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Martin: Autumn Leaves


It's hard to not think about autumn leaves if you live in Vermont. After all, every fall our hills and valleys fairly explode with color, creating what a French journalist recently referred to as our little state's "natural fireworks".

When you see Vermont's ridges aflame on a sunny day with the yellows and reds of elders, ash, cherry, and maples, it's also hard to not think of the lyrics of the song "Autumn Leaves" by Johnny Mercer, The falling leaves drift by my window / The autumn leaves of red and gold / I see your lips, the summer kisses / The sunburned hands I used to hold.

Of course, more people are familiar with this jazz standard's melody than its words, but it's interesting to know that this famous song started out as a French poem written by the great Jacques Prévert. While the Mercer lyric is lovely, the original French text reveals that much is lost in translation.

To begin with, only in the Prévert lyric are the autumn leaves a metaphor for lost memories that the narrator is trying to gather up before the North Wind blows them away. And if we accept the literary convention of comparing autumn to middle age, the narrator seems to be trying to summon up a past love before it slips from his memory. So the French version seems to be as much about lost memory as it is lost love. But the Prévert text also forces us to think about the ephemeral nature of love, which, like the seasons, and indeed like all things, eventually fades away. A literal translation of the Prévert gives us something like, But life separates those who love each other / Little by little, without making a sound / And the sea erases on the sand / The footprints of the estranged lovers.

Around this time of year, the foliage has flamed out and the leaf-peepers have returned home. Except for a few stubborn oaks, the fir trees, and the white bark of the birches, the hillsides are mostly a gray scruff now, with only a smudge of color on the forest floor showing through from the fallen leaves. Soon the harvest festivals will be over and we'll be left in late autumn limbo until winter officially starts on December 21st.

There's a natural tendency to take stock now, of the recently departed summer, and perhaps of other seasons gone by too. Fall has its own sort of melancholy, but it can be a sweet sort of nostalgia too. When you think about it, modern life seems to leave less and less room for the sort of reflection that autumn is all about.

Now that the leaves are off the trees and the Octoberfesting is dying down, this may be our best time to turn away from our busy schedules and text messages to take the time to reflect, to think, and even to gather up some poignant memories from the past.

Mike Martin is the Director of Learning for South Burlington School District and a Senior Associate with the Rowland Foundation.
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