Knowing fall and feeling fall are two vastly different things. I never thought much about fall until my first one in New England. We had been in Massachusetts for a few months and the season came roaring into focus and engulfed all of our senses in a blink.
In order to experience a real fall day complete with the brilliance of the foliage, I took the kids down the road to Concord. It was both a learning experience and an overstimulation of the senses. In that part of the country, fall isn’t just a simple transition from summer to winter that is marked by the slow tilt of the Earth, chilled nights, and shorter days. It is an event.
To begin with, the leaves are brighter. The yellows jump from the landscape, exploding from the black towering trunks of trees as old as the fore fathers themselves. The reds and oranges dance over top each other as cool breezes make them flicker like flames. The intermingled massive quilt of foliage simply makes the earth look and feel more alive.
In Concord and the surrounding suburban Boston towns, fall is known as leaf peeping season. Every weekend that time of year, there are throngs of tour buses lining the streets. The buses in Concord line the few blocks of the town and sputter exhaust fumes while weary tourist descend onto the sidewalks. They swell onto the streets to take pictures and move away from the roar of the buses as they search for a place to pull off the road out of sight. Once there with my toddlers for the first time, I fully understood why anyone would take a six hour bus ride north just to breathe in the fall air and let their eyes soak up the colors, once the exhaust cleared that is.
As we crossed the busy streets and turned down corners that have outlined this town long before any descendant of mine thought about coming to this country, the smells became pleasantly overwhelming. There is a whiff of something different at every turn. The smell of apple cider teased us, not the processed simply heat-and-serve stuff out of a plastic gallon jug, but real apple cider. This was the kind of cider that mulled in a kettle for hours, with crispness and sharp clove and cinnamon embroiled in a mix that would warm the soul of any visitor. It was authentic and deep like a fine wine, but with steam swirling from every cup. There was also the smell of earth in the air, not like grass or the faded summer flowers, but of clean and pure dirt. Cool dirt that epitomized the word “earthy”. It was rich in smell and blackness all around, only enhancing the notion of harvest time.
Even though I had lived most of my life declaring summer to be my favorite season, that fall changed all of that, particularly that visit. It was as if all of New England, the world really, had awoken from a sleepy nap and was alive in ways that forced every sense to embrace it. This was the origin of the American harvest, the very land on which the pilgrims had survived and made fruitful with a perseverance and dedication modern generations may never be able to fully grasp. It was where they prepared for what may come when winter would surely roar through the tiny towns. There was still that sense of urgency, to get out there and take it all in before the last leaf fell and the last feast was prepared. There were smiles, burst of laughs and hurried conversations before the great hunkering down that was undoubtedly approaching. The lively streets and smells of Concord on any given fall Saturday captured it all in just a few short blocks.
I loved walking those streets with the kids in part to take in the architecture and history. The grand old colonial homes had been built and loved by the very forefathers we all learn about in school. Two of my absolute favorite homes were the childhood home Louisa May Alcott and the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Both were a stone’s throw from the center of town. Emerson’s home was white and steadfastly outlined in black with a small and dignified fence all around. To me, it served as an anchor between the old world and the new. Cars would whizz past the front door as they left town to drive to the Alewife subway station to Boston. Yet, next to the back door was a large wooden umbrella stand that contained hand-carved walking sticks. Emerson would stop by the stand, pick out a stick and head out the back door to make his way down a trail and spend afternoons with his dear friend Henry David Thoreau. He would check on his friend who was conducting an experiment in living simply by the pond outside of town, Walden Pond. Even then, Emerson was facing a bustling town bubbling with ideas and change while escaping out back to get back to nature. The Alcott house, named Orchard House, was just as alluring to a history buff with an English degree. The house was brown and kind of plain at first, until you walked in and saw the elaborate furnishings, artwork by Louisa’s sister Abigail May, and the massive barn that gave birth to the modern public school system. Louisa’s father, Amos Bronson Alcott was a deep thinker and educator who, along with Emerson and Thoreau, brought the ideas of transcendentalism to light in the early to mid 1800’s. Amos Alcott used his barn to create the Concord Summer School of Philosophy. He was credited with instilling art, music, study of nature, and even recess into the modern school system in this country.
Those revolutionary ideals and the astounding amount of significant literature that sprang from this town and from the grand homes dotted along the town center was unprecedented anywhere else in America. In fact, just up the hill from the town center is Sleepy Hollow Cemetery with Authors Ridge looking down below. That is where you will find the graves of those great minds and others who left their mark on Concord, and America in general.
Just as seasons change, so do ideals and the populace in general. But, Concord somehow exudes a unique blend of the past and future as the town bustles with newness each fall and appreciates and preserves the origins of our country on every corner and at the end of every road. The large lead windows thick with ripples, the wood planks painted the original color to preserve the historical authenticity of the home, and the towering trees that will always change each fall all made me appreciate the effort it takes to change and the energy it takes to preserve the past for generations to come. The enticing smell of warm cider was just an added bonus.