Early on A mid-October Saturday, fog cloaks our suburban neighborhood in gray. But even this misty haze cannot extinguish the blazing glory of the maple trees lining the street. Who needs Old Sol on a day like this? Canopies of radiant red and gold leaves glow from within, as if lighted by their own private sun.
This autumnal glow comes as an especially welcome gift these days. Has the October landscape ever seemed more poignantly beautiful than it does after a month of national mourning? The soft light and brilliant colors serve as comforting antidotes to the somber news coming out of Washington and Kabul.
But this is also a time of mixed messages from Washington. Get out and enjoy life, the president urges, while the FBI warns: Beware of terrorists. On this crisp Saturday west of Boston, the president's message appears to be winning out, judging by the crowds celebrating the beauty and bounty of the season.
For some residents, one of the best destinations is a popular farm stand. Chrysanthemums, their blossoms a profusion of yellows and rusts and crimsons, fill a greenhouse. Nearby, a large sign boasts: "Over 37 varieties of apples available today." Adjacent bins display squash bearing poetic names - Green Hubbard, Sweet Dumpling, Carnival.
Other suburbanites gravitate to harvest festivals, craft fairs, and nature hikes. The front lawn of the Methodist church has metamorphosed into something called the Pumpkin Patch, with hundreds of pumpkins for sale.
Elsewhere, handmade signs tacked to telephone poles announce another favorite fall pastime, yard sales. At one, it is hard to say who looks more triumphant - the homeowner who has just sold a large vase or the buyer carrying it to her car. For both, at this moment, war in Afghanistan is probably far from their thoughts.
In a neighboring suburb, a Pumpkin Fair at an elementary school draws hundreds of families. Parents, grandparents, students, babies, and even a few dogs fill the schoolyard. Spirits run high as children line up for games ranging from Halloween Hockey and Catch a Ghost to miniature golf dubbed Howl in One.
Small pleasures, to be sure. Yet these activities gently challenge the cliché that everything has changed since Sept. 11.
Autumn is typically a time of endings, Mother Nature's last burst of energy before the landscape turns bare and days grow short. This year, against the backdrop of terrorism and war, autumn offers something more: a new beginning, an affirmation of life and light after the darkness of September.
Here and there, it is also a season for humor. On Saturday afternoon, pumpkins line the steps of a church, where a wedding will soon begin. Befitting the occasion, someone has pinned a tiny veil to the pumpkin on the top step. What guests entering the church, or what drivers passing by, could fail to smile at that?
Similarly, who can fail to be amused by comic front-yard displays of Halloween ghosts, scarecrows, and witches? An is it only a coincidence that jack-o'-lanterns are all smiling this year?
Autumn makes its own demands, of course. There are leaves to rake, bulbs to plant, windows to wash. But even these chores serve as welcome diversions from all-war-all-the-time news.
Headlines and talk show discussions about airstrikes and anthrax promise to be a staple of American life for months to come, alas. But on a fall weekend, another message floats through the air as well. Don't wait, it whispers. Take time for a walk. Shuffle through leaves and sniff the sharp air. Pick apples. Carve a pumpkin. Cherish the beauty of mum plants on front steps and porches.
For a few hours at least, news of the war will have to wait. Autumn is calling.