In fact, many of the trees are already bald. Autumn is well advanced. Last week we celebrated Halloween, which is followed by the Christian feasts of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. These two days commemorate the church’s saints and its rank and file dead, respectively, and inspired the more elaborate Día de Muertos observances in Mexico and elsewhere.
The tradition of praying for and remembering the dead around this time of year is rooted in a metaphor that connects the dying of the year with human old age and death. I love thinking about the ways the mind plays with metaphor, so I was struck by how this particular metaphor is used in the excellent novel Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers.
In that story, a writer is teaching an artificial intelligence to analyze literature (or at least to appear to analyze literature; thinking about what’s really going on is part of the fun of the book). At one point, the machine (which is called F) is asked about where the autumn leaves are falling from, and she replies that they are falling from old trees. She has noted that bald humans are often older, and extended the concepts of balding and aging to the trees. This inspires her human teacher to go off on a lovely riff on metaphor, meaning, and human thought, which culminates in the following:
And all the while, the trees were balding. The mind shed its leaves. Every connection we encouraged in F killed off extraneous connections. Learning meant consolidating, closing in on its contour the way a drop of water minimizes into a globe. Weights rearranged until the neurodes storing winter lent half their economical pattern to the neurodes signalling old age.
Henry David Thoreau, in his essay Autumnal Tints, compares the falling of the leaves to the departure of individual humans from the world. He admires the grace with which the leaves let go and wonders “if the time will ever come when men, with their boasted faith in immortality, will lie down as gracefully and as ripe,—with such an Indian-summer serenity will shed their bodies, as they do their hair and nails.”
It’s a very short step from seeing a connection between autumn and death in the abstract to seeing personal mortality in the autumn landscape. Here are two of my favorite poems on this topic, both read by Tom O’Bedlam.
Do you have any favorite poems for this time of year? If so, please share them in the comments.