Autumn is one of the hinge seasons of the year, a turning from summer to winter through the slow process of maturation, fruitfulness and letting go. As a boy I helped my dad run a market garden sized greenhouse, growing and selling pot plants, many of them grown from cuttings. The compost was home made, a combination of soil (often collected from molehills in the spring), river gravel from the Nith, peat and finally leaf mould.
The leaf mould came from one of the woods within walking distance of our cottage, that layer of rich, rotted humus accumulated over years and years of shed leaves, which felt like the richest pile carpet you ever walked on. With a hessian sack, a small riddle and a pair of old leather gloves I would happily go and collect a bag of leaf mould, riddled under the branches of beech, lime, oak, sycamore, elm and rowan trees. The smell of rich composting vegetation still creates for me images of a boyhood spent in fields, woods, by riverbanks, hills and small lochans.
This time of year is an evocative month or two when, despite all the changes to the countryside, I walk in a state of moderate wonder-looking, or in the words of John's Gospel, 'beholding', 'gazing' and 'contemplating', the range of colours in trees on the turn. Leaf mould is a benevolent legacy, a gift from previous years, a store that nourishes and gives life beyond its own life. Each autumn, another downpayment to the fertility of our earth and its soil. One of the lessons learned in boyhood, but not realised till later life is the slowness and hiddenness of those layers of leaves, gently decaying into a medium for new life.
In my mind perhaps a similar process takes place. Ideas that years ago seemed so gripping, real and certain, mellow into a maturing compost of thought, memory, experience and a restfulness no longer needing such gripping certainty, and content with a wondering thoughtfulness I take to be wisdom. Not the resignation of 'all passion spent', as if nothing mattered much any more. Rather, an intellectual steadiness and spiritual humility that looks on the world not as a competition to be won, but a game to be played, a play to be performed, a score to be improvised using as much of ourselves and our gifts and our hard learned skills as we can bring to it.
It's over half a century since I went for sacks of leaf mould. I trust that over those intervening decades my thoughts and feelings, ideas and emotions, decisions and choices, words and silences, tears and actions, have settled like falling leaves onto the compost that is my life. And year on year that topsoil supplemented by the rich materials of a life lived so far as grace and love allow, towards God.