I first experienced fall in 2002, when I came to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville for my graduate studies. I arrived from the flat lands of Bengal where the trees are all woody perennials. There, Autumn comes with a blush only for those quiet and imaginative beings who takes time to stop, and listen to the subtle songs of nature, penetrating a cacophonous city blur. These beings have secretly nurtured a sensitivity to look beyond the green leaves of the trees, to catch the autumn shiver in their fibers and their flirting with the North wind.
East Tennessee was quite a contrast from that familiar canvas. Her unabashed beauty left me mesmerized and imbued with a teenage frenzy that originated from sheer awe. I would spend timeless moments of crimson, golden yellow, and orange, bathed in clear, refreshing sunlight. And soon those colors would fall, tumbling in the wind, alternating pastel shades of gloss and matte, and they would lie supine underneath their creator forming a royal carpet. Soon the water bound within the scaffolding of their cells would release the nature spirit, and the beauty of the structure would be left to further transform with time and wind. Dried leaves of gorgeous shades, whirling in a vortex at the corner of the science and engineering building, is a snapshot in memory ~ crisp sepia magically levitating against a backdrop of lifeless grey concrete.
A physician friend had once explained the science behind the potpourri of vibrant colors in Fall. As life is withdrawn into the roots, chlorophyll, the photosynthetic green pigment in the leaves, disintegrates leaving behind the xanthophyll of various colors. This knowledge contributed nothing to my amusement with the falling colors from above but did incite some thought when I checked the daily international news. I wondered if racial discrimination of color would have existed among humans, if like the leaves, the common green in our human hearts were visible to the human eye. Perhaps, like the green leaves, we just need to be alive, thriving, and connected to each other nurtured by the tree of life.
East Tennessee Fall altered the direction of my life as it transformed my perspective. While watching the leaves fall, I wondered in awe about the leaf’s way of embracing death: being radiant and gorgeous before the final breath, letting go of the attachment to the twigs, and then gliding, ever so softly, riding the chariot of gentle winds, to the ground, where in due course, it would transform to provide nutrition to its source, the tree. As I now remember that experience of joy, the story of a revered master of Indian classical music, comes to the mind. He was travelling by train to a concert with his fellow musicians. In the middle of his journey, he felt unwell and expressed his desire to alight at the nearest station. His accompanying musicians were astonished but they followed him nevertheless. Upon stepping out of the train, he asked his students and musicians to arrange for a performance on the railway platform. He mentioned that he had finally found the perfect pitch that he had been looking for. There, at the train station, after an amazing display of musical virtuosity, he breathed his last with a prayer song on his lips. Another inspiration is the virtuoso Bengali poet Sukumar Roy. He wrote a satire on death from his deathbed at 36 years of age, after suffering for nearly three years from a fatal illness. The essence of his (longer and vivid) poem may be hinted at in the following humbleattempt of yours truly:
Today at the centre of my brain drums beat in tempo of an express train,
Babble rubble blah blah crash my words trip on words’ stash,
Greedy hippos summersault, gymnastics in my stomach’s vault,
Moonshine with primordial soup, butterflies with infinite loop,
Sleep comes with Chaplin’s face, my dream ends, and an amazing grace.
Standing at the junction of life and death, and cracking a literary joke on the mental and emotional states of pain and death is indeed, a divine gift.
Death is a unique moment in life ~ a discontinuity much like the gap between a new inhalation and an old exhalation, comparing a life with a single breath cycle.
I have always been fascinated by the ancient allegory of Nachiketa, the child protagonist who learned the secrets of life from his teacher – Death himself. Looking at the reality of death humbles us, but perhaps there is much more to it. Perhaps it is indeed a secret doorway to understanding the holistic entirety of life. Eastern philosophers propose two classifications of death.
The first is reincarnation, where an individual’s phsychological memory remains alive over time and “hops” from one genetic well (body) to another. According to this process, all of nature is undergoing transmutations, much like countless waveforms arising from and dissolving into an ocean of information, which experiences itself through such countless life stories.
The second is a total dissolution of genetic memory leading to total death, or liberation from reincarnation – known as Nirvana. It dissolves into a void, which these philosophers refer to as the “objective observer” – the ultimate self within which the ocean of information appears and within which thoughts and information of the physical reality can be perceived.
Contemplating on the above scenarios, it becomes clear that death is perhaps a completely misunderstood phenomenon. Death has become synonymous with suffering in modern society – resulting in a massive mobilization of misdirected social energy that creates further suffering for the entire planet. A clearer understanding of the natural process of death, which is so beautifully demonstrated to us by mother nature, will perhaps shift our egotistic narrative of “saving the planet” to “not creating suffering”. Then, perhaps we will indeed be saved from ourselves.
Nature recycles – it does not matter whether we do or not, and nature will recycle us using our minds and bodies as her instruments. So why create suffering as a part of this natural process?
Language is limited by the logic of its grammar and words are devoid of the magic that nature brings through its eternal changes. The only possibility to learn and understand beyond the boundary of words is to observe in stillness. It appeals to me that one of the primary purposes of my life (besides enjoying its Winter, Spring and Summer) is to observe and learn how to embrace Fall when it arrives, and to be able to let go like a leaf, resplendent yet descending to the ground without a struggle. Perhaps through this learning we will be able to find the tree of life that gave us birth, nurtures us, keeps providing me with a personal story, and shall one day let us fall so that we can become it.