Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.
Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.
The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy,
while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.
— John Muir
Autumn in the “City of Trees” and from the Chesapeake Bay to the Blue Ridge Mountains is one long season of flowering, fruiting, and vibrant color. Red, yellow, orange, and even purple leaves crown the trees, dance on air, and float down rivers and streams. Autumn ’21 has been especially fruitful, a “mast year,” with acorns knocking on rooftops and birds and animals scurrying to devour and cache the windfall of the oaks, hickories, and black walnuts. The migrating birds couldn’t begin to polish off the enticing earthly banquet of dogwood and spicebush fruits this fall. They have left many shining red diminutive drupes on the branch in the wake of their migration.
Autumn is the season of magic and of mystery as living beings pull inward. Many cultures believe that the veil between the spirit and the physical worlds is especially thin and permeable now. This early morning, the waning moon casts shadows over the grass as the crickets sing their last songs. During the night, a great horned owl called, with voice deep and resonant, like a clarinet virtuoso. Each morning and evening the white-throated sparrows, newly returned from nesting in the north, bless our home with a song that Theodore Roosevelt called “singularly sweet and plaintive.”
Washington, DC’s autumn weather is delicious. Everywhere I go I hear people say, almost reverentially, “Autumn is my favorite season.” The autumn sun bracketing cool and cold nights delights us and coaxes the leaves into deeper vibrancy. Cloudy, misty days and autumn rains place a glow on the landscape, enhancing leaf colors and blackening the tree trunks for pleasing contrast. Autumn weather incites both excitement and a particular nostalgic melancholy with longing for the fireside.
Not everything in autumn is pulling in, at least not yet. The roses in our historic gardens and in our own backyards revive in autumn, dazzling us with one last fulsome display of fragrant bloom. Here and there a southern magnolia bears a few late blossoms. The wild and cultivated asters and goldenrods save their abundant flowers for autumn and every plant is haloed in pollinators on warm days. Autumn is the season of quirky tactile pleasures. Here are a few of my favorites for children and for the adult children many of us become this time of year.
1. Make like a squirrel and pick up and hold a fallen acorn. We are blessed with more than 20 oak species growing in the “City of Trees” and each type bears a characteristic acorn. The acorn of the scarlet oak, DC’s official tree, is like a child’s top. The acorn cap of the northern red oak looks like a French beret, while the cap of the black oak is like a ski hat. The cap of the chestnut oak is a perfect little bowl. The bur oak growing near the Capitol Reflecting Pool bears a giant acorn with a mossy-fringed cap. When you hold each species in your hand its individual characteristics are enchanting, both visually and tactilely!
2. Pick up and smell the green outer husk of the black walnut fruit after it has fallen on the ground. It has a delightful buttery-citrusy smell. (If you plan to try to get to the tasty nut inside — a serious challenge — wear gloves or end up with walnut-stained fingers!)
3. The jewelweeds, or touch-me-nots, plants with delicate dangling orange or yellow flowers growing along our rivers and streams, bear little green capsules in autumn that burst when you hold them lightly between thumb and forefinger. Enjoy this delightful tactile sensation!
4. Lightly run your fingers up the stalk of the jumpseed, or Virginia knotweed, growing abundantly along Rock Creek, on Theodore Roosevelt Island, and elsewhere. When the seeds are mature they “jump,” making flying leaps in every direction.
5. Our woody plants have already formed buds that will open next spring, and each is unique for the species, facilitating winter tree ID. The American beech with smooth gray bark, abundant in our woodlands, bears beautiful mahogany buds that are sharply pointed at the tip. Run your fingers along the sides of this bud. Although you can see that the bud has overlapping scales, the seams are “invisible” to your fingers and the sides of the bud feel as smooth as glass. This is a tactile sensation you can savor on every autumn and winter woodland walk.
Happy autumn! May you enjoy your own quirky ways of celebrating this magical season!