Last year around this time, as we scuffled through the fallen leaves covering a local park trail, my now-husband Steve recalled an article he’d seen about the process by which leaves change colors. The brilliant orange and yellow and red hues of autumn are always present in the leaves, the article asserted, though we see them only in the fall. In spring and summer they are masked by chlorophyll’s green. As the production of chlorophyll wanes, the bright, varied colors that were always underneath emerge to glow against the steel grays and robin’s egg blues of an October sky. The writer likened this process to the presence of God in everyone, using it as a metaphor for a kind of true spiritual beauty that all possess, even when it’s not readily apparent.
That’s a lovely idea, and the writer mostly got the science correct: carotenoids, the pigments that produce yellow, orange, and brown, are present in leaves year-round and revealed in autumn; the compounds called anthocyanins that make leaves turn red, however, are manufactured in the fall in response to a combination of light and an abundance of sugars. In any case, the process put me in mind of a slightly different metaphor.
We live in a world that more often than not equates “beauty” with “youth,” where the rush and excitement of new love is privileged over persistent commitment. The freshness of youth is beautiful, to be sure, but like the wash of green spilled over the landscape in spring, there is a sameness to its charms. With age as with autumn comes a magnificent variety, a depth and richness of color and character that is every bit as—if not more—splendid.
The same is true of early love versus late love, the first flush of desire and the long, slow dance that follows. Love in your teens and twenties is the life of the party, brash, exciting; you get drunk for the sake of it. The pleasures of middle-aged love are more like a sipping a fine scotch: measured, sure, exquisite.
Perhaps I’m just biased, since (speaking literally here) fall has always been my favorite season. Yes, I’m beguiled by the gentle blushes of dogwoods in the spring, but it’s the high golden glow of tulip poplars and sugar maples’ fiery bursts that make me swoon, the shush and crackle of fallen leaves beneath my feet that lure me to linger on forest trails. Or maybe it’s a trick of the mind, a strange grace that lets us experience every progressive season (speaking metaphorically now) as our pinnacle years.
As I sorted through pictures from high school and college for our wedding slide show, I was surprised to see how lank and lovely the young woman in those photos was, with her bright blond hair, glowing skin, slender frame. For a moment I was wistful, almost bereft: I wish I could have seen her beauty then as I see it now. Yet a closer look revealed something else: the same careful pose repeated, a hesitant smile, eyes that always seemed to ask “Okay?” My pictures these days reveal increasing numbers of crow’s feet and forehead creases, but my smile is bolder, my expression playful, my body both looser and more grounded. In the photos of my youth I sometimes looked as if I might lift off my feet and float away at any moment. Now what vulnerability is evident comes not from tentativeness but openness, an honest “Well, here I am!”
Consider: when we say someone is “green,” we mean they are naïve, inexperienced. It’s rarely a compliment. Most of us don’t come into our own until our early thirties, but it takes still another decade to move from begrudging acceptance to active embrace. There are many days when I long for the energy, the innocence—yea, the jawline of my twenties. But I wouldn’t go back if it meant sacrificing all the lessons, the adventures, the hard-won (and still intermittently accessed) confidence. I like knowing who I am.
So whenever I begin to worry about the loss of my youth (or more specifically, the loss of my thighs’ youth), or when I’m tempted to lament what I might have missed by my late discovery of love, I think about the fall leaves. I think about how the sight of a sugar maple in its full autumn glory makes me want to laugh for joy, and then, I do.
Watch out world. My carotenoids are showing.