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Jack Zaleski, Published October 05 2013

Zaleski: The muted joy of autumn melancholy

Every poll I’ve seen shows most Americans favor fall over other seasons. It’s true in some degree for all regions of the nation, but residents of the North pick fall by larger percentages than Southerners.

The findings also break down by age. In the four-season states, younger people embrace summer. Older people like autumn. Fans of spring and winter are passionate but comparatively few. Winter sports people are a special breed. Fashion-conscious Alpine skiers can be such bores. Ice hockey fans? Let’s not go there.

It’s all quite curious. Given the long, brutal winter in the North, shouldn’t spring and summer emerge as favorites? Does it get better than idylls at the lake; warm July nights under the stars; the delicious feel of the sun’s heat seeping into every pore; the lazy buzz of hot-weather bugs above a breeze-rocked hammock?

Not enough, I guess, to dislodge what I’ve come to believe is the marvelous melancholy of fall. We know the certainty of the arrival of cold weather cannot be modified by fall, even a warm fall. It’s coming with frigid fury. Thus, we lose the melancholy of autumn – the season that blazes with colors of the death of growing things, and at its best can deliver a last few days of blue-sky, sun-kissed zephyrs.

Indian summer, it’s called in some places. Occasionally it’s spectacular, other years it’s a brief tease before a winter-like storm.

I don’t mean melancholy in the debilitating sense. It’s more like saying goodbye to a friend: sad to see autumn swallowed by winter, but OK with the certain knowledge the season of bright leaves and quick change will return next year. Not lost forever, just gone for a while. Not merely a memory to be filed away; rather an expectation to be anticipated as seasons turn, turn, turn.

Maybe that’s why we are so happily seduced by the lore and love of autumn. There is secret satisfaction in sipping a cup of apple cider spiked with melancholy. Call it emotional indulgence that – what? – girds us for winter?

The weekend storm brought cold rain to the Red River Valley, snow to the west. But even as wind-blown torrents soaked the land, autumn stubbornly refused to take on full-color radiance. Lots of green is still hanging in the trees. Ash trees are aflame with bright yellow, the earliest as usual. But the rest have been slow to go maple crimson and aspen gold and oak dusky brown.

Could it be a sign autumn will be long and warm – and give us more time for the muted joy of melancholy?

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at (701) 241-5521.