The glory of fall

FALL has come to the Northeastern United States, and this is the time of year when those of us who live here find any excuse not to leave. A speech on the West Coast? A conference in Texas? An interview in Atlanta? Sorry, the schedule doesn't permit any of this for a while.

What the schedule does permit is absorption in the beauty of seasonal change that sweeps across New England. As the leaves on the trees turned with the first bite of frost, we saw the green legions retreating across Massachusetts in the advance of regiments of trees uniformed in crimson and apricot and canary yellow.

Even on mellow Cape Cod, where the air is more gentle, the hedgerows are streaked with russet and the salt marsh is turning a tawny gold.

There are other signs of change. Formations of Canada geese, trusting that inner inertial guidance system that steers them safely over long distances, are off to the south with a final, farewell honk that says ``wheels up, see you next year.'' Men in hip-high boots are harvesting cranberry bogs. There are Halloween pumpkins for sale, and there is apple cider -- alas, no longer in glass flagons, but in antiseptic plastic cubes.

The hardiest of the summer residents, who have stayed on beyond Labor Day until Columbus Day, are closing out their cottages. The water pipes are drained, the porch furniture has been stacked in the basements, the dinghies have been hauled and turned over against winter's storms.

Those who are staying have a different routine. The winter coats are being extricated from basement garment bags. Firewood is stacked for easy winter retrieval. Maybe the snow blower has been greased and made ready.

Squirrels are laying in winter supplies, and rabbits, raccoons, skunks, and the cautious neighborhood woodchuck are casing the best burrows for the ``in'' places to stay this winter.

In a career of wandering, many beautiful places have tugged at the heartstrings. There are the dramatic, harbored cities of San Francisco, and Sydney, and Cape Town, the latter backed by the amphitheater of Table Mountain, with a tablecloth of cloud swirling across its upper heights.

There is forlorn Vietnam, whose shimmering rice paddies in the Mekong Delta project a deceptive air of tranquillity. There is Bali, so different from the rest of Indonesia, with its gaggle of raw, untutored artists exploding paint onto canvas often with dramatic effect.

There is Rome, so wise and mellow. There is London, that blend of the stuffily proper and the daring avant-garde, all packaged so civilly.

There are the little gems: Dublin, Dubrovnik, and, in the Philippines, Baguio.

There is Bermuda, whose outrageous beauty assaults the eye at every turn of its twisting roads. There was Beirut before its current agony. There is the grandeur of New Delhi amid a nation battling its poverty.

There is Hong Kong -- ah, Hong Kong -- whose color and bustle weave a special spell over those who have lived there. Will all this survive the looming control of China? That depends on what kind of China there will be after Deng Xiaoping passes from the scene.

Singapore, another diamond, is fast losing its quaintness in the face of high-tech development. You can get a microchip developed beautifully in Singapore these days, but there's little flavor left of Somerset Maugham.

And there is Rio de Janeiro, whose spectacular beauty from a peak overlooking the harbor does, I must confess, rival that of all my other old favorites.

And yet, for all the places seen and unseen, there is something so charming and moving about New England's autumnal change of scene.

To the mere human who observes it, it offers a reassuring sense of grander order, and completeness, and promise.

John Hughes, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, was assistant secretary of state from 1982 to 1984.

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