The sound of one leaf falling

chipmunkThe transition from one season to the next is always a reminder of something fluid, even elusive. Sure you wake one day and the calendar tells you it’s autumn, this year’s arrival last week still in the afterglow of the Harvest Moon.  But it’s not as if you haven’t already sensed it, the shifting light, the shortening of days.  It’s a lot like the space between breaths that sometimes becomes the focal point during meditation. If you pay attention, breathing in can only become breathing out. And vice versa.

So it goes with the slipping of summer into autumn.  By late August there’s a diminished vibrancy to the lush green of the leaves; mid-September the ache kicks in, that fading to yellow, a reminder that leaves may be dying but we still have that riot of red and orange, yellow and brown against that seasonal golden light to look forward to.    A quote I came across the other day by the Chinese philosopher Lin Yutang sums up so eloquently the way I feel:

“I like spring, but it is too young. I like summer, but it is too proud. So I like best of all autumn, because its leaves are a little yellow, its tone mellower, its colors richer, and it is tinged a little with sorrow and a premonition of death. Its golden richness speaks not of the innocence of spring, nor of the power of summer, but of the mellowness and kindly wisdom of approaching age. It knows the limitations of life and is content. From a knowledge of those limitations and its richness of experience emerges a symphony of colors, richer than all, its green speaking of life and strength, its orange speaking of golden content and its purple of resignation and death.”

It’s a busy time for chipmunks and squirrels, I’ve noticed, a kind of rush hour as they scamper and scurry back and forth, in and out, so much to hoard. It’s a noisy season, too, lawnmowers still cutting the last bits of summer grass before the leaf blowers take over.  Who needs an alarm clock in the morning when you have crows?

A few weeks ago, Labor Day to be exact, I was sitting on my deck, early morning. Sipping coffee and reading.  Something made me stop.  Look up.

More often than not what distracts me is something I see or hear: a  squirrel doing acrobatics across tree branches. A majestic hawk circling the sky.  A woodpecker rat-tat-tatting.  Deer passing through my yard.  A tree being trimmed.

On that particular day, the memory still vivid, it was the complete absence of usual morning sounds that enveloped me.

Not a crow caw-caw-cawing.

Not a car thrumming down the road.

Not a dog barking.

Nada, when it came to sound.

That I could be so caught up in its absence was a curious reminder, ironic as it seems, that I’m not alone. “The world is too much with us,” wrote Wordsworth, and that was way before technology wreaked havoc on our neurology: Being present to the moment is a far cry from the beeping urgency of text messages.  The immediacy of sending e-mails brings an expectation of response in a timely fashion, the question being: whose time frame is it anyway?

Years ago I read A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle,  drawn to the title.  At the very beginning she writes:

“I like hanging sheets on lines under the apple trees—the birds like it, too. I enjoy going out to the incinerator after dark and watching the flames; my bad feelings burn away with the trash. But the house is still visible, and I can hear the sounds from within; often I need to get away completely, if only for a few minutes. My special place is a small brook in a green glade, a circle of quiet from which there is no visible sign of human beings.”

The quiet a writer needs to do her work was at the heart of a conversation between novelist/filmmaker/Buddhist priest Ruth Ozeki and editor/novelist Carole DeSanti, hosted by WNBA-NYC.  “Real creative work comes from a quiet place,” said DeSanti.  We may need the noise, that “conversation with the world,” as Ozeki put it, at the start of a project.  “But at the end I need quiet to dig in.”

“Silence is an endangered species,” says acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton in an interview with Krista Tippett that begs to be listened to.  “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything,” he explains, taking listeners on a virtual hike through the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park to what he calls One Square Inch of Silence.  It’s through silence that we regain the power to listen.

“Now we will all count to twelve/and we will all keep still. . . .” begins a Pablo Neruda poem that Jewish-Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein is said to carry with her everywhere she goes. Listen to her recite it. Or read it here.

The poem, a favorite of mine, is called “Keeping Quiet.”




28 thoughts on “The sound of one leaf falling

  1. Lovely post, Deborah. Autumn is one of my favorite seasons too.

    I especially love, “Silence is an endangered species.” And “…and in the end we need the quiet to dig in.”

    Simple reminders of what is necessary to reach that creative place and feel balance in our often harried lives.

    • It always comes down to balance, doesn’t it, Becky? And reminding ourselves to take the time to tune out the noise, when we need to.

  2. I love the title, Deborah, and the message, though I like to think of autumn as a time of setting seeds for rebirth rather than a time leading to death. The leaves brighten and grace us with magnificent color, the flowers crumble and fall to the earth. Then they all quietly set their seeds deep in the soil to bring us their beauty, once again, the following spring.

    • And that time of setting seeds for rebirth, Linda, is the time for going deep inside ourselves. Hence, winter.

  3. I love “A Circle of Quiet” by Madeleine L’Engle almost as much as I love this contemplative post.

    What a curiosity: the Labor Day still. Where were the crows cawing, cars thrumming, dogs barking on that day? I wonder. I don’t recall ever having experienced the absence of sound. Ever! Even now as I write, I hear the deep breath of my granddaughter Sarah as she naps on the bed near me, the trill of a bird in the backyard, and the faint rustling of those wonderful fall leaves.

    Looking forward to digging deeper and checking out the links you provided. “Real creative work comes from a quiet place… We may need the noise, that ‘conversation with the world,’ as Ozeki put it, at the start of a project. “But at the end I need quiet to dig in.”

    Would you mind sharing the link to your post over at The Write Practice?

    The aspect of the writer’s need for silence has yet to be mentioned there, but it is probably the most important of all.

    • I can’t say I’m surprised you love ‘A Circle of Quiet,’ Debra. The real gift for me was finding the quote that gave the book its title — and feeling an even deeper resonance than when I first read it. And, yes, I’m more than happy to share this post at the link you left.

  4. “I like hanging sheets on lines under the apple trees—the birds like it, too. I enjoy going out to the incinerator after dark and watching the flames; my bad feelings burn away with the trash.”

    Wonderful passage! It’s so true that we all have our ways of stepping back into ourselves, whether to create or to ponder or to burn away our melancholy.

    You may have seen the Louis C.K link on Krista Tippett’s blog, talking about embracing the silence, the sadness, the joy (sans cellphones):

    • Leave it Louis C.K. to bring some humor into the ‘honor your sadness’ equation. Thanks for the link, Tracey. I do worry about the inability of young people especially to be alone with themselves.

  5. A Circle of Quiet sounds divine. It reminds me of forgotten contemplative places of childhood growing up on a farm, yes, burning the paper waste and watching mesmerised, cutting the kindling wood for the evening fire, silent but physical, repetitive, cleaning out the pigsty with the high pressure hose and imagining the new crop of pumpkins that would sprout south of there having been so well manured.

    Today living in town, it is only hanging out the washing that brings me to that meditative place of light, I had forgotten that there used to be many others which spark the same nurturing quiet.

    • Apparently that ‘circle of quiet’ took Madeleine L’Engle to three more volumes of memoir . . . not to mention the fictional places it clearly took her. Best of all, though, is the way one excerpt triggers thoughts and memories in the rest of us.

  6. Beautiful. I could hear the silence and feel the wistfulness and a tiny ache that for me is Autumn.
    Thank you,

  7. This is a terrific post, Deb.
    I can’t say enough how much I thrive in quiet. So much so that my children have learned to keep their voices low especially when I’m working.

    • I like to think that message your children get when they keep their voices low — for whatever reason — is a lasting one. The world they’re growing up in presents a paradigm of constant tuning in . . . to something outside of themselves.

  8. Such a beautiful post (as always) Deborah. Our summer has been hanging on, but just this morning there is a hint of crispness in the air and it makes me feel more alive than I’ve felt in a long time! Even though in Santa Barbara our seasons blend pretty seamlessly, I always love the sense of renewal that Autumn always offers. Now if I could just hide away from all the distractions of life and just be….

    • I agree, Jessica, re: the sense of renewal that autumn brings — despite the melancholy (or maybe because of it). If you think about it for a minute, September as the beginning of the school year is forever ingrained in us. Then there’s the Jewish New Year, also an autumnal rite.

  9. Add to these quotes and remembrances of a quiet calmness, Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence. Such beautiful lyrics are truly worth sharing. I love autumn. In fact I used to call myself, Miss Autumn. (Lest you think that a recent thing, I was six at the time). My birthday falls on September 23rd which is sometimes considered the first day of autumn. One of my favorite childhood songs is Nat King Cole singing “Autumn Leaves.” The falling leaves drift by the window, The autumn leaves of red and gold… It’s poignant and touches your heartstrings. Yes, I love autumn. It’s a gateway to all the best holidays–Rosh Hashanah, Halloween and Thanksgiving. Pumpkins, apple cider, harvest, hayrides. All this and more glorify what autumn is about.

    • If my birthday were September 23, I would absolutely take it as a sign that I’m entitled to call myself Miss Autumn. And, yes, I love every song associated with the season. Not to mention a Simon and Garfunkel classic (a haunting one, at that) that did come to mind when I wrote this post.

  10. Deborah – a wonderful piece about autumn – my favorite season. I love to watch the outdoors change and i love barren trees. it looks like arms reaching up the heavens for something – maybe a winter coat. 🙂

    • As much as I love autumn, I have to agree with you re: barren trees. There’s something about them — exposed– that makes me see them in a different light. Ha ha re: the winter coat.

  11. This is one of my favorite of your pieces ever. It flows easily, as water over stones in a shallow brook. I am blessed to live among the quiet sounds of nature where the world rarely intrudes. Autumn is a welcome respite from our hot summers, which sap me of all energy. I’ll be pulling out the tomatoes and planting the broccoli soon; stashing away the tank tops and curling up in turtlenecks. I love autumn. I think it’s my most creative time. Lovely post, my friend.

    • Funny — when I wrote that quiet was a reminder that I’m not alone, I must have had in mind that circle of like-minded souls who feel the way I do re: relishing something not so readily available — unless we’re blessed, like you are, to live in a place where nature really abounds. Today in the Northeast we have ‘unseasonably’ warm weather, but nothing stops that day-to-day change in the autumn landscape.

  12. How lovely. I so dearly love silence; it seems to open up a well inside that is lost to me in the clatter of everyday living. Even in the quiet; the birds, the wind, crickets at night, are a slice of heaven. Silence has become a valuable commodity; hard to find & hold on to. Thank you, Deborah.

    • Funny to think of silence as a commodity, Monica, but you’re right . . . . and you so eloquently make your readers see that slice of heaven in your own recent posts.

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