Last weekend I returned to New Hampshire, for my first autumn visit in eight years. I couldn’t wait to see the sweep of red, orange, and yellow trees – but the leaves hadn’t changed.
As a child growing up in New Hampshire, I loved autumn. Back to school shopping, apples and pumpkins, crisp morning air – all these elements made autumn enjoyable, but more than that, I loved the foliage. I loved raking piles of leaves and jumping in them. I loved wandering through the woods and picking out the most vibrant red maple leaves. I loved collecting miniature mussel shells as the ponds dried up and wandering through the resulting mud. So when I left New Hampshire seven years ago, just weeks before autumn, I was homesick like you can’t imagine.
I arrived in Utah knowing full well that there would be few trees here, but I wasn’t prepared for the full implications of the missing trees. Not only did autumn look different here; it smelled different. To help me connect with the autumn I remembered from my childhood, my mother mailed envelopes of leaves. Most of the leaves wound up scattered across my apartment coffee table, but I crumpled a few and placed them on a saucer. Each time I wanted to remember what home was like, I simply picked up the saucer and sniffed. And there again was that indescribable smell of autumn. My roommates were bemused (and amused), but guests were downright bewildered. They’d walk in, and I’d cry, “Do you want to smell New England???” You can imagine their relief when they realized what I meant.
Well, seven years have passed since I moved to Utah, and it has now been eight years since I was last in New England for autumn. I’ve learned to adjust, for the most part. I’ve found that the substance I grew up calling “cider” is rare in Utah, but it can certainly be found. Ironically, it’s usually marketed as juice, since most Westerners don’t see a difference between how juice and cider are processed (apparently it’s unusual to have grown up with cider presses all over the place). Still, if I’m willing to pay extra for the sheer joy of it, I can find cider here. I’ve also learned to seek out red leaves in canyons and a few select spots on BYU’s campus. So, I’ve adjusted.
But each year I get a yearning at the site of Utah’s pale yellow leaves. When I smell decaying leaves, that yearning grows deeper, and I find my creative writing veering toward New England autumns. The truth is, I’ve stayed in Utah twice as long as I meant to. For four years now, I’ve been always planning to leave, but there’s always a reason to stay, so here I am. Each time I decide to stay, I promise myself that I’ll return to New England for an autumn visit, but somehow that plan always falls through.
And yet, last weekend, it happened. You see, I realized last year that I couldn’t remember what New England autumns were like. I’d forgotten the smells, the tastes, the colors. And when I could no longer visualize the sweep of trees that I saw every autumn as a child, I finally made true on my promise to myself and went to New Hampshire.
Initially, I’d planned to go home for a few weeks. I was going to work online, which would free me to travel as often as I could afford. My mother loved the idea of having me around more than usual, and with my little sister at college there would even be a free room for me. I would have the time and flexibility to absorb every shred of autumn possible. But when a better job offer came along and I decided to also teach some classes in person at BYU, I revised my plans. I would still visit New Hampshire, but I would now only visit for a long weekend. I arranged a couple revision days for my BYU students in place of class, let them know I could be contacted by email in my absence and returned to New Hampshire, prepared to continue working online, as much as necessary.
But the leaves were not waiting for me. Or rather, plenty of fallen brown leaves were waiting, as well as green leaves still on the tree. What had happened? Well, not only had I arrived a bit too early (peak leaf season is hard to predict), but a blight had caused all the early-changing leaves to turn brown and fall from the trees. Ironically enough, we had such a wet summer in Utah that the leaves out here are the most vibrant I’ve ever seen them. And so, when I looked out at all the green leaves in New Hampshire, I felt like crying. When rain then prevented me from attending the fair I’d hoped to nostalgically attend, I had to shake my head in dismay. When rain prevented me from apple picking with extended family, I really couldn’t believe it.
And yet, it was still the best autumn experience in years, because I discovered all the details I once took for granted and which I had long since forgotten. I saw red patches of poison ivy and remembered that it’s as beautiful as it is horrible. I walked through fields filled with goldenrod and purple flowers that look like tiny daisies. I’d forgotten what an integral part of autumn those flowers are. I saw Black-Eyed Susans, other variations of the daisy family, and bushes brimming with red berries. I glanced into the woods and saw lone branches of golden leaves, the leaves almost floating against a brown and green backdrop. And oh, when I walked through fields and trees…
When I walked through fields and trees, I smelled that beautiful spicy air I once took for granted each year. That scent of crumbling herbs, maple leaves mixed with flowers and grasses.
Featured photo courtesy of http://connectuwc.org.