Monday, October 22, 2012

The Dragons of Fall

When the first glimmerings of fall color light up the trees, I tell my children that the dragons of fall have arrived. First, they spend several nights flying over, stirring the cool air with their massive wings, surveying the trees, seeking out the most tantalizing foliage, usually at the very tips of the highest branches. And then, slowly, they begin their work, gently singeing the select leaves with their fire, turning them red, orange, or yellow, depending on each dragon’s temperament. Wouldn’t their fire burn the trees? the children want to know. Ah, but these are the dragons of fall. Their lungs full of frost, they singe with icy breaths. Every night they come, for weeks, starting the first slow fires of color in the trees. They are the smoldering dragons, the catalyst dragons, the ones that get it all started. And sometimes, if you’re up very early in the morning, you might see pools of fog in hollows and valleys—these are the places where, in the pre-dawn, the big dragons, tired from their night of work, take their baths before winging home, and what you’re seeing is the steam from their recent ablutions. If you’re very quiet, you might hear the far-off creaking of their squeaky clean scales as they head home.


During my commute along two-lane roads through rural western Massachusetts, I feast my eyes on color: the fields pebbled over in pumpkins, the roadside stands with their starbursts of mums, wagons piled high with gourds and squash, sugar pumpkins spilling out of bushel baskets, and warty, haggard heirloom varieties piled high in rustic crates. At one quintessential New England church, dazzlingly white against blue sky, orange pumpkins crowd the grass and the front steps, more than a hundred, like a whole congregation flocking to the doors of the church. Every day more leaves change over, and every day I think: today must be it, the most dazzling day of fall, the climax of autumn. And every day, I am astonished anew with more color. This is the time of year when the foliage differentiates itself, the green mass of forest suddenly becoming individual trees, vibrant reds and golds and browns. And in the wild places, the vines that normally blend in so well, secretly, insidiously strangling trees, suddenly have their presence betrayed when their captives redden or yellow in their still-green grip. Sometimes, it’s the choking vine that turns color and is left holding its green prey in a blood red stranglehold.  

After the big dragons have done their smoldering work, the miniature dragons arrive. Known as the spice dragons, they travel in immense flocks that fill the nighttime sky. Descending on the trees, they send out their little jets of fire—no bigger than the flame on a crème brûlée torch—to color the leaves, continuing the work of the big harbinger dragons, the pioneering ones that come first and leave in their wake the first hues of fall, marking the territory, laying out the palette of colors that the spice dragons fill in, leaf by careful leaf, like a paint-by-number. Why are they called the spice dragons? the children want to know. Each flock is responsible for a single color; the cinnamon dragons turn leaves cinnamon brown, the saffron dragons turn leaves saffron yellow, and so on. Flocks of cumin, vanilla bean, nutmeg, coriander, cayenne, paprika, peppercorn, clove, ginger, and sumac dragons crowd the skies. Each imparts only the color, not the scent, of the spice. But the children swear they can catch a whiff of cinnamon walking under the browning leaves of an oak. What about the leaves that are two different colors, green and red? What kind of dragon did that? Those two-tone leaves are created by the tiniest spice dragons of all, the ones who can make barely a match flame of fire. One such tiny dragon can’t color even a single leaf in a night’s work, so it comes back night after night, sending out its tiny licks of flame until the whole leaf is colored.


One night, as I’m putting the children to bed, they demand to know what has become of the moon. I tell them it fell out of the sky so I put it under my bed. How did it fall? The riveting dragons who are responsible for anchoring it in place each night got careless and didn’t put enough rivets in it, and then when the wind blew, it fell out of the sky. Luckily, the nailing dragons who nail the stars into place each night are never so careless, or else we’d have all those sharp stars falling from the sky and walking around barefoot would be hazardous. At least the moon is smooth. Can we go look under your bed to see the moon? Well, it’s pretty dull and lusterless now because it’s early. It won’t really start shining until the middle of the night. The children threaten to peek at it in the middle of the night, but of course they don’t, and the next morning the moon is gone, the space under the bed empty but for a few dust bunnies. All of those moonbeams shooting out from under my bed kept me up all night, I explain, so I returned the moon to the riveting dragons at dawn with an admonishment to use more rivets next time. I told them that I couldn’t keep their moon for them again.  


We walk to visit a nearby three-centuries-old white oak. The children pick up the oak leaves that are just beginning to turn to brown leather. Where do the flocks of spice dragons live? They live in the hollows of ancient trees like this one. Oak leaves are good and sturdy for the dragons’ winter attire. Dragons don’t wear clothes! The miniature dragons do. They sew little suits out of oak leaves and spiderwebs. How else are they going to stay warm in the winter months? Are dragons cold-blooded? They’re lukewarm-blooded, with cold lungs and hot hearts. Do the miniature spice dragons grow into big dragons? The lifecycle of a dragon is a long story, best saved for another day. You know the leaves that are yellow and brown, or red and purple and gold? That happens when two or three flocks of spice dragons join and work together on the same leaf. That’s right, I say. That’s exatly right. My daughter peers into the hole in the old oak, declaring that she can see the passageways into two separate chambers, but no dragons.  


The children cultivate mums and asters on the front porch. We harvest their pumpkin crop—a mere three beefsteak tomato-sized pumpkins—but we bake them, mash the pulp, and make pumpkin bread, filling the kitchen with the scent of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and ginger, the scents of spice dragons. And we dig up the cool fall soil and slip creamy cloves into the ground, our yearly October garlic planting. Eight months from now, in the heat of next summer, we will harvest our fall planting and remember the dragons. 


Are there dragons for other times of the year? Oh yes, I tell my children. Every season has its dragons. Just you wait and see.