Starting a little series (for lack of a better term) about the wisdom I’ve been provided through time spent in the wilderness. God has made metaphors of certain experiences on the trail, camping, and walking among trees and mountains which have created insightful parallels for life at home. These posts are to share those illustrations as I felt they were revealed to me – to “pay it forward” so to speak. I write them not because I think them revelational, but maybe because someone else out there needs these illustrations too. So, perhaps this is for you.
2. autumn – (noun)when leaves fall from trees;
Autumn might just be the best month to be in the Sierra. Autumn might just be the best month to be most places in the Northern Hemisphere, actually, but it is without question a completely captivating season to find yourself in forested landscapes.
The deciduous trees and shrubs begin losing their color at high elevations earlier than their cousins at sea level. So, going up into the Sierra feels a bit like entering an autumn theme park, blowing you over with sights, scents, and sounds so enchanting you think they must be contrived.
The glowing yellows, fiery reds, deep oranges, and even shades of magenta make autumn, as Albert Camus says, “a second Spring where every leaf is a flower.” An autumn forest is a garden of sorts, with those colors together giving a warmth to all you see while walking in it. And these same deciduous leaves act in perfect compliment to the ever-permanent certainty of the evergreen conifers. Here is where the mortal and eternal seem to mix in plain sight.
Then you add in the Late Afternoon Autumn Glow Effect – backlit leaves and amber rays filtering through fir branches…it is a phenomena to delight for ages and ages, the more accessible version of the aurora borealis in small scale. The light is different in autumn, and I’m sure there is a science to this, but I’m focusing on the aesthetics alone at the moment. The light is richer, it seems thicker, and it seems to blanket you in warmth even when the temperature outside is anything but. It draws you in, it takes you someplace deep in your mind, deep into your heart, and before you know you’ve gone, you find yourself fallen deep into melancholy’s embrace. And you are not in any way remorseful about this. It is a comfort.
If you are fortunate to be in such an autumn woods during or after a rain, that is when the scents come alive. The spice of decaying leaves, the fresh mineral aroma of damp soil, the clean perfume of pine sap. I think it might be the colder air that makes such scents more present, and the chill of the air has a crisp fragrance to it as well. I wish I could bottle this mixture of scents up, keep it in my pocket, pull it out on a day where I’m feeling somewhat lost, close my eyes, take a whiff, and find I am home again.
The melody of feet passing over graveled ground, fallen logs, and bits of bark is accessible in all seasons in the forest, but autumn is the season when you get to add in the harmony of “feet-crunching-over-dried-leaves.” This layer of music completes the symphony of Walking in the Woods. I am not sure what it is, perhaps some form of childhood nostalgia, but the sensation and sound of feet walking over dried leaves is such a pleasure, and we often fail to stop and appreciate the small pleasures in life. I take time to appreciate this pleasure at all opportunities, even go out of my way on a hike to find a carpet of brown, dried leaves to crunch upon.
In searching for the layman’s understanding of why deciduous leaves change color, I discovered that while trees produce chlorophyll via photosynthesis during summer and spring, which gives their leaves the green color, in autumn (when there is less light) they stop producing chlorophyll. In doing so, they are “resting” in a way, living off the food they stored in the summer. When chlorophyll is no longer being produced, the green color of leaves fades away, and is replaced by shades of yellow, orange, and red. These colors (apparently) actually exist in the leaves all year round, but we can’t see them because the green of spring trumps all.
Sometimes I think about all the beauty that can be found in the multitude of emotions we are given in our one, single life. We are always in a hurry and feverish search to find happiness and keep it all the time, seemingly only wanting to experience one emotion. I’m not anti-happiness, but I think there is a lot to be appreciated in and to learn from the other emotions. Green seems the color of happiness and vitality in the forest. And we have green seasons, we have our own summer and spring. But an autumn shouldn’t be feared. Maybe this fear causes us to artificially produce our own chlorophyll, just to slap a thick layer of false happiness on everything in order to stifle and suffocate any other emotion that might be lying under the surface. But, when our figurative “chlorophyll” fades, the glory of the yellow, orange, and red emotions come to fore, in shades of sorrow, confusion, heart break, frustration, and many more. Sometimes there is pain there, a sort of feeling of life being drained out of us. But maybe we need a regular dose of yellow and orange phases in life in order to re-appreciate green, maybe we need a little sorrow to re-learn the gift of happiness, true happiness that comes naturally and not that which we artificially create out of fear of feeling anything else. Maybe we can find that happiness and sorrow can mix just fine if we give them a chance.
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24)
And the amazing thing to remember when looking at fall colors, even when branches go from yellows and reds to brown and leafless, is that those trees and shrubs aren’t dying. They are just in a transition. Spring and summer have always returned each year without fail, and it seems like the evergreen trees surrounding these deciduous varieties are a reminder of this promise of spring’s return. So I think of the verse above from John, how unless we die to ourselves and our will, our lives will bear little fruit, or at least less fruit.
