Have you noticed the light changing? It’s the best thing about autumn. In midsummer, and even well into September, the sun bleaches everything in sight. The sky will be milky-white, rarely blue, even on a cloudless day. There’s a hard, brassy shimmer to the air.
Come October, though, and the light softens. It starts to angle in, instead of pouring down. Walk out now any late, clear afternoon and the sun will be acting like a medieval illuminator, daintily gilding the scene, not blasting it like a fellow with a blowtorch. Welcome to the subtle season.
While the effect is magical, it is not magic, just plain old science, at work. As everyone will recall from their school days, the sun is higher in the sky in summer than it is in winter because Earth’s rotation axis is tilted relative to the plane of its orbit. Starting at the autumnal equinox, the sun rides lower and lower in the sky, and its rays are spread over a larger area. In short, they slant. It’s all just physics — or maybe geometry, a trick of changing angles — but the aesthetic effect could not be more striking. As any photographer can tell you, sideways light flatters most.
The odd thing is, the emotional effect is just as striking. People are demonstrably happier in autumn. As the light turns softer, the sky bluer and the air cooler, moods seem to brighten. People step more lightly. What is odd about it is that it goes against the conventional wisdom. Haven’t we spent our lives being told that autumn is the season of melancholy? The poets are the worst, always looking for the dark side: “In the autumn fields so bare, so bare,/ A lonely bird pecks rice.” Even the nice mellow light gets a bad rap: “Gentle as my dead friend’s hand/ Resting on my shoulder,/ This autumn sunshine.”
Oh, please. We think it’s time to come to the season’s defense and point out that autumn sunshine is a gift from the gods, along with tart apples, big orange pumpkins and sweaters, not an excuse to get all funereal. Most people already realize this. It just needs to be official. Poets?
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