[Cover photo: the garden gate decked out in autumn splendor]
Mabon is the pagan term for the Autumnal Equinox, the first day of Fall. Also known as “the Witches’ Thanksgiving”, Mabon coincides with the peak of the harvest season. Libra’s Full Moon is termed “the harvest moon”, so-named because before the advent of electricity farmers would work late into the evening, lighted by its yellow-white luminescence, to gather their crops as quickly as possible, before the weather turned sour or they spoiled.
Fall is my favorite season: the colors, scents and flavors, all of it! I love the tang of cider, both fresh and hard, the smell of cinnamon, the burnt orange blare of pumpkin, the sweet ooze of maple syrup, the honk of migrating geese. Yes, Autumn is the pick of the year for me, with Halloween of course providing the peak excitement of the period.
But weeks before then, as each successive tree and shrub sheds its drab summer green and adapts to its autumnal splendor, I track the gradual emergence of the season. Sumac is one of the first harbingers, turning a vivid orange-red by the roadside as August’s canary-bright goldenrod fades, giving pride of place to white stiff aster, with its dramatic sprays of delicate white, yellow-centered blossoms; showy, pale lavender Michaelmas daisy, one of my favorites; and fluffy white snakeroot, a staple of the autumn shade garden.
Before long, maples are coloring, in hues as varied as the rainbow, from pale yellow through orange, rust, red and even purple; birch’s medium yellow joins beech and locust to provide the season’s dominant color palette backdrop, augmented by luxuriantly glowing yellow poplar and bright sunburst hickory, punctuated by rusty-red oak and burgundy-brown dogwood. The woods become a kaleidoscope of color, painting the country lanes and shading roadside stands where autumn produce overflows.
Colors there are just as diverse and dramatic, with pumpkins, squash and gourds in all shapes and sizes, shaded in red, orange, yellow, cream and white, even green, pink, blue and gray. Smooth squash, lightly or deeply grooved squash, knotted, warty squash, the choices seem endless! Indian corn so dappled with color it looks like a box of crayons; sprigs of orange and yellow bittersweet, bunches of asters and mums. Many of these are decorative harvests for display only, but the range of edible produce available is staggering: apples in every conceivable color and flavor; pears, grapes, broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, even late tomatoes and autumn greens like curly endive and kale.
Here on the property autumn is always heralded by the birches, which change their colors and shed their leaves earliest. But there’s a growing coterie of smaller shrubs and perennials which sport brilliant fall color: hydrangea in tones of red to deepest burgundy; scarlet hardy geraniums; chokeberry in red-orange foliage and dogwood with its pinkish-red oval lobes; Maximillian sunflower turns a rusty purple-brown. The open-air floor show doesn’t typically get underway here until September is well advanced, but indoors preparations begin as early as the first week of August, as boxes of fall decorations are reclaimed from the basement, disgorging loved treasures from years gone by.
The Fall Collection (does that make me sound like Christian Dior?) is principally about three things – colored leaves, pumpkins or gourds and scarecrows. But there are a variety of smaller themes within the collection, including apples, squirrels and acorns, Indian corn, owls and crows.
First step, as in any season, is to set up the backdrop. In this case we’re talking leaves – forests of leaves! I have dozens of garlands of silk leaves in several tones of maple, oak, beech, gum, and poplar, not to mention floral branches, bushes, and even single leaves, which are actually the very last element to be placed, strewn atop pumpkins and gourds and tucked into corners and edges where a full floral piece wouldn’t fit, but just a leaf or two completes the look.
But the rest of the leaves go down first, as borders for doors, shelves, book cases and display cabinets; liners for tabletops, flat surfaces and beneath end tables; filler for piles of pumpkins and baskets of apples. With the leaves go the lights – some are just strings of orange LEDs, others are mini white lights with glow-through plastic covers in the shapes of pumpkins and scarecrows attached. Over the decades I have collected so many different styles of these that they form a unique collection in and of themselves. This year, after placing what I needed in the usual spots, I realized just how many pumpkins I had left unused, in all sorts of shapes and sizes, “carved” with faces or pristinely whole. So I took a new 50-bulb orange light strand I had twined through the largest fall farm scene, and added them to it – when I was done, just 8 bulbs remained bare!
Yep, that’s LOT of novelty lights!
I used to enjoy two real corn shocks indoors, but they had become rather tattered over the years, so I parted ways with them when I moved this spring. I still use the old authentic bushel baskets and haybales, however, and I placed these at critical focal points, ready to be filled or mounded to overflowing.
Each collection can be further divided by size, from larger-than-life to life-size and minis. The life-size cucurbita collection (meaning all types of pumpkins, squash and gourds) numbers approximately 200; there are no larger-than-life elements to his season, but the minis comprise about 500 individual pieces. All artificial. The materials used to create these vary widely: plastic, Styrofoam, raffia, wax, wood, paper, papier-mache, resin, metal, glass, china, terracotta and ceramic. I even have one pumpkin made from a coconut, and a trio cast in cement! I also dried out some purchased gourds, many years ago, then when they had faded to straw-colored maracas, painted them to revive their natural coloration. Many of these remain in the collection after decades (though sadly many more were lost in the recent basement flood).
Placing and positioning the larger of these is the next step in the process, as vital to creating the illusion of nature brought indoors as the leaves (the smaller elements will be added toward the end of decorating, as accents and fillers lending additional authenticity). With the backdrop completed, it’s time to lay out the core elements of the collections themselves. Their display comes in two main forms – a collection of like pieces gathered together, and a scene created by combining disparate elements.
