Not being a painter myself, I don’t have names for all the colors that will come to the trees. That purpling, wound-red fever, those oranges both earthy and flaming, those yellows that wake us each day innocent, and the copper and bronze and yes, true gold. We think of fire colors, but then there’s that surprising mauve, that violet maroon reminding us of some old love we felt in our gut.
Autumn will make an artwork of grief. A painting of loss. The most festive funeral. She does it every year! And yet we still fear dying. We humans.
Sometimes it feels like autumn is everyone’s favorite season. For some—for the food-makers of this world, the humans I bow to—it is the age-old harvest. For some, it is that sentimental crossroads between the memory of precious summer held and lost, and the promise of cold and coziness to come. It ushers in a time of wrapping in, burrowing down, valuing nourishment, touching and holding. A time of necessary closeness, of home, of forced reflection: now we will be cold, we will be survivors, and we will seek meaning instead of pleasure, while the earth listens. For some, it coincides uncannily, year after year, with powerful life transition, as if the wind blew it in from some far place (you really can smell other places in that wind). For some, the veils thin, and we make fire and speak with spirits. For some, it is merely a relief from the heated overwhelm of summer. The opening for breath.
For me, the katydids are singing their last songs. They were an all-night, all-August party, a pounding, chanting, rattling, ritualistic, shamanic-like tunnel into erasure, and every night I lost my mind into that sound, into dreams like drumming beasts, like Mayan temples, like the source of life. I loved that sound like food. When I am dead someday, sitting around the campfire with the other ghosts reminiscing about the things we miss most about having senses, the chant of katydids is going to top my list.
It’s not quite autumn yet where I live. The earth smells overripe; the air still hangs heavy. But I wake up in a morning too cold for katydids—they went silent while I was sleeping—and listen to the feeble, leftover cricket song that carried on beneath them, straining to bridge the dawn. Faint, it feels, and yet it lasts all day. It lasts forever. Sometimes, for a little while in the afternoon, only one cricket carries on. The sun shrinks and brightens beyond bearing, focused, achingly warm just in front of me, intimate as a face. The crickets don’t sound the way they did all summer, that deep and settled luxury of rhythm. Now their song sounds so tender, after the katydid party all night, as if they hold infinity taut within each beat—hold it up for my awareness. Whoever heard of a sad summer morning? Yet I swear, it is. The ghosts know it. It’s the infinity of it that makes it sad.
Here comes autumn. And I want to talk about grief.
The crickets are throbbing their sweet, tentative, infinite song, a rhythm we’ve known since before we could speak, and we’re standing in the center of a heart, and this is that rhythm. The heart is beating. This is our heart.
I know people who say they can no longer bear to read the news.
I know people who choose different news.
I know people who believe salvation is coming, that darkness is a prelude to light.
I know people who believe there is no hope for humanity, or for the earth.
I know people so sensitive, the feeling of one tree machined down, or one creature denied its right to live freely its nature and beauty in this world, is more than can be borne.
I know people who hurl blame in many different directions, with varying levels of passion, for these things and more.
Of course, I am some of these people.
We want some kind of escape. Grief can feel suffocating. But really, the heart is infinite. I invite you to crouch down with me in the grass, close your eyes, and listen to our hearts beating along with this rhythm. Feel every one of these colors. Grieve the grief of the world. We don’t have to predict or explain or pretend it away. Only to feel it is sacred. Such colors! To grieve something is to honor it with the greatest love we have to give.
A couple of years ago I started a little dream group where I live. We gather at night, sometimes around a fire, and tell each other the dreams that pull at our hearts, no matter how strange or embarrassing or simple or complex, or ugly or seemingly meaningless or frightening—we just tell the ones that pull at us. Then we reflect back to each other what we hear, from our own hearts, never with any certainty, only as an offering. We have fallen, by this sharing, into the most profound sense of community. We have seen ourselves and the world reflected in this watery, nighttime mirror, and have mirrored each other, celebrated each other, grieved each other, and sometimes dreamed the same things.
At moments when the world was much in our thoughts, like when the pandemic began, there were dreams about the color blue. There came, I thought, a healing in this color, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. About how blue comes at the end of the rainbow. After blue, we go indigo, we go violet—we go into the colors that will turn us back to red again. But blue is the last primary color, the end of the story before the turning, before the rebirth. You can’t skip it.
People have died, in ways we feel helpless to stop. The world feels crazy. Whatever happens, whether the good guys win or not, whether humanity gets it together in time or not, whether we convince other people to agree with us or not, whether there’s hope or not, nothing can change the fact that creatures, places, whole landscapes, whole realities, whole seasons are being lost from this earth and they will not come back. The losses are real. They are more than the mind can contain.
Yet the heartbeat of the crickets is so comforting, gentle, quiet, and yet so eternal. To grieve is our hearts’ great power. This is the time of deepest feeling, deepest wonder, deepest celebration of the departed. We owe that to the earth, and to each other. To love with all our hearts. When I write books, I try to break people’s hearts, but not because I want to hurt anyone!—only because to me, we source all the answers, and all the healing, from these deeps. There is no way out but through.
If you do not have crickets where you live, I hope you have some sign of autumn. Some color that breaks your heart. Some thread of wind from another place that makes you stop still. And if you don’t have autumn where you live, I hope you stop and wonder at what landscape you do embody and inhabit, and love it for the earth that it is, love it as if it is dying, and as if you are dying, because we all are, and that’s why we’re beautiful.
Where I live, at the end of summer, all the forest is webbed together by the most determined spiders, huge and small, there’s hardly a span of trail or a pocket of negative space that is not connected. Sometimes, attempting to take a walk, I try to duck under and step over those webs until I’m exhausted, until I’m so overwhelmed by the impossibility of moving through this world as a human being, without constantly destroying, that I want to sit down and not go on.
But other times I feel glorious, so aligned with the colors of the day, full of the wilderness I carry within me everywhere, in my love and in my heart, that I press on through, laughing, and web after web collapses over me, enfolds me like a blessing, so that I emerge later into the fields of my home feeling sad and jubilant all at once, and covered in the brokenness of everything, webbed tight, sticky with the world. Dressed in silk. Feeling beautiful.
Feeling every tiny, subtle thread.