Fall doesn't come all at once, here, but tree by tree. I discovered this again today in English class. The window-framed day outside could have been any from June to August. One of our "English village" dorms sat there like a country house in a Jane Austen novel, complete even to the old and stately trees massed in green counterpoint behind it. Clouds banked in stripes above it. But there, too, like a clown among soberly dressed citizens, was one tree already resplendent in fall foliage. There were other trees taller, and other trees larger, but this tree stuck out like stain on a new shirt, like a guest who arrives at the last picnic of summer in winter's white tie and tails. But was it, I wondered, the one that was out of place? Or were the other treees and I the ones soon to find ourselves at a chestnut roast with only hot dogs and sand pails?
As a Texan, I've rarely seen trees in fall foliage. As a matter of fact, before I came to college in Illinois, I had never seen one. (Or at least I don't remember ever seeing one -- for most of the time, my eyes are on my destination. It may be a door knob that my hand must reach before my body does, or a classroom where in my mind's eye I am already taking a history test. No matter if the trees along my way flame red or gold. Unless they reach out a glowing branch and grab me, I may pass by oblivious. After all, time and teachers wait for no one. But occasionally, something startles me into taking off my blinders. As that tree did today in English class. As last fall did, when I went away to college.)
Leaving home for the first time has a way of upsetting the applecarts of well-ordered lives. Suddenly I had three roommates to get to know, the demands of colege academics to fulfill, and a completely new enrironment in which to live. I had finally reached the climax for which all my previous school years were supposed to have prepared me. But for all that I felt like the diver who, having waited until even the cosmos seemed to hold its breath in anticipation of the dive, suddenly realizes that the pool isn't heated. I was aware of many feelings I hadn't expected.
But, happily, when you're aware, you're aware of everything -- not just homesickness, mosquitoes, and people who yell in dorm halls at strange hours. Probably because I was reading Emerson's "Nature" and then "Walden" at that time , I began to look at my outdoor surroundings in that deeply observant way adults only attain in rare moments of strongest feeling. Gradually, the shimmer of sun on yellow leaves began to attract me irresistibly from my homework, and often math problems or Spanish exercises waited half-finished while I exulted in the view from my window.
The days of last fall were sometimes painful, often trying, and always challenging, but what I remember now is the elation of those days. If the trees wore colors I had never seen before, so I too learned things about myself that I had never known before.
If last fall had never been, I might not have really noticed that tree today outside my English class. And as I looked at it I thought of something Thoreau wrote about Walden Pond. He remarked.
"where yesterday was cold gray ice there lay the transparent pond already calm and full of hope as in a summer evening, reflecting a summer sky in its bosom, though none was visible overhead, as if it had intelligence with some remote horizon."
For what cold day -- which the other trees and I could not yet perceive -- was my tree already wearing its coat of scarlet gold?