It’s October in the Texas Hill Country, and the husband has just planted his new seeds for the fall garden. We have had several inches of rain in the past few weeks, the rivers are full, the “lawn”—mostly clover and Horseherb— is green and still full of bees, and I just this second watched a Monarch stop to feed on the Blue Mistflower planted around the fountain. The Lipstick Sage is in full glory, as is the Texas purple sage (Cenizo) which covers the east fence, and the various other sages are pink and dark red against the purple asters, which have just exploded after hunkering down all summer.
We know it’s fall because the light is different, the days shorter, nights much cooler, the pecans are falling, and the squirrels are, well, nuts. With any luck though, we’ll be eating Swiss Chard, beets, and other fall greens in a few weeks and most of the winter. The Mesclun mix we planted about two weeks ago is ready any second now, even though the Cypress and Sycamore leaves are turning and falling.
This is a whole new thing for us, having just moved from Maine, with its beautiful but interminable winters, a couple of years ago. Just before Covid, we had met some new friends and were settling in nicely when suddenly we found ourselves stranded and locked down in a new place. Our near half-acre in the middle of town has felt heaven sent. The back fence keeps out the white-tail and Axis deer, who live on the front lawns here, and keeps the cats in, mostly. This was once part of a pecan farm, and the first year we harvested over seventy pounds of nuts. They are due again this year (every second fall), and we have found the soil to be unexpectedly rich from years of leaf and nut mulch and neglect.
This new beginning has been both auspicious and inauspicious; like so much these days, it’s hard to tell. Is this darkness, or light? Birthing pains, or the death of something? Autumn can’t really help that it brings these thoughts front and center.
We watch the dying of the light, and we watch the glorious unveiling of what’s really underneath all that green at the same time. Nature strips away the pretenses, the chlorophyll of day-to-day busy survival work, and we have to face the cold that’s coming. With it comes the understanding that, yes, the veil between the worlds is indeed thinner, and we are closer to some kind of fundamental rawness. While our northern friends harvest and put up, close down, cover, and draw in, here in the south, we plant again, invigorated by the freshening and cooling air. But we emerge into a dimmer light, a certain slant, one might even say, that illuminates the hard fact that we’ve prepared but can’t really know for what. What we can overlook in the lushness of summer and ripening of okra and beans swirls around us in the chillier autumn winds. A lot remains unknown, and really just slightly out of reach, a whisper, a foreboding.
The veil shimmers, and we can sense it. We can practically see it shiver under the giant harvest moon. When I teach students about the Sublime, that mixture of fear and awe, this is what I imagine. There’s nothing spooky to me about plastic ghosts or spiders that hang on people’s trees and houses in the neighborhood; what’s spooky to me is the in-my-face-undeniable-fact of the dying of the year and its implications for all of us.
I learned years ago to eye more watchfully this time of year: on or around the end of October we lose people, pets, loved ones. It’s just easier to pass through. And if we listen, it’s easier to hear what’s just on the other side.
Here, my neighbors mostly have Mexican roots. The cemetery behind us on the hill is beginning to light up with marigolds and other bright decorations on the gravel topped graves of the old families. The live oaks over them are hung with wind chimes. Jar candles are sprouting up. I never see this happen; it just does.
The graveyard sits just a couple of blocks away and overlooks a small river and the hills beyond and is so dusty quiet you would have no idea it’s near the center of town. The breezes blow through the trees, the stars light up the night, and it’s as if time stands still, awaiting the return of the Ancestors. Dia de los Muertos is coming. The reality of death, and the celebration of the return.
We harvest, and we plant again. The gods die, and they rise. The butterflies migrate, and they go back, as the Ancestors, and arrive just at the day, and the place, where they have forever. And, right now, we stand at the intersection of a holy and terrifying time, and we know what’s coming.
In the meantime, we’ll hand out candy to the hordes of blissfully innocent kids who show up every year here on the eve of Dia de los Muertos. The little princesses and comic book creatures, the pirates and the monsters come, and we give away everything we can. They shyly take one little candy bar (there’s hope for the world after all). No, take more! The neighbors sit on the lawn in the dark with their creepy lights and fires and everyone waves and yells to each other until the rush dwindles and we go back inside, a little chilled. And also warmed.
The rituals of fall ward off the anxiety of what’s to come, keep it from overpowering us, and they keep us protected. After the celebration of the harvest—the pesto, the tomato sauces, the jams, the putting up, the turning over— we celebrate the Other World, those who have gone before, who come back in the form of the Monarchs to bring us tidings from the universe, who will tell us, if we will hear them: it’s okay, we are all just wind and the chiming of the bells in it.
It’s all ephemeral, we are all headed home, and don’t think you are any different. Why get all melancholy as if you matter more than the bugs and birds and squirrels? Just get your nest ready for winter, and, if you’re lucky, go plant a fall garden and hope for yet another harvest.
photo credit: Freestocks, Poland, Unsplash