the garden and the fall

Sunset comes earlier as we hurtle away from the sun.  Sometimes I find myself in the garden as the sun slips below the horizon and autumn’s watercolors spill across the sky.  My fingers numbing, I gather tiny leaves of lettuce, spinach, a few sprigs of cold-hardy dill and a small handful of snow peas for an autumn salad.

My fall garden is a mess.  I finally got around to harvesting strawberry popcorn after heavy rains rotted half the crop.  A tangle of butternut squash vines curls around my boots, grasping at my ankles.  Frost-seared herbs and blackened leaves crumple beneath the weight of the coming winter.  The underworld beckons.

The tomato plants are gone, the squash leaves withered.  As the garden empties, the compost pile swells.  Winter rains will beat it down over the next few months, but at this moment it looms like a green monster that’s left a wake of bare earth behind it.

A summer garden is overflowing with life, beautiful in its abundance.  An autumn garden is something very different.  Its beauty is in its spareness.  Gone are the gorgeous girls who clamor for attention–the leggy stalks of corn, the tomatoes writhing toward the sun.  In their footsteps come the small, quiet ones–mostly greens and hardy herbs, scattered like gems across the sodden soil.

The summer garden is overwhelming in its luxuriance, but in the autumn garden there is a beauty that is more than beauty.  It is transcendent.  Into the dark half of the year march leaves that only look delicate, roots sweetened by frost, small living things that defy the coming darkness by hugging the earth and hoarding every bit of its warmth.

In my summer garden, I am a queen, my arms gilded as I pass through the tomato plants, a diadem of corn pollen on my hair.  I proudly gather my spoils in an overflowing embrace, rich with a gardener’s wealth, and always a little astonished that I haven’t managed to kill everything off.

But in my fall garden, there is no hubris.  Every leaf gleaned from it is a treasure.  Every cold evening we eat fresh vegetables is a small miracle.  In my fall garden, I am a hunter-gatherer, clinging tenuously to this earth.  I am grateful for the heightened awareness this brings, and for every bit of food.

As the sun steals away, taking with it summer’s bounty, it leaves darkness and an empty garden.  Time to recover.  Time to reflect.

When I was a precocious second grader reading every scrap of mythology in the school library, I loathed Hades.  I hated him for stealing Persephone, for breaking her mother’s heart.  I hated him because in my literal second grade mind, he was a Seriously Bad Dude.  But now, as I bend like Demeter over the cold earth, searching for the little leaves that never quite fill my bowl, I wonder for the first time if there isn’t a little Hades in all of us, and if he isn’t really a tragic figure, in a way.  If he were a man, he’d be a monster.  But he’s a myth, and so he’s instead a little mirror shard held up to the human heart.  Of course, it’s a myth to explain the changing of the seasons.  But I think it’s also a story about the devastation of a heart gone fallow in cold and darkness, the striving of a soul toward the light.

The story of humanity is a tale of falling from gardens.  Hades and Persephone.  Adam and Eve.  Tribal peoples living in harmony with the earth, transmuted through the weird alchemy of “progress” into self-medicating creatures trapped in steel jungles.

I think I love my autumn garden best.  Like winter greens, it is bittersweet, evoking in its struggling plants and bare patches of soil, in the wreck and ruin of summer’s splendor, something eternal.  It is a liminal zone, a thin place where summer and winter, myth and reality, life and death, now and eternity intersect.  With the year’s last green leaves, I gather nourishment for body and mind.  A little wisdom, maybe.  A little kindness.  A little strength to face the dark midwinter.

The fall brings change, darkness, cold.  And it brings insight, rest, and possibility.

Let winter come.  It has its beauties, too.