My Iowa Autumn, 1949
Let big people call them leaves. My dollie and I knew them for what they were: piled-up heaps of love, colorful and crisp, raked and arranged, ready for fort-building, rolling, jumping, falling again and again into the safe, soft cushion provided by the trees.
It was a season of falling: falling leaves, windfall apples redolent of cider or sauce, drifts of smoke falling from chimneys and sloping around our ankles. We pressed fallen leaves between sheets of waxed paper, to hang in windows. We carried leaf bouquets to favorite teachers, and decorated supper tables for the pleasure of our families. We named their colors to suit ourselves and reflect our world: bittersweet, cornstalk, snow-fence brown.
And we traveled. Sometimes near and sometimes far, far beyond the boundaries of our maple and elm-filled yards, we gloried in even more dramatic autumn colors along the rivers and hills. Brilliant as sunsets, heart-rending in their beauty, the riotous mixture of oak, hard maple, and ash blinded us to the realities of a winter yet to come.
After sixty years, the surest sign of impending autumn remains for me a sharp, intense longing for the glimmer and shine of colorful leaves. Unfortunately, while Houston provides color, it’s often muted, short-lived, and inferior to the extravagance appearing in other parts of the country. Even where Texas colors abound — glowing cypress at the water’s edge, the gem-like brilliance of maples, the somber Hill Country oaks — their erratic nature can confound prognosticators and passionate leaf-peepers alike. “Now you see it, now you don’t” is the order of the day. A degree or two here, a burst of wind there, and the show is over. You turn your back at your peril.
With control of the elements out of my hands, I try to be understanding, and accepting. I remind myself that this isn’t New England, after all. Yet every year as the weeks pass, filled with ever more glorious postings of autumn color, I look at others’ sweetgum and larch, walnut, birch, sumac and sassafras, with a certain ambivalence. I certainly don’t begrudge them their luminous hillsides, their streambeds glowing between fiery mountains, or the sweet, golden haze of their harvested fields. Still, I envy them.
Through the years, my affliction has led to considerable travel as I tracked the wild autumn leaf in state and out, down city streets, through the suburban wilds. Sometimes, I was early. Often, I was late. More often than not, my personal standards for what constitutes good autumn color left me disappointed.
One day this past October, quite by chance, I happened upon Milton Meltzer’s biography of Dorothea Lange, titled A Photographer’s Life. One of Lange’s musings seemed particularly relevant and compelling:
To know ahead of time what you’re looking for means you’re then only photographing your own preconceptions, which is very limiting, and often false…
I certainly wouldn’t criticize a photographer who works completely without plan, and photographs that to which he instinctively responds.
In fact, a very good way to work is to open yourself as wide as you can, which in itself is a difficult thing to do — just to be like a piece of unexposed, sensitized material. You force yourself to watch and wait. You accept all the discomfort and disharmony that involves.
In time, her words took hold, and I wondered: what might autumn have to offer in a neighborhood deprived of traditional fall colors? What if I exchanged a search for past, idealized autumns for a discovery of autumn’s realities in the present? What if I set aside my criteria for a perfect autumn, and simply accepted what is?
As you might suspect, the results were both surprising and delightful. Through the month of November, I explored local parks, nature centers, prairies, and sloughs, discovering far more than I’d bargained for. A veritable rainbow of colors surrounded me: as impressive in their own way as any Montana or Massachusetts tree.
At Armand Bayou, late-blooming sunflowers covered the prairie.
(Click any image to enlarge)
Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani)
At a nature center not far from my home, it seemed as though nature had begun her Christmas decorating.
Christmas berry or Carolina Wolfberry (Lycium carolinianum)
Ditches edging the highway between Blessing and Palacios teemed with wildflowers of every sort.
Throughout the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, Gulf frittilaries feasted on blue mistflower.
Blue Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum)
Migrating birds chattered within the pyracantha, safely hidden from sight.
Firethorn, Pyracantha (Pyracantha coccinea)
One of my favorite flowers clambered along the edges of the Clear Creek channel.
Wild Cowpea (Vigna luteola)
A beautiful, two-foot tall bit of grass stood out from its companions.
Along a Farm-to-Market road near Goliad, balloon vines glowed in the mist.
Balloon vine (Cardiospermum halicacabum)
Their season ended, dewberries shone in the falling afternoon light.
Southern Dewberry (Rubus trivialis)
The relationship of the silverleaf nightshade to the Christmas berry (both in the family Solanaceae) is suggested by its fruit.
Silverleaf nightshade (Solanum elaeagnifolium)
Finally, these post-Thanksgiving morning glories outside a Goliad donut-and-kolache shop were especially surprising, but entirely glorious.
Morning Glory (Ipomoea spp.)
Morning Glory (Ipomoea spp.)
Morning Glory (Ipomoea spp.)
Today, having taken time, at last, to saunter into the complexity of this turning season in Texas, I can’t help but be amused. After years spent pursuing and envying the glorious autumns enjoyed by others, the variety and beauty of our season has become clear.
Shown the glories of a more traditional season, I’ll admire and enjoy the shapes and colors that continue to evoke such pleasant memories. But, truthfully? I believe I’ve fallen for our autumn.
Comments always are welcome.
All images, unless otherwise indicated, are mine. Any of the above images can be clicked for greater size and clarity.
It’s also possible I’ve misidentified a plant. Corrections or suggestions are welcome.