Autumn lingers just a little longer

Iowa weather is renowned for its unpredictability. Yet certain forecasts are fixtures: ice every winter, a relapse into winter each spring, guaranteed humidity come summertime, and jewel-blue skies epitomizing autumn.

Likewise, late October delivers a major windstorm, which I dread for its secondary effect: a hastened denuding of deciduous trees. I know the dazzling foliage display must drop sometime. Yet it pains me to see the wind bring down these leaves even an hour ahead of their appointed time. Each time nature commits this seeming crime against itself, my heart rebreaks along that same old fault line we call autumn.

Here in the Midwest, fall was especially beautiful this year. In early September, after the first few leaves wafted to earth, the tenacious majority that still cleaved to their trees seemed to grow more defiantly gorgeous. I caught myself humming the old torch song "Autumn Leaves," then banished it from mind as too melancholy a tune for a season so fine.

But eventually, news of the inevitable arrived in a tightly woven web of isobars descending from my TV screen's northwestern corner. The message I read between those wavy lines was unmistakable: A wild wind would sweep the Great Plains.

It roared for three nights and two days. Trucks trembled on highways. Tall corn lodged flat on hillocks. This bluster stole election-year yard signs; it lofted grocery bags and newsprint scraps into the treetops. It made a mockery of yard-raking, blowing shin-deep blizzards of leaves onto decks and front stoops. It burst through my own front door, given the slightest opening, brazen as a burglar.

When it finally subsided, I gazed out the window and announced the outcome in a flat, defeated tone: "November." My husband knew I meant less a calendar month than the new lay of the land and its intersection with barren sky - a sudden and desolate state of mind.

But to my surprise, an unprecedented reprieve then arrived, a long stretch of glorious days with bright skies, gentle breezes, and a tender, near-record warmth, day after day, reminiscent of late May. What's more, the colors had neither fled nor even faded much; they only lay on the ground now.

And that conferred certain advantages.

Appreciating the leaves no longer required me to crane my neck. Collecting samples for a centerpiece, I admired their watercolor washes and veiny vanity up close, as if they were so many singular snowflakes made giant beneath a microscope. Meanwhile, my gardening neighbor crowed with glee over this year's crisp mulch. Indeed, strolling through it, I found that its rustling crunch produced the most delicious sounds.

As a friend and I chased a ball across a park one balmy afternoon, she pointed out a lone airborne swirl of foliage in the stillness - not a dust devil, but a leaf angel. This vortex suggested a skater executing a spin, her costume a rustling circle-skirt. It occurred to me that this conjured current would have been invisible, had the wind not shaken its colorful costume fabric earthward in the first place.

With the leaves mostly down, other hidden things showed themselves, like the old newspaper our carrier had tossed into our front yard two weeks before. We'd complained about not receiving a paper that day; yet all this time it had been suspended, hapless, in a shrub's lower branches.

With the leaves mostly down, I also spied a fox in the ravine behind our house, ambling the length of a huge trunk that last year's big wind had toppled. Even now, the fox's rusty coat was camouflaged by sunlight on senescent vegetation; yet its nimbly moving form, evoking long-forgotten Aesop's fables, was unmistakable.

With the leaves mostly down, I admired the steadfast, sapphire sky minus the usual colorful distractions at its periphery, much the way I savor my sister's natural radiance more fully once she's removed her jewelry.

With the leaves mostly down, I was reminded that trees are made mainly of strength, their limbs displaying a sere elegance in a time of seeming bleakness. This was an autumn that recovered itself to loiter almost indefinitely, disregarding deadlines, instead ladling sweet days one after the other from some beneficent, even whimsical source.

Warm, clear days and crisp, starry nights: If desert weather can prevail over prairie, perhaps other wonders, such as springtime, will be possible, too. I've resolved not to brood on what we'll endure before the canopy's next leafing, except to remind myself that even snow, ice, and cold carry certain compensations.

The leaves are all down now - the better for me to spot encroaching clouds. I'm savoring this in-between season even more than I did in early September, burnished though it was with the childlike pride of a summer well spent.

Each fine day that has followed the great, gusting wind has been an unearned, stunning gift. The leaves have all fallen, but my spirits have not.

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