Growth in Autumn

Mark goes out early in the morning to check the tomatoes, which are on the back steps that we DON’T use, barricaded behind every stick of outdoor furniture we own. He waters the tomatoes; he nips off brown, crisped leaves. Occasionally, he feeds the plants a little fertilizer.

          And the tomatoes are burgeoning, heavy with fruit. Even the Roma plant, which the deer, or raccoons, or squirrels, or whomever, decimated last month, eating all the hard green immature tomatoes AND all of the tender yellow blossoms—even THAT plant has come back.

          The Roma plant was elsewhere-started and store-bought, and the cherry tomato was too. But the others—those glorious, four-foot-high Cordell tomato bushes—were started from seed in egg carton potting soil early in January in my dining room.

          We started them, really, without much hope. The seeds were old; we’d forgotten them for a year. And we’d never had much luck, anyway, growing things from seed.

          But these seeds had a will to grow, I guess, and we spent late winter and early spring gingerly moving plants to bigger pots as they outgrew the egg carton, the two-inch pots, and then the four-inch containers. They sat on the old painted dresser by the living room window, those plants, and they thrived. They brushed their leaves against the cool glass, longing to feel the sun on their greenness with no pane-d interruption.

          Finally, they were too big for the house. We moved them, in their new, large pots, to the carport roof, away from ravenous deer. Storm after storm, gale after gale, blew through and knocked the pots over, spilling the soil, baring the roots.

          Mark would be out first thing the morning after, up on the ladder, scooping dirt and righting pots, saying, “Sorry! You’ll be okay!” until it happened one time too many, and we acknowledged that the tomatoes had to come back to earth. Down they came, down to the back steps, where we bedecked them with jingle bells, baptized them with garlic powder, and surrounded them with yard furniture.

          Those plants have had Mark’s tender care. They basked in a summer that was hot, but not TOO hot, and wet, but not TOO wet. They survived the depredations of deer, and we circled the lawn chairs more tightly, doubling the garlic douse.

          Now we eye the plump, heavy green fruits just beginning to blush on the tomato plants’ sturdy branches. We dream spaghetti sauce dreams.

          And the tomatoes aren’t the only things growing in my yards this mid-September.

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          There is the hanging plant that suddenly, toward the end of July and despite tender ministrations, crisped up and turned a deadly brown. I took the planter down and examined the plants inside, wielding my handy new garden clippers. I discovered, as I clipped away deadness, that moist green growth struggled underneath, along the very surface of the dirt. I thought about what Sandee told us—that commercial hanging plants have peaked when you buy them, that the flowers are crammed unhealthily into too small a space.

          I remembered Sandee’s wisdom, and I cut away all the brownness, and pulled out some dead plants that clearly could not be saved. I threw away crisp leaves that littered the planter; I watered and fertilized the fragile green growth that was left.

          I hoped for the best.

          And now the best has happened: that plant is a glory of white blossoms—blossoms we didn’t even see in the busyness of the planter when we first bought it.

The comeback planter kid

          The herbs in the kitchen sink garden—rosemary and basil—are getting their autumn growth on, too. The basil, like some of the tomatoes, is grown from seed, another little wonder. And a small pot of rosemary marched its growing minions off, staking out expanded space.

          With the oregano that swarms two flower beds, we have the ingredients for fall cooking–pasta sauce and chili and tomato pie.

Herbs grow in an old kitchen sink

          The coleus in the window boxes obscure half the windows.

          The little seedling Matt gave us is growing strong; now I can see the lemon tree emerging.

          Then there’s my Weed, grown from a tender little sprout I decided to preserve. I noticed a bunch like it throughout the backyard as I mowed. They had stems and leaves that reminded me of day lilies.

I wondered what one would look like, grown. So I chose the most pugnacious plant, and I mowed around it. It grew tall and strong. I protected it all summer.

Now it’s five feet tall or so, tough and woody. In the last two weeks, it’s sprouted kind of a topknot, and the topknot has birthed tiny pink blossoms. It’s a weed, for sure, but kind of an amazing one—and one that likes mid-September, too.

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Labor Day, unbelievably, is in the rear-view mirror. The calendar says summer still is with us…and I am a great believer in not rushing the seasons, in letting summer stay as long as it will, no matter what day school starts again.

But even I have to admit to the season’s changes.

It is dark now by 8 p.m.