There is some overlap in the collection distribution; not every owl is on an owl shelf, for example. But in the main, like goes with like. So there are groupings of owls, acorns and squirrels, crows and scarecrows. There are further subdivisions based on form or function, such as hinged boxes being grouped together, whatever their individual autumnal theme; and ceramic pumpkin-shaped lidded food storage vessels clustered side-by-side (usually filled with cookies and candies of the season, unfortunately for my waistline).
For autumn there are just two primary scenes (unless you count the life-size pieces as a representation of a farm-stand brought indoors, in which case the whole house is a scene!). The smallest of these is a collection of mini pieces, 1-3” tall, which mimics an Amish farm, cider house, barn and farm-stand. There are approximately 100 pieces in this collection, which covers two bookcase shelves and includes buildings, people, animals, trees, fallen leaves and fruits and vegetables of the season, all in scale. The backdrop for this scene is a pair of plastic placemats taped upright to the back of the shelves, of a farm and country scene in a primitive, almost Grandma Moses style.
The other collection is on a larger scale, though still much smaller than real life, and has no buildings or “people”, per se. It’s a pumpkin patch and farm-stand run by scarecrows. There are bins of pumpkins and squash being filled, mounds of gourds being assembled, and apples and cider for sale. The trees that border this scene are either purchased craft trees or actual dried branches from my own trees, embellished with meticulously glued miniscule colored leaves on each twig. Virgo Moon talking here – I can be a bit detail-oriented, not to say obsessive!
The backdrop for this scene is an actual oil painting of a wooded fall landscape, which was a wedding present for my parents in 1956. I’ve always liked it, but didn’t want to display it permanently due to its highly seasonal nature, and I hit upon the idea of propping it up against the wall behind the display table for this collection, and then clustering my trees close about it as though they are emerging from the painting.
Other shelves and surfaces are covered with minor collections (I have a squirrel-themed tabletop lamp which used to anchor the squirrel and acorn collection, but has had to find a new home, illuminating the hinged box collection in the hall, due to the space restrictions of the new place). Crows are clustered on the corner cupboard that had been my grandmother’s, along with a few more of their nemesis scarecrows (which already have two full shelves devoted to them in addition to those resident in the farm-stand scene). Squirrels and acorns now congregate on an occasional table that bisects the space in front of the couch, effectively turning it into a two-seater. A few life-size resin pieces of seasonal wildlife fill the last bookcase shelves in the living room, while seasonal-themed mugs, glasses, plates and serving ware adorn the dining room hutch.
The rest of the house gets its autumn make-over as well. Right down to the bedroom where rust-red sheets are covered with a fall leaf-patterned throw. My father left behind several taxidermy pieces, among them a black squirrel mounted on a fence post, and a ruffed grouse about to beat its wings. These are displayed year-round on the china cabinet and an antique drop-leaf desk, while I change their “dressing” seasonally. In autumn I add pumpkins and gourds, leafy branches and garlands, a basket of apples and a set of orange lights with pumpkin and scarecrow covers. The glass of the cabinet is covered with clings of fall leaves, something else I rotate seasonally. The bathroom mirror is adorned with orange lights and leaf garland, while the shelf above the commode houses my collection of terracotta pumpkins. More fall-themed dishware is displayed on a full bookcase in the hall, while the half-case beside it is topped with the porcelain hinged box collection and that squirrel light.
Outside I don’t need to add much to what the season itself provides. Fresh potted chrysanthemums stand atop the sand mound in the new, previously empty, bed. In tones of yellow, orange, rust, red and purple, these are hardy and promise years of enjoyment once they are planted in the soil. The marigolds which I started late from seed have now come to full flower, their rusty yellows and oranges a perfect accompaniment to the season. If we’re spared a heavy frost, these might continue blooming through Thanksgiving, providing many lush bouquets to enjoy indoors. “Autumn Joy” sedum is past its mature flush of bloom, but still lovely, deepening to a burnt pink-burgundy.
A stack of successively smaller pumpkins brightens the front porch; the topmost is a new yellow varietal aptly termed “Sunshine”. The garden gate area needed a special treatment, being the most visible from the street, just off the driveway. So I dragged out an old scarecrow friend who hasn’t been outside in decades; made of parachute material and stuffed with plastic grocery bags, he’ll be quite comfortable there for many autumns to come.
I acquired a new bunch of corn shocks and a couple larger haybales than those inside, and heaped pumpkins, gourds, squash and Indian corn on and about them. My Michaelmas daisy volunteer just happened to come up there, a perfect spot, and just so it doesn’t feel lonely, I added a potted yellow mum and a blue aster. More Indian corn is hung on the gate itself, whose posts are each topped with a mini orange pumpkin, and two solar-powered spotlights illumine the scene for evening passersby.
Before long the tree coloring will become general, and there are trips to the Poconos, just five miles north of me, to plan, farm stands to visit, local cider to quaff, and local produce to cook. There’s still a venison roast or two in the freezer from my father’s last kill, but for now, my Mabon Feast is limited to two courses, at my solitary, covid-limited table.
First course is a salad I used to make for the full menu when I entertained extensively in Philadelphia. It’s a combination of curly endive, Seckel pear, smoked gouda, aged cheddar, and almonds, drizzled with a caraway and cider vinegar dressing. The second course is a thick, creamy potato soup with roasted garlic and rosemary; this year I added country sausage to make it more substantial, since it won’t be followed by the traditional pork roast, mashed potatoes with caramelized onions, dried corn and brussels sprouts with bacon. That was a feast indeed!
But of course there’s still dessert! This year I adapted my grandmother’s white crumb cake recipe, adding cinnamon and clove, then swirling the batter with apple butter made from Honey Crisp apples, my favorite. It bakes up moist and flavorful, a fