It ought to be a holiday, or at the very least, a day of quiet observance, of suspended routine, however brief, in acknowledgment of the great change taking place – the seismic shift of light, the radical alteration of the landscape, and the transformation of our own sun-washed summer souls to the darker hues of winter.
Unfortunately, we never know when exactly to expect that moment. For all of science's deep understanding of the mechanics of nature – its growing capacity to forecast earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, to model hurricanes, to map the orbits of celestial bodies, to calculate the periodicity of meteors, to peer millions of light-years into deepest space – we can never predict with any accuracy when the autumn leaves will begin or finish falling.
We know only roughly when to expect the onset of color. In my corner of the world, the first maples start to redden in late August, but the great bulk of leaves remain aloft until well after Halloween.
Come November, we express amazement at their continued presence. Memory suggests they always come cascading down in October. But in truth, they often hang on until Thanksgiving, as tenaciously as winter's lingering, late-March snow.
We change the clocks, children gather their annual harvest of candy, and still leaves flutter overhead. Next year's buds have set, and the first frost has whitened lawns, yet those reluctant stems refuse to loosen their grip and gift themselves to the next passing breeze.
Who can blame them? Although the nights are chilly, the air at noon remains warm, and the sun is strong enough to evoke thoughts of summer.
It seems a pity to waste so much newly minted color – those fiery reds and golds – on the indifferent grass, only to be gathered into heaps by unappreciative rakes and carted off to molder out of view. How much better to broadcast these tints from the highest branches – which capture sunbeams in every magenta vein, glittering each tree, warming the light, awning the earth, and arresting the eye.
For days, even weeks, that's exactly what they do, hanging on while gradually shading from green to red to gold, defying the diminishing light, the tilt of the Earth, and the onset of cold.
Strong winds begin to tear the weakest from their moorings, casting them twirling and fluttering to earth. But the vast majority remain until that day – that seemingly arbitrary and always unpredictable moment in the life of every tree – when it yields up the last burden of its foliage.
Often windless and warm, that final morning dawns like any other, but soon distinguishes itself both aurally and visually.
Gently the leaves finally let go, the sound of their falling easily mistaken for rain. For anyone fortunate enough to be out among the trees, the effect is both mesmerizing and faintly mournful, embodying the exhilaration of winter's first snowfall, but also the despondency of loss.
Not every leaf falls on such a day, of course, but most finally do, opening great gulfs of blue sky overhead. On into the night the show continues, the illusion of rainfall even more complete in the absence of light.
One needn't venture far to experience the splendor of the occasion – falling leaves stroking face and shoulders and hands as they drift to the earth, spinning, floating, or dropping like stones; the ground a blazing carpet of color as transfiguring as a foot of fresh snow is.
If a forest is not at hand, one need only walk the neighborhood, treading hushed, leaf-blanketed streets and lawns, ears awake to the gentle clatter of capitulation, this drizzle of foliage made all the more precious by the knowledge that it will not come again for 12 months.
There will be other flurries of foliage, sudden whirls of pigment generated by high winds. Every rainstorm will do its share to wrest the remaining holdouts from their high perch and send them sodden to earth.
But those days won't be like this one, lacking its broad reach and swirling enchantment of an abundant harvest.
The next morning, the ground is littered, streets are saturated in ocher and orange, and lawns are every shade but green. And through bare branches, a new light falls – steely and white, lacking the verdant richness of summer, the russet warmth of autumn. The eye pierces far more deeply into the woods, the sky seems broader, and at sunrise and again at sunset, oblique rays enter sharply through dusty windowpanes, unimpeded by dense canopies of leaves.
Along with the deepening cold, it is this postlapsarian distillate of light that heralds winter.
How different the world looks and feels the day after the leaves come down. That simple act of falling changes everything.