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Seasonally speaking, it's autumn

Posted: October 30, 2013 - 12:06am

“Autumn is a second spring, when every leaf is a flower.”

–Albert Camus

I must have been a pesky child, always asking the insufferable question, “why.”

My poor parents, teachers – even my pastor, of whom I asked a burning theological question: “If black is the color of sin, why are Bibles black?” (They were, back then.)

So what’s my burning question now? Perhaps I’m the only one who cares, but with the days getting shorter, the air turning brisk and the calendar reminding us of the seasonal change, I have to ask: Since “autumn” is such a lovely word, why do we insist on calling the last full season of the year “fall?” Summer, winter and spring have no nicknames. Why does this one?

There is a connection between the two words, though before I went to better minds than my own for an answer, I tried to answer the question myself. If we stuck with the word “autumn,” how would we know which way to set our clocks when Daylight Saving Time ends? Don’t we need that reminder to “fall backward,” as opposed to “spring forward” a few months from now? But this time-changing practice has only been in existence in our country since World War I, and both words were in use much earlier than that.

Autumn, the Latin word for the season, is more common in England than it is here, and has been in use since the 14th century. Substituting the word “fall” began about the same time, also in England, for a very simple reason: it was the season of “leaf-fall, and the Brits merely shortened the phrase for convenience.

Should I ever see my bewildered pastor again, he’ll be happy to know I’m now finding answers to theological questions myself.

The secret begins with the varied meanings of the word “fall,” which cover a full 12 inches in my American Heritage Dictionary and include a reference to “the fall of man,” as in Adam in the Garden of Eden. With only a little effort one can easily see how this concept corresponds to “fallen leaves.” Both events include the loss or end of something once beautiful and alive.

With the “fall” answer solved, I then wanted to know why we bother with the word “autumn” at all. The answer, as anyone who didn’t sleep through elementary school science class knows, comes from the season’s relationship to the “autumnal equinox,” the second day of the year when both day and night are the same length.

American Heritage has an even better explanation. There, in the center of scarcely an inch of type for this word is this beautiful statement: “A period of maturity verging on decline.”

As part of my research for this profound study, I also turned to the delightful book Benjamin Franklin’s Wit, Wisdom, and Practical advice. Franklin, by the way, was the first to suggest the idea of “daylight saving.” His thoughts for this pre-winter season include: “When pigs gather leaves and straw in the fall, expect a cold winter.”

I’m not sure how that advice transfers to our more likely 21st century animal kingdom of cats, dogs, and hamsters, but I did copy – and make – his recipe for Autumn Apple Carrot Casserole.

Peel and thinly slice 6 apples and 3 cups of carrots. Mix 1/3 cup brown sugar with 2 Tbsp. Flour;

Arrange half the apples and carrots in a lightly greased casserole dish, and top with half the sugar mixture; repeat with remaining ingredients;

Pour in ¼ cup of orange juice and bake 45 minutes @ 350 degrees.

Bon autumnal appetit!

(Barbara Seaborn is a local free-lance writer. E-mail comments to seabara@aol.com.)

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