Autumn – the sunset season

California buckeyes at sunset in autumn, Round Valley Regional Preserve.

The rumor is out. It’s whispered in the amber crowns of sycamores and spread by the gossip of southbound geese. The low Sun, casting long shadows even at midday, insinuates it. We feel its breath on our skin; its resonance in our bones like the bronze toll of a bell. Autumn is here.

If spring is the sunrise of the year, autumn is its sunset. It doesn’t matter what time of day you read these words; the sun is setting – setting on A.D. 2018. Since the summer solstice on June 21, when we in the San Francisco Bay Area received 14 hours and 48 minutes of daylight, planet Earth has completed a quarter of its 584-million-mile voyage around the Sun, engraving an arc onto the black granite of space at 19 miles per second. Astronomical autumn arrived Sept. 22, when we reached a mark along that arc where daylight and darkness measured about 12 hours each.

But the darkness must have its season. Earth’s next port of call will be the winter solstice, Dec. 21, when in our Bay Area latitude the Sun graces the sky for a mere nine hours and 32 minutes – the year’s midnight.

If autumn and sunset are vehicles of beauty, they’re also vehicles of dread. The dying of the year, like the dying of the day, awakens an ancient fear: we know what’s coming, and the knowledge underscores our frailty and vulnerability. We’re as capable of reversing the encroaching cold and darkness as a starfish, trapped in a tide pool, of reversing the ocean’s ebb. “As for the nights,” wrote the poet Archibald MacLeish, “I warn you the nights are dangerous. The wind changes at night and the dreams come.”

The structure of a valley oak leaf. Autumn in Round Valley.

We know also, in a remote recess of mind, that autumn is what we are: transitional creatures, always in the process of becoming something else. The static landscapes of summer and winter symbolize an existence of perpetual paradise or desolation. Is this the metaphor for humanity? No, we understand from experience that the transitional flow of autumn and spring – when before our eyes leaves fall and wildflowers blossom – is the metaphor for creatures in whom something is always dying; something else is always being born.

More than 25,000 sunsets have dyed the western sky since I was born. Many have been spectacular but all have been meaningful. As time passes, time becomes more precious, and the symbols of its passing – the seasons of the year; the seasons of the day – more striking.

“We are symbols, and inhabit symbols,” wrote Emerson. As I approach the transition of my earthly existence into something more ineffable, autumn and sunset gain not only symbolic power; they gain factual power. Numerical power. The clock is ticking. I’ve numbered the days behind me; ahead, those days are numbered, too. As a human in his late 60s I've become as explicit a symbol for sunset and autumn as they are for me.

But autumn is not the season for the blues; it offers other colors to embrace. Leaves in droves spatter creek beds in saffron and scarlet; litter the trail like colossal confetti. Leaves the color of footballs and pumpkins, of sunlight and blood. Let the woods drift into dream as we plot our adventures in chromatic splendor, let the moan of wind through wizened limbs be the sound of the forest yawning as we set our alarms and program our coffee pots for the world of wakefulness. Time for us to rise; time for the woods to shine.

May your path be firm and the air bracing beneath a sapphire sky. May every twig on every branch seem more finely etched than in summer’s sweltering air. May trees slipping into sleep seem strangely wakeful as the onset of autumn exhorts them to gather their energy for one final, defiant display.

Sure, winter is coming. But autumn is here.