them to suit the new era of illuminated manuscripts, the first books. Enter autumn that derives from autumnus (masculine, 2nd declension for those care), another way of saying harvest. See how it all fits together?
By 1755 everyone was confused by Autumn and autumn and Fall and fall. Leave it to an American, John Pickering, to sort it out for us. He gave us the exhilarating A Vocabulary, or Collection of Words Which Have Been Supposed to Be Peculiar to the United States of America, a ponderous study of the diversity of British English v. American English in 1816. While America and Britain were still reeling from the War of 1812, which actually lasted several years, Pickering was dithering over the origins of autumn and fall.
He finally concluded: “In North America the season in which this [the fall of the leaf] takes place, derives its name from that circumstance, and instead of autumn is universally called the fall.” I find this a bit convoluted but apparently he was exasperated by trying to figure it out and we were stuck with two names for a made up season.
Which brings us back to why we love autumn/fall or not. As a young lass my mother would say, “It’s September. It’s autumn/fall. You’re wearing the heavy tweed.” My mother never wore tweed. But I did. There is nothing like sitting in a hot classroom in Indian Summer wearing tweed and itching. Indian Summer is a sub-season within the larger autumn when the last blast of great weather hits before all hell breaks loose and the temperature freezes your eyeballs.
Let me assure you, there never was an Indian Summer until a writer, William Dean Howells, coined the term in 1860 to refer to one last blast of youthful romanticism before the onset of the winter of your lumbago. It stuck and now we have Indian Summer, the time of leaf peeping, swilling hot pumpkin flavored drinks, wearing Uggs with knee socks and donning name brand fleece jackets. Retailers love our obsession with autumn/fall, a season they helped to invent.
I’m from Vermont and we think of autumn as the mouth of Hell. I grew up with 120″ of snow a year and temperatures that fell so low the tree branches would explode like rifle fire and the car wouldn’t start for weeks. As long as you know autumn comes sneaking in the backdoor with thousands of dollars in heating bills, you’ll be fine.
Bring on the pumpkins and corn stalks, the bonfires and flannel shirts, the apple pies. Autumn is a time of magic whether you dress up your front porch or revere ancient rights. For the Iron Age Celts it was a time when the gods of the Otherworld visited the living and warriors paraded the tongues of their enemies on sticks. The Romans brought the celebration of a fruitful harvest and the goddess Pomona to tone down the Celtic idea of a rousing party. Autumn was born.
Autumn, the season that never was, has built a cult following. By the end of July, summer weary folks, tired of sweating and swatting mosquitoes, begin to talk about autumn with a nostalgia they will jettison as soon as the furnace goes on. I don’t mean to be cynical but autumn is more a poem than the hard reality of the bare trees and exposed hillsides, the grey scutting clouds and showers of freezing rain that send the romantics to the tire store and the fuel oil dealers to the bank.
Autumn and I have weathered more than a few decades together. I mutter; autumn laughs. We watch each other out of the corner of our eye, seeing who will make the first move: will autumn hurl a rapid drop in temperature the weather people didn’t predict or will I be the one to bend first, turning on the furnace before November 1. We’re old friends in the way old adversaries become comfortable with the fray. Not giving ground but not taking more than a fair share.
I think I’ll go rearrange the pumpkins this afternoon and admire the blue sky only an autumn day can give us. But I’m not fooled. The cold is just around the corner. Another year turns.