To better explain the connection I see, think about what an amazing thing it is to see a tree glow in splendorous autumn hues, then lose their leaves entirely, appear dead, and bloom again in the spring. What a shame it would be if it just refused to allow its colors to change, stubbornly kept green leaves year round. What beauty the world would be deprived of. Not that it is ugly in its green form, but deciduous trees have more beauty by going through an autumn. So too with our lives. It is not, necessarily, that our lives would not achieve great things and bless other people if we stuck to our own will for ourselves. But, when we follow God’s will instead, there is a great glory to be found, a autumn-colored glory.
Also, what a shame it would be were deciduous trees to hide these transitional phases – its spectacular color show and its stark beauty in leafless winter. If trees had emotions, I bet sometimes they would look at the evergreens next door and be afraid to show the hue changes they experiences in autumn. The evergreen is ever-green after all. Don’t you sometimes feel that way? Afraid to let others see other emotions in you when they seem to be ever-happy? Just as there is great beauty and comfort in the hue changes we get to see deciduous trees go through in the autumn, and the glory of how they re-leaf in vibrant green in the spring, so too is there great beauty and comfort when we share our own seasons of emotions with others, and our own return to happiness after. I love evergreen conifers, love their steadiness, but deciduous trees make me feel less alone in my own emotional roller coaster and so do the friends that share openly their heart with me.
We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
I also think that autumn might exist for us to get better picture of the gift we gain in dying and gaining new life. I mean that both in the physical dying at the end of our lives when we enter Heaven and in dying to ourselves on Earth. The metaphor is this: a deciduous tree appears to die, goes out with a bang in beautiful colors but then has barren branches through winter. If we didn’t know any better, we’d look at such a tree and declare it dead. But, spring comes, and leaf buds emerge, and slowly, almost without us noticing, it is in full leaf once more. This once dead-looking tree has become both the same tree it was and something different than what it was last spring. It has the same roots, but the leaves that decorate its branches now are not the same ones that were there before.
I don’t know what happens to us when we die, the Bible uses quite a bit of confusing imagery, and seems evasive in other descriptors, and I believe that is intentional on God’s part. We are not supposed to know while we walk the Earth, we are supposed to be invested in the present and knowing too much of the future isn’t good for any of us, as much as we might think otherwise. However, the Bible is quite clear that we gain new life in Heaven if we have accepted the gift that Christ freely offers, as the verse above from Romans hints at. So, we live as a deciduous tree, in a forest with evergreen reminders of the life eternal to come (if we take time to make note of such reminders), and then we pass into an autumn of our mortal life eventually, which fades into a winter. But our mortal death is really an entering into a new life, and in Heaven we bud new green leaves. We are likely then not something entirely different, but we are most definitely something new.
In our mortal life we also experience small “deaths” to ourselves in order to gain new bits of life. We enter a spring, a season of life in which things are easy and going well. A season in which it is easy to be happy. And then we are hit with a challenge, there is less light in our life and that is confusing, even frightening, but most certainly heavy. We, like the deciduous trees, feel we need to rest, and our happiness production stops, and we are sort of living off the memory of happiness that we had in our figurative springs. The oranges and yellows of other emotions emerge and then we maybe even have a season of no leaves at all, but we aren’t dying, even though it might feel that way to ourselves, even if it might appear that way to others. Instead we are becoming something new. Slowly, our life enters a state of ease again, and we start producing a figurative chlorophyll again, and we are full of green leaves once more – happiness is back. We are not a different person then who we were before our winter, our roots are the same, but we are at least in part something new, with a new batch of green leaves. Life is full of seasons and transitions, and with each of those things comes new life, but also deaths to parts of ourselves. There is pain and goodness there, intermixing naturally.
In my life at the moment, I feel like autumns come more quickly then I am ready. There is joy and sorrow there. I have great friends in the home town I left about a year ago. I had a green-spring season there, where I felt that was where God wanted me to be. But, then I went through an autumn, felt Him call me somewhere else. By trying to follow His will and not my own, I left. I went to get some training for my new career at a school, where I found an amazing group of people who made me feel like maybe I could just do this new career God’s calling me too. I had a spring there for about 6 months, that went into an autumn when I began job hunting and then I got a job. I moved again, trying to follow God’s will. I found another new spring in a field-work job I’ve had in the Sierra this summer, for the past 5 months. But that is currently entering an autumn now as the job ends. I am all sorts of shades of yellow, orange, and red at the moment, quite confused as to where to find another spring, quite sorrowful to be having this spring come to an end.
Autumn seems to be my thing. And, even while I often feel so consumed by all the colorful hues of a wide array of emotions, I’m comforted by the example of the deciduous tree and the never wavering green of the conifers. Much of the reason I write is not because I think I have something very important to say, but it is to help me process my autumns and also share them in case someone somewhere is having a hard time finding hope in their lack of chlorophyll. I am doing my best to hold on to hope for another God-given spring, but I’m not in a hurry to get rid of my autumn actually. My autumns seems to add the right amount of colorful struggle-filled enchantment to this one life I’ve been given, and life would be quite plain if it were always one hue.