It’s cool when I walk in the morning. Yesterday, Mark said to me, “You might want to take some gloves.”

I said, tough and haughty, “I will be FINE,” and then walked off, wishing I had some thin little knit gloves on my cold, cold hands.  

The lawn doesn’t need mowing quite so much anymore.

Today, I took down the flowery summer wreath from the front door. In its place, I hung one that has spears of wheat, and golden and orange berries, and silken leaves of amber, red, and brown.

The calendar is reluctant to concede, but here’s the truth: autumn is here.

And still, things grow.

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We think of autumn as the ‘wrap things up’ time, the time when things die or go dormant. It’s a time of harvest, for sure, but it’s the waning season…the one leading up to the cold winter.

And yet, I look around and realize: autumn is a time of growth.

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We use autumn, too, as a metaphor for a certain time of life—for, in fact, MY time of life. We call the years after 65 “golden,” like the rich tones of some leaves that are just beginning to fall.

It sounds beautiful, but, in reality, I think our society looks at these years with pity, with a little disgust, certainly with condescension. Aging, it seems, is a kind of shameful thing.

Am I being too cynical, unnecessarily negative? I ask myself that.  And just to see what happens, I type, “What to expect when aging U.S.A” into my search engine. Here are the first things I find:

  • AARP’s Parents caregiving guide. In this ad, there are articles that discuss the future of health service for older adults, caregiver stress, and COVID in care homes.
  • Caring.com talks about how to find assisted living and how much it will cost.
  • Healthprep.com offers “10 Ways to Age Successfully.” (Wouldn’t to age UNsuccessfully be to die???) “Sure,” says the writer, “you cannot avoid the aging process, but you do have some level of control when it comes to how you age.” Ten tips to graceful aging include
  • Stay positive;
  • Don’t smoke
  • Drink moderately;
  • Watch your weight;
  • Keep active;
  • Eat a healthy diet;
  • Stay connected to other people;
  • Laugh; see the humor;
  • Set goals and dream.

SOME level of control: huh. It’s funny to read this article; it’s illustrated with pictures of people in their twenties and thirties—sleek, sexy women; loveably geeky young business-type men (lots of man buns on those heads without a hint of gray.) There are buff athletes. There’s a young family with kids still small enough to carry. How old a person is the illustrator thinking about when they think, “Aging”?

                   In contrast, though, are the ads. Most feature soft, dumpling-like white torsos with livers floating high up beneath a floppy man-breast. The ads are all about fatty livers, and what old people with the condition can hope to do about it.

          Then there’s an article called, “Aging: What to Expect,” from the Mayo Clinic. It starts off like this: “You know that aging will likely cause wrinkles and gray hair. But do you know how aging will affect your teeth, heart, and sexuality?”

          If I thought the news was bad before, just wait till I read what the golden years are going to do to my bodily systems. My blood vessels are a-stiffening, and my bones are a-shrinking. I can expect growing constipation, more and more pee-ing, memory challenges…and here, I stopped reading. I didn’t even start the next article, which promised seven signs of aging, mentioning liver spots and incontinence as the first two.

          There were discussions of dementia and medical issues, the adverse effects of an aging population on the rest of the world, and somber treatises on end-of-life issues. These articles paint aging as a shutting-down time…a time when people slowly, surely, become burdens.

          Where are the articles on the glory of THIS autumn? Where are the stories of growth?

**************************************

I’m thinking of a brave friend of mine who retired and got in her car and set off in quest of a whole new way of life, leaving behind the dysfunction she had tried for years to mend, to knit together, to salvage. Her own life, and all of her wonderful talents, were often submerged in those heroic efforts.

          Now though, at age 65, she’s a travelling woman, not sure where she’ll wind up, but on the road and finding out.

          Now, she is still growing.

          **************************************

          I’m thinking of another friend, also in her “golden years,” who used the isolation of the pandemic to do some drawing. She discovered a wonderful talent she had never explored, and now she draws every day, her mastery growing in amazing ways. Her other quarantine activity was to walk, and she set about discovering the trails and hiking paths in her area, and what she discovered on those hikes shows up in her sketch pad.

          Now she’s been asked to show her work. Now she’s setting up an art room in an unused bedroom. Now she is growing into a new understanding of herself and her gifts.

