Autumn is my favorite season. Always has been. Sadly, I now live in a climate (southern California) that has only the faintest glimpse of any seasonal changes. Fall in L.A. means the Emmys, a new television season, and USC football. Weatherwise, it might mean a freak thunderstorm and a few random trees changing color. But it is not Autumn in the beautiful Midwestern sense of the word.
The Autumn I know is full of indelible sights, smells, and memories. It is football games in crisp October nights. It is pumpkin patches and hayrides and the smell of wheat harvest and burning leaves. It is wicked cold fronts that bring thunder and sometimes snow, with gusty winds that reduce summer plumage to naked boney limbs. It is hot spice punch, pumpkin pie, fireplace embers, dark nights at the state fair, cold mornings at the bus stop, and toasted salty pumpkin seeds.
In honor of this wonderful season, so happily melancholy in its spirit of change and decay, I’ve decided to experience it vicariously by listing 20 of the best embodiments of autumn in art and literature.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (book) by Washington Irving
Nothing says autumn like Halloween, and no Halloween is complete without this creepy New England goth tale by Washington Irving. The film version by Tim Burton is kinda ridiculous (albeit fun), but the book is a gorgeous autumnal horror story wherein a headless horseman stalks innocent rural villagers with pumpkins! I’ll always associate fall with the crisp, slightly haunted woods of Sleepy Hollow.
Late Autumn (film)
This film by Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu is less about the physical manifestations of the season as it is about the spiritual essence of Autumn as it relates to our own life-cycles (i.e. growing up, moving on, breaking away from the past). A beautiful and profound meditation on impermanence.
Autumn Landscape (painting), Van Gogh
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (classic TV special)
I watched this classic Halloween special (which debuted in 1966) every year growing up. What can I say? It’s one of the best animated holiday specials ever. American Halloweens and Autumns have definitely been immortalized (and shaped) by this moment in classic pop culture.
Ohio (album), Over the Rhine
I’m inclined to call this the best album of all time (period.), but for now I’ll just say it’s the best album for Autumn. Over the Rhine’s double disc opus has the heart of a Midwestern folk journey through the apple valleys of Michigan to the wheatfields of Iowa, and of course the meandering backroads of Ohio. It’s all so very pastoral, and yet unsettled—like the low pressure air before a Canadian cold front brings the first snow.
Cold Mountain (book) by Charles Frazier
I’m not sure why this novel feels so quintessentially Autumn-like to me… maybe it’s because seasons and the changing of them are so central to the mood of the book. And harvesting crops on the farm, getting hands dirty, preparing the homestead for winter in the Blue Ridge mountains… All of it evokes the smoky evanescence of this beautiful time of the year.
Autumn Morning (painting), Atkinson Grimshaw
All the Real Girls (film)
This wonderful film by director David Gordon Green embodies Autumn both visually (the film’s color palette is orange, red, brown, and yellow) and thematically. It’s a story about the end of a young romance (like a summer fling), the pains of growing up, and the essential place of decay and renewal in the cycles of life.
“Autumn Day” (poem), Rilke
I’ll just quote it:
Lord: it is time. The summer was so immense.
Lay your shadow on the sundials,
and let loose the wind in the fields.
Bid the last fruits to be full,
give them another two more southerly days,
press them to ripeness, and chase
the last sweetness into the heavy wine.
Whoever has no house now will not build one anymore.
Whoever is alone now will remain so for a long time,
will stay up, read, write long letters,
and wander the avenues, up and down,
restlessly, while the leaves are blowing.
Football movies are the logical choice for films about fall, but Hoosiers is a basketball film that I’ve always associated with Autumn. Maybe it’s the wonderful scene with Gene Hackman and Barbara Hershey working together in the cold Indiana field at harvest time (you can almost smell that “burning grass/leaves on the plains” smell), or maybe it’s just that fall means the onset of basketball season for those of us with perennial high hopes.
Sea Change (album), Beck
This is the ultimate break-up album, but even if you’ve never gone through a painful transition in love, you’ve surely gone through several in life. We all face sea changes, and it’s hard. Beck captures the moods and melodies of a swiftly changing, turbulent world—and it feels like a perfect companion to a cold November day when wind and ice and falling leaves swirl around outside.
Autumn on the Hudson (painting), Cropsey
“September Song” and “September Baby” (songs), Willie Nelson and Joseph Arthur, respectively
Two songs about the month when summer fades and time claims its memories. From Willie: Oh it’s a long long while from May to December / But the days grow short when you reach September. And from Joseph Arthur: You can feel the falling leaves / Filling up our vacant lives.
Sounds of Silence (album), Simon & Garfunkel
A lovely soundtrack to Autumn. From the first haunting lines of the album (Hello Darkness my old friend…) to the mediation of time that is “Leaves That Are Green” (Time hurries on / And the leaves that are green turn to brown / And they wither with the wind / And they crumble in your hand) everyone can relate to this 1966 classic.
Days of Heaven (film)
Yes, this is a film by Terrence Malick (who most of you know, is my favorite filmmaker). But its inclusion on this list is solely on the merits of it being a great film about fall—specifically, harvest. The photography in this film—the yellow hues and burnt browns of ripe wheat and husking farmers—is simply stunning.
( ) (album), Sigur Ros
This album may be about the fire and ice of Bjork’s homeland (Iceland), but its beauty transcends specificity—evoking the more general majesty that is our dynamic, tumultuous planet.
Autumn Moon (photograph), Ansel Adams
The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place (album), Explosions in the Sky
In Autumn, one might be inclined to say that the earth IS a cold dead place, but this is of course absurd since we all know that Spring will come eventually. Fall is a season of transition—and its death is always haunted by new life. Explosions in the Sky capture the raucous dynamics of an earth that is very much alive, even in its most subdued moments.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (album), Wilco
This landmark album from Chicago band Wilco is the ultimate musical embodiment of disintegration. The album tows the line between pristine pop melodies and discordant noisemaking, before eventually descending into an all out breakdown. It’s an album about beauty being changed into something less harmonious, but ultimately just as beautiful.
Friday Night Lights (film and television show)
Both the film and television series (and book, I suppose) are about much more than football. They are mediations on life and its changing seasons—and about the unquenchable desire to live in the proverbial “golden days.” Every time I watch the film I think back to when I was a kid, attending Friday night football games in Jenks, Oklahoma, with the lights and hotdogs and marching bands and crisp autumn air blowing over from the sandy banks of the Arkansas River.