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Here's What Happens to Me During Every Fall Season

It's all about the real meaning of autumn.

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illustration of female portrait formed from autumn leaves
Tara Anand
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"I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.” — Anne of Green Gables

Let the rest of the world celebrate fall with Halloween, homecoming and a pumpkin-spice-a-palooza.

The first snap of chilly air is all I need to feel happy. “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby. This new start inspires me to recommit to the three “R” verbs necessary for my health now that I’m 67: reflect, reset, rest.

Autumn, I’ve discovered, is my season of regeneration, when I shift my energy like deciduous trees do.

There’s truth in trees. I didn’t realize how much until a few years ago when I spent my first autumn in North Carolina. I could see the oak tree outside my bedroom window morph from beefy-leafy May to bare-branched December.

I’ve spent most of my autumns in Florida, where palm fronds and grass are forever green. This consistency had once been a comfort to me. No matter how far I traveled, no matter what month it was, when I flew home to Palm Beach County, I looked out the airplane window and saw green. I’m home. Home is green.

And then, the season of my life changed, and home became as multicolored as my white-blonde-gray-brown hair. My mother died. I retired from my newspaper job. Two of my three dogs died. My two cats died. My long-term relationship ended. My house, which is older than I am, seemed filled to the brim with worthless stuff. I needed to morph myself … but how?

I became something of a snowbird, traveling between my house in West Palm Beach and my boyfriend’s home on Lake Norman, just north of Charlotte, North Carolina. Here, in the yard his late wife curated and landscaped with care, I see all four seasons. I fell in love with one big tree.

That oak tree speaks to me, especially in October.

When its leaves turn red and gold, it means the tree has absorbed the nutrients pumped into it in springtime — the chlorophyll that makes leaves green — and stored it as fuel for the winter. When its leaves crust and fall, it’s because the tree knows it’s time to seal off the branches and shed what’s no longer needed. Those leaves fertilize the ground, and the cycle repeats, a reminder of nature’s wisdom.

As I witness this swift circle of life, my self-reflection deepens. Autumn is the time I ask myself: “How am I using my limited energy?” Am I spending precious energy on any activity, person or thought that is keeping me from being the happiest pile of maturity-enriched mulch I can be?

The tree shows me that letting go is the only way to keep growing. If trees behaved like me and held on to every leaf like I hold on to my 200 pairs of shoes, they’d soon die.

As Peter Wohlleben writes in The Hidden Life of Trees: “Shedding leaves is an active process. Only when that process is complete can trees retire to rest. And this they must do to recuperate from the exertions of the previous season. Sleep deprivation affects trees and people in much the same way: it is life-threatening.”

Like trees, we must recuperate from the exertions of our previous seasons. Before we can recuperate, we must reflect. We must let the wind blow through our branches and maybe even recalibrate our plans.

And consider autumn to be a season of renewal. The Jewish people herald the season as their New Year, with the holiday of Rosh Hashanah.

Passover is in spring, when seedlings are sprouting. Rosh Hashanah is the time for gratitude and celebration, “because the full harvest has come,” says Rabbi Ryan Daniels of Temple Israel in West Palm Beach. “We celebrate the bounty of the harvest and our many blessings.”

My autumn reflections have created new rituals. I buy spiral notebooks, new pens and a fresh calendar every October. I also buy a big, cozy French terry sweatshirt each fall. This year’s style: a color-blocked number by Natural Life.

Temperatures in Charlotte hover at 71 by the peak of the fall leaf color in late October. And 71 happens to be the ideal temperature for human productivity, according to researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Also crucial for the renewed me: nutrients for my brain. I savor The New York Times' fall season preview — it comes out each September — and plot the books I plan to read and the shows I want to see.

Curiosity ripens in cool weather, like pears, plums and pomegranates. When I’m not looking at the oak tree, I’m mesmerized by what’s scampering around it: squirrels that are in full hoarding mode.

My friend John Kelly, a columnist at The Washington Post, is such a squirrel fan that he started an annual “Squirrel Week” years ago as a rebuke to Discovery’s “Shark Week.”

In autumn, squirrels go nuts, literally. They’re busy hiding nuts, berries, acorns, birdseed, whatever they can stash in a hole and save for winter when they go days at a time without eating. They don’t hibernate, but they do hide out when it’s cold.

“The squirrel is a furry little window onto humankind,” Kelly notes. “I like that squirrels are perseverant, which, of course, is something we see in the autumn. They are busy, single-mindedly gathering acorns and hiding them. If they think another squirrel is watching, they'll just pretend to bury the nut. And some squirrels forget where they buried half their nuts, something I keep in mind when I can't find my car keys.”

What squirrels and trees know by instinct, we get the chance to learn every autumn: work, reflect, reset — then rest.

 Do you view autumn as a season of rebirth? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments below.

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