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Autmn begins her state visit

Autumn officially begins this weekend, a concept which has always amused me. I see Autumn, dressed on gold and orange and flaming red, standing patiently at Customs, waiting to have her passport stamped before she is allowed to "officially" arrive. We know her better, capricious being that she is. She is far more likely to slip under the cordon early, trailing fallen leaves and hurricanes in her wake. She is just as likely to hang back and let that hound dog of summer enjoy a few more weeks in the sun, hot and lazy and sleeping on the front porch.

What do those in Wyoming, already eyeing the snow pack for skiing, think when Autumn "officially" begins?

"Well, shucks, we remember Autumn," the cowpokes drawl. "It was that Tuesday afternoon, right after the last wildfire and ten minutes before the first snowfall."

Seasons seem to have there preferred home stations. Spring is Hawaii, eternally temperate, eternally blooming. Winter is South Dakota, where hot coffee freezes as it is tossed out of the cup. Summer is the South, of course, serenaded by katydids and framed in Spanish moss.

But Autumn seems to belong to New England, where she comes first and stays the longest, and dresses in her very best.

Way down here, we are treated to a state visit every now and then, very grand and glorious. Ignoring the calendar and the "official" beginning, Autumn has already begun her tour of the South. Driving to Tennessee last weekend, I witnessed the signs of her impending visit, as the leaves began a subtle shift from deep green to gold. Near Birmingham, there were hints of brownish rust hidden in the green, but by the time I reached Huntsville, gold was brazen, gilding a few leaves in almost every tree, framed by shadows of orange and red.

"She's coming, she's coming," the colors announced, like heralds running before the retinue.

The air was a touch cooler up there, and there was a difference in the taste and feel of it - a sense of expectancy and excitement. Something is about to happen, something is about to change, Autumn is on her way. She brings cool nights, squirrels dancing and digging in the dry leaves, Jack-o-lanterns, and the tart scent of apples. She brings the sudden, startled snort of a buck in the field, and the lonely cry of the geese. She brings harvest festivals and Thanksgiving prayers and a sweet farewell to Summer.

Yes, Autumn officially arrives this weekend, but only if she is in the mood.

Of course, it isn't always sunshine and cider when Autumn arrives. Hurricanes swirl behind her skirts. Frost nips back the colors of the gardens, lest they compete with the colors of the trees. When the sky isn't the deep, deep blue of October, it is the sullen pewter of November. Rains come and warmth goes and the only reminders of day trips to the beach are the shells on the windowsill, the sand wedged in your tennis shoes, and a fading tan.

The days grow shorter and the nights, not only longer, but darker – as if we can feel winter hovering in the shadows, waiting its turn. Old aches and pains which had been baked away by the summer sun now come back with the first hard bite of cold weather and all of those mildly irritating allergies evolve into colds or worse.

But it is my favorite season, nonetheless. I grew up on horseback, and in the fall, a hot and tired pony acts like a frisky young colt again, picking its feet up a little faster and spooking at the dead leaves which skitter across the road like Halloween 'haints'. My friends and I were Autumn's handmaids, ushering her in with cowboy whoops as we galloped across our neighbor's lawns. We picked apples right off the trees and ate them as we rode into the cool evening light. The horseflies and mosquitoes were gone and hot chocolate waited for us at the end of the ride.

We didn't need a calendar to know when she had "officially" arrived. Like all wild, young things, we simply knew.