By Payton Hoegh
Autumn has always been a profound feeling for me more than anything else.
Growing up in Southeast Virginia, of course there were the apparent signposts of the season’s approach: colder temperatures and the colorful crunch of orange and yellow leaves. But I always associated this time with a sense of slowing, a steady progression from busyness to rest, of calm and clarity as if the cooling weather were somehow crystallizing time. For me, the pace of the world seems to change in the fall, and gratitude swells in its spaciousness.
This expanded sense of autumn’s gifts has held me in good stead over the past decade as I’ve settled into the ecological rhythms of my home in Southern California, where instead of misted breath in crisp air and fiery-leaved elm, ash, and sycamore trees, we revel in the newly-heard calls of migratory birds, we welcome the rainy season, and we weather the onset of swiftly shortening days. Attuned to subtle markers, ignoring the repeated refrain that, “Southern California has no seasons,” autumn still settles in my soul with that gentle shift of pace and sense.
But not this year.
Even as sandpipers, fox sparrows, and cedar waxwing usher in a reprieve from record-setting heat waves and the onset of sporadic storms, the slowing pace as autumn progresses has been absent. The calm and clarity I associate with the season seems lost in migration. Family emergencies, unexpected illness, global catastrophes, the specter of long-known loss, and steady-simmering anxiety seemed to hold autumn’s gifts at bay.
So, in the grip of this quiet malaise, I drove out to the desert.
Like autumn, the desert holds a special place in my heart. It’s where I go when I need sharp reminders of what poise, resolve, and resilience look like. It offers blunt perspective on how small I am—and how lucky. As the novelist Keith Miller puts it, “A forest is mystery but the desert is truth.”
The day I arrived in the Coachella Valley, I spent the early evening lying in the sand under an appropriately not-quite-full moon. In the wake of a seemingly endless summer of unprecedented heat in Los Angeles, I bundled up in a down jacket I had dug out of a closet, looked up at stars I’d almost forgotten could be seen so clearly, and smiled fully enough to turn wane to wax.
Hiking contentedly through red-dirt and rocks the next day, I found myself beside a bright, pink-thorned barrel cactus. I sat and watched fence lizards scurry shadow to shadow preparing for the coming cold in this harsh landscape. I listened to the persistent trill of warblers scratching through indigo bush with tiny, innumerable, impossibly purple blossoms.
I looked up to a pale, blue sky, an unbroken expanse spilling out of ombre gray mountain ranges, washing the desert in light accentuating every splash of brown, orange, and yellow. I tracked a bird too small to recognize soaring along the horizon. All at once, in the quiet calm of that moment so full of color and life, I felt the onset of the season.
Skin burning under a hot sun, autumn found me in the desert. I felt a wave of gratitude for everything and all. Nothing had changed, but everything shifted.
Words from Denise Levertov’s "Flickering Mind" – a poem we reference often in our programs – seemed to echo in the canyon:
“...like a minnow darts away,
into the shadows, into gleams that fret
the river's purling and passing.
Not for one second
will my self hold still, but wanders
everywhere it can turn. Not you,
it is I am absent.”
How are you experiencing this season? Do you find yourself fully present to its gifts, appreciating the insistent chill, the striking palette of fading chlorophyll and lengthening nights? Have you spent an early evening watching the moon rise and listening to the sound of the remaining insects singing in the dark?
Have you taken a moment to watch wild kin bustling through their winter preparations? Paused to hold a warm mug of tea and breathe in autumn’s call to preparation and nourishment, to both grit and gratitude?
In the coming weeks as many of us celebrate Thanksgiving—and perhaps reclaim the holiday through reciprocity and responsibility for mutual flourishing—let’s hold ourselves still enough to receive the gifts of autumn and share our own in gratitude and graciousness for all.