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Autumn - in major and minor keys

Autumn is the favorite season of second-rate poets. They take an easy advantage of falling leaves. They make too cheap a symbol of the first frost. William Cullen Bryant is a case in point. He was shameless at manipulating October and November. Posing against the stage set of the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts, he delivered the set speech on late autumn:

The melancholy days are come, the saddest of the

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Of wailing winds, and naked woods, and meadows

brown and sere.

There are obligatory references to the rustle of shriveled leaves. The robin and the wren have flown south, leaving only the crow to caw ''through all the gloomy day.''

You still refuse to let Bryant get you down, even when he hits you with ''the cold November rain''? Well, then he scuffs ''the gloomy earth,'' balefully stares you in the eye, and asks: ''Where are the flowers, the fair young flowers , that lately sprang and stood?''

This is cheating, and John Ruskin called all poets on such unjustified liberties when he took Coleridge to task for capitalizing on:

The one red leaf, the last of its clan,

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That dances as often as dance it can.

''Morbid,'' cried Ruskin. ''False.''

Getting back to New England, we find Thoreau paddling along the north shore of Walden on one of those calm autumn days that ''settle onto the lakes, like the milkweed down.''

Now that's more like it.

As a good New Englander, Thoreau found that the falling leaves only brought out ''the character of each tree.''

Better and better.

And so we come to the two schools of perception on autumn. You can look at it as the prelude to winter, like Bryant and Coleridge, or as the postlude to summer, like Thoreau or Keats, with his lovely phrase: ''mellow fruitfulness.''

Indian summer. The often misused term glows with golds and reds under the deep blue of late October and November skies.

Indian summer arrives long after summer has gone - nearly at the end of autumn itself.

There is no deceit to Indian summer. It doesn't pretend that August has returned, or even September.

Indian summer is a wonder that lasts for hours rather than days. One enjoys it with full knowledge of what it is: an interlude. An exception. A reminder, just before the first snowflakes fall, that there is more to life than winter.

Indian summer is nature's flashback - or perhaps a flash forward.

The message is: take nothing for granted, least of all, New England weather. Summer heat can be interrupted by a hailstorm. And just when you brace for hail (or snow or ice) the late-autumn sun shines upon you, in Thoreau's simile, like the last embers of summer's fire.

During an early spell of Indian summer '81, an enormous caterpillar crawled across a leaf-strewn tennis court. The players - tempted out, like the caterpillar, by the unseasonably mild weather - stopped their game until the creature had inched its way past the last white boundary line, doubtless searching for the route to summers past or future.

The sun beat down with the kindness of 70 degrees in late October. The tennis players wore white. Who could blame the caterpillar, wriggling there in hope? He was mistaken in the short view. But was he mistaken in the long view? That is the question of Indian summer.

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