In our backyard is a solitary Liquid Amber tree (liquidambar) that from spring through summer produces a gorgeous bounty of green leaves, providing welcome shade and beauty.
Then at the end of summer, the leaves begin to change color, turning gold, orange, red and finally brown before falling to the ground. Thankfully, the leaves do not change or fall at the same time, thus producing a brilliant palette that delights our family whenever we look out our window … at least for a few weeks.
By December, though, our Liquid Amber is barren, which saddens us. But not for long, since we know that within a few months, buds will appear and develop into leaves. And usually by Easter, the Liquid Amber’s greenery will be with us once more — a visual reward, you might say, for our patience.
For me, patience and promise summarize the season of autumn, the term I prefer to fall, since it connotes a year’s “passing” rather than its “decline.” It’s a season I have long regarded with both joy and sadness.
On one hand, autumn is the season of our wedding anniversary, my wife’s birthday, Thanksgiving (with or without football) and Advent, all special celebrations. But it is also a season where daylight hours are fewer and temperatures are chillier.
And in Southern California, where I have lived most of my life, it is also a season of trepidation. Rarely does a year pass without at least one major brushfire, inevitably fanned by dry Santa Ana winds, that darkens the skies with smoke and ash, and threatens and destroys lives, property and nature.
That’s never been more true than this year, when all of California was subjected to wildfires two months ahead of schedule, with millions of acres statewide in flames or in ruins.
This year’s autumn is further complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, which since March has restricted our time outdoors. What, we can easily wonder, happened to spring and summer?
Finally, and most poignantly, the coming of autumn reminds us that the end of the year is at hand. And as we get older, the realization that we have less time on this earth can hit us as hard as a cold northern wind (or, in our case, a hot Santa Ana).
So how do we cope?
“There is an appointed time for everything,” the Book of Ecclesiastes reminds us, “and a time for every affair under the heavens” (3:1).
Among the series of “affairs” that Ecclesiastes enumerates are planting and uprooting, activities that take place within a few miles of our home in Ventura County, long known as a major agricultural producer of fruits and vegetables.
That includes pumpkins, whose patches scattered around our area are popping with orange, one of the most delightful sights of the season since pumpkins are the source of numerous seasonal treats (at least in our home).
Further north along the Pacific Coast and stretching inland is wine country, where the late summer/early autumn harvest of vineyards is in full swing. There are also apple orchards with proprietors welcoming visitors from late summer through the end of the year.
“Children of Zion, delight and rejoice in the Lord your God,” writes the prophet Joel (2:23-24). “The threshing floors will be full of grain, the vats spilling over with new wine and oil.”
But beyond the flavors and aromas of autumn, there is something more to this particular change of season: the invitation for us to discover (if we don’t already know) the gifts God provides throughout the year:
“I will give the seasonal rain to your land, the early rain and the late rain, that you may have grain, wine and oil to gather in” (Dt 11:14).
And, to appreciate those gifts:
“How great is your goodness, Lord, stored up for those who fear you. You display it for those who trust you, in the sight of the children of Adam” (Ps 31:20).
For autumn is also a season of promise, which beckons us to faith: “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord,” says the Letter of James. “See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it until it receives the early and the late rains” (5:7).
We are not in charge of the change of seasons that occurs each year. But we are in charge of our patience, of our capacity to appreciate God’s gifts and of our ability to respond accordingly.
“Let us not grow weary of doing good,” St. Paul tells the Galatians, “for in due season we will reap our harvest, if we do not give up” (6:9).
In this particular year, where so much of our lives has been severely rearranged, we are invited to look outside of ourselves to the needs of others and serve them. For the season in which we proclaim, “Goodwill to all!” is close at hand.
“This is the day that the Lord has made,” proclaims Psalm 118:24. “Let us rejoice in it and be glad!”
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(Catholic journalist Mike Nelson writes from Southern California.)