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Autumn days are seldom spent better than cuddled up with a good book. Writers and gardeners have long shared in the cornucopia of symbolism provided by the autumn harvest. The writer borrows the gardener's work to illustrate bounty and to foreshadow winter. Gardeners read the writer's words to help put the season in better perspective. Photo courtesy of Joe Urbach

Growth in gardening: Fall back into a book

Sunday, December 2, 2018

I came home from taking my youngest to work the other day and, driving through the neighborhood, I found myself waiting behind a school bus. The kids jumped off the bottom step one by one, hitting the asphalt like acrobats in a circus performance. One after the other, bounding on their merry ways. One youngster in particular caught my eye. After jumping off the bus he pulled out a book and began reading as he walked on. Many years ago, that was me! As I waited, I couldn't help but recall being that age and how I would pretend to be a kid from Sleepy Hollow rushing home before the Headless Horseman could overtake me or reliving some other adventure from a story I had read.

Though I'm many years removed from the rhythms of the academic calendar, I can't help but get nostalgic at this time of year. With summer’s heat banished and noticeable colors in the trees I find my thoughts turning back towards the books I read when I was a kid, particularly those that remind me of a time when our country was still in its infancy, I loved those. I imagined it must have been a time when there was nothing but huge trees from coast to coast. A time when an adventurous squirrel could run tree limb to tree limb from New York City all the way to Portland without ever touching the ground. A time when people gardened more, when they grew their own food and built their own log cabins, when everyone was more in touch with nature and the world around them. The images these books conjured up in my mind have stayed with me, shaped me, even haunted me. I like to think that I am not alone in this, that as children many of us transformed these stories into pictures of the world that became a part of us and made us want to become painters or teachers or scientists or gardeners or writers, when we grew up.

None of the pictures I dreamed up have shaped me quite as much as those that were wrapped in autumn's clothes. The fall season captured my imagination because it didn't matter what kind of story I read, autumn could be used as powerfully as any of the characters in the story. There is a duality in the season that writers have used to establish a tension between beauty and barrenness. The season portends death and yet, it is still filled with so much life. This duality allows the writer to explore the whole range of the human experience.

"Autumn is the mellower season, and what we lose in flowers we more than gain in fruits." - Samuel Butler, “The Way of all Flesh”

Writers and gardeners share in the cornucopia of symbolism provided by the autumn harvest. The writer borrows the gardener's work to illustrate bounty and to foreshadow winter. Gardeners read the writer's words to help put the season in better perspective. The gardener gathers the fallen leaves and knows that summer is over. The writer ponders them and reminds us that our green youth will have a similar ending. Sometimes the symbolism is subtle, like when Charles Dickens wrote, "Around and around the house the leaves fall thick, but never fast, for they come circling down with a dead lightness that is somber and slow." And sometimes the symbolism is not so subtle: "Death lies on her like an untimely frost upon the sweetest flower of the field," wrote William Shakespeare in “Romeo and Juliet.”

Our experience in the garden reinforces this grim symbolism. Our plants shed their summer beauty and we wait through fall and winter to see if they return, knowing that some may not, but knowing also, that we can do nothing to prevent the eventual chill of our own autumnal approach. But to garden is to have hope in the future.

We hope because we have jumped in piles of raked leaves and taken hayrides through apple orchards, so we know that autumn proclaims more than just decay and despair. It also proclaims that the enchantment of twilight is unique and that even at its worst, the world is still a beautiful place. Okay, so I confess: I have never actually played in a pile of leaves or taken a hayride, but I have read books about people that have, and the memory of my reading is almost as ripe.

In spite of the tendency towards using autumn to portray endings, many of our classic writers also give autumn unabashed praise. Writers have used the fleeting beauty of the season to encourage us to go outside and revel (or relax) in the season while we still can.

In “My Antonia,” Willa Cather wrote, "I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy."

How great is that? If you could just sit in your garden and feel all day, wouldn't you do just that? Nathaniel Hawthorne echoed this sentiment when he said, "I cannot endure to waste anything as precious as autumn sunshine by staying in the house. So, I spend almost all daylight hours in the open air."

Washington Irving wanted to remind us that even in spooky Sleepy Hollow there is more to autumn than creepiness, leafless branches stretching out to ensnare us when traveling through the forest.

"As Ichabod jogged slowly on his way, his eye, ever open to every symptom of culinary abundance, ranged with delight over the treasures of jolly autumn. On all sides he beheld vast store of apples, some hanging in oppressive opulence on the trees, some gathered into baskets and barrels for the markets, others heaped up in rich piles for the cider-press."

Those of us that happily live with dirt under our fingernails are wired to create beauty, to enjoy the beauty abundant in nature and to appreciate the skill of the artist who has painted autumn’s scenery. In literature we are reminded of the wonderfulness of the season by the likes of talents such as Jane Austen, “Her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn – that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness – that season which has drawn from every poet worthy of being read some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling.”

Autumn is a great time to be a writer or a gardener. It's a great time to soak up the experience of life. It's also a great time to slow down a bit and read a great book. So, when your chores wind down, and when your plants lose their thirst, and you find yourself with less daylight, take the opportunity to grab a cherished book from your bookshelf, sit by a window with a hot cup of coffee or cider and read for a spell. But if you listen to Henry David Thoreau's advice, don't read too long. As he said, "a truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting."

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Joe Urbach is the publisher of GardeningAustin.com and the Phytonutrient Blog. He has lived in the Central Texas area for over 30 years. Urbach is a certified Texas Master Gardener from Hays County. For more information on the Master Gardener program contact the Hays County AgiLife Extension Service at 512-393-2120.

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