          ******************************************

          I’m thinking of another friend, a quiet, thoughtful, introverted friend, who in her sixties, is learning to dance. She is pushing herself physically, and she is pushing herself emotionally. Performing doesn’t come naturally, but she is growing.

          ******************************************

          I know people who’ve carved out entire new careers after they retired—and stayed in those new careers for twenty years or more. They just kept, in the autumn of their lives, on growing.

I know people who retired and wrote their first books, got them published, and started on others.

I know people, ‘golden year’ people, who are gleefully tackling their bucket lists–challenging themselves, traveling, exploring…

*************************************************

          You can think of many examples, too, I bet. I wish THOSE stories were what I found when I searched ‘aging’ on the internet.

*********************************************

Christopher MacDougall tells this story in “Secrets of the Tarahumara.” In 1993, there was a Leadville Trail ultramarathon. The course was through the Colorado Rockies—rough and mountainous terrain. Experienced runners from all over participated. They wore the latest shoes, had the best technology, donned the fabric most likely to wick away sweat.

          But some other runners participated, too. These were Tarahumara tribespeople from the mountains of Mexico. They wore junkyard-scavenged sandals.  They smoked and drank and ate very little red meat. When the gun sounded and the runners moved off, the Tarahumara faded off into the middle of the pack.

          Toward the end of the grueling race, though, MacDougall wrote, “…sandalled feet were pattering hard behind the leaders.”

          Victoriano Churro, a 55-year old Tarahumaran, won the race. Another Tarahumaran, Corrildo Chacarito, came in second. The tribe took fifth place, too.

          It was not a fluke. Since then, the Tarahumara have repeated their performances in race after race.

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Here’s the thing about the Tarahumara, writes Matthew Kerster in “Running With Mexico’s Tarahumara Indians.” The tribe retreated from society, protecting themselves from violent masters. Kerster quotes McDougall as writing, “For hundreds of years they remained isolated from the outside world, growing their own corn, potatoes, and beans, while living in caves.”

          The people learned to run swiftly through the mountains to reach each other, to carry messages. And because, no one told them that they would slow down as they aged, they did not. They thought that the longer they ran, the better they got.

          And some of their very best runners—the best among champions—were in their 60’s.

Or older.

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What would I do, in my own autumn, if no one had told me I was too old to do it? How would I keep growing?

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Perhaps we need to take back the meaning of these years, to insist on the wonder of them—to forget about the omnipresent threat of adult diapers. These are the days we worked hard to achieve…and I know many people, more deserving, who didn’t get to appreciate their autumns.

          These are years to celebrate, not dread; we have packed up all the wisdom of the struggle and brought it here to guide us. And now we have the choice: what will we do with these blessed years?

          Perhaps we need to treat this time as tenderly as Mark tends his tomatoes: protecting and nurturing, fertilizing and feeding, giving the days lots of water, balancing the shade and the sun.

          Perhaps, I think, looking at my hanging plant, there are dead leaves I can trim back in order to let new green shoots emerge.

          What will blossom? What amazing fruits will grow?

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We make bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches on a Wednesday night. Mark slices up a good-sized tomato from the pots outside the door. He puts big tomato slabs on his bread, and he eats the whole thing and goes back for more.

          “So good,” he says. “SO good.”

          We’re savoring those things that grow in autumn.

5 thoughts on “Growth in Autumn

  1. Kim Allen

    “The comeback planter kid.” “Blushes” I love your language. If we live 30 more years that would be the same distance as from age 30 to now at age 65. When I realize that, I find the perspective changes on the upcoming years as so much happened in those 30 years. And so that much living and growth can happen in the next 30 years. Autumn gives plants a break from the scorching hot sun but the soil is still warm and cozy for growth. The sun is gentle, the days are still warm, and the more temperate weather gives us energy. “Fall is for planting” our Little York Plantation here proclaims. And so it is for us too! Live your colorful autumn life, varied and textured. You are deserving too! Inspired by you, I will prune and see what pops! BTW, my mom says weeds are just flowers in the wrong place! I smile at your save, as I save “weeds” too.

    1. That weed is so tall, strong, and proud—glad I got to know her!!! I like the idea of fall being a time for planting…and let’s hope we have plenty of time to harvest. It would be sad to plant and not be here for the harvest, but I think it would be tragic to have those thirty years spool out with nothing to reap because I didn’t think autumn was the time to plant!!! As always, Kim, your perspective opens doors…

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