Weekly Edgework #18 - Nov 1, 2004

Autumn Joy

One of the reasons I enjoy living on the Canadian prairies is that here we have four very distinct seasons every year. Autumn is one of them and if forced to choose, I would probably say it is my favorite. The perennial plant that shows its beauty best in my garden at this time of the year is a variety of sedum known as Autumn Joy. All summer long it remains nestled in among the brightly colored petunias, marigolds, tiger lilies and purple bell flowers. It doesn’t attract attention to itself. It is happy to allow other flowers to be on center stage for the entire summer. But just when most flowers begin to fade away, Autumn Joy bursts into full bloom. I am always surprised by this final, seasonal show of splendor. To quote C. S. Lewis out of context, I suppose I could say I am “surprised by joy” every time.

Autumn is a time of fruition. Apples begin to show their rosy cheeks as they bask in the sunlight now striking them from lower angles. Grapes, having turned deep purple, now draw me repeatedly to my garden trellis for a delectable treat. The orangeness of the carrots against the dark, damp soil as they yield to the upward pressure of the garden fork never ceases to amaze me. Onions, my wife Ruth has braided together, hang over the picnic table to dry – nature’s necklace, you might say. And the bright red tomatoes perched on six-foot stakes remind me of the spotted lady bugs that seem to have their own important agenda at this time of year.

Autumn is a kind of finishing line for the marathon that began in spring when the first warm rays of the sun began drawing daffodils from the soil. Work in the garden in spring is a work of imagination and faith. As I dig and plant and seed I have a picture in my mind. It is a moving picture of one variety of flowers peeking after the other, and vegetables readying themselves for picking each in their turn. Gradually as spring yields to summer and summer to autumn, faith turns to sight and imagination into reality. But when I begin to notice Autumn Joy vying for attention, I know that autumn is here in earnest and it is time to prepare for winter.

Autumn is transition time. A saying goodbye to hot sunny days and barbecue suppers on the deck. It is a blend of abundance and loss, beauty and barrenness. Plants and trees hoping to survive the winter harden up as they draw back into their cocoons of defense against the encroaching cold. Other annuals know their days are numbered but even as they breathe their last they fling seeds about with a wild hope that their kind will live again.

And I turn with a melancholic eagerness to my annual ritual of building a large compost pile out back. Neighbors watch with hidden smirks and jealous hearts as I gather up leaves throughout my community, send them through a shredder and layer them into other forms of death. Within days microscopic organisms jump at this new opportunity to multiply and feed their children on this deadness I have gathered especially for them. I know that death is turning to life when the steam rises off the forkful of hope I have pulled from the heart of the pile. Next summer, when the compost lies ready - a cool pile of rich, brown gold – my neighbors will ooh and aah about the miracle I have performed and offer to buy just a little bit for their gardens. I will give them each a wheelbarrow full or two and use the rest to dress my own.

This morning I look out my patio door with a sense of satisfaction tinged with sadness. I wave goodbye in my heart to the summer that was and the garden that is rapidly retreating into the earth. It has been good to be together but it is time to part. We will miss each other, my garden and I. But we both believe in resurrection. And when we emerge from our cocoons next spring we will shake hands and begin another journey of imagination and faith together.

For the moment my scattered patches of Autumn Joy still stand guard over the dying world around them, teasing the encroaching winter. They will be the last sentinels to retreat into the earth once the snow comes to stay. But for now we smile at each other. We don’t really care what others think. We share a secret, and that is autumn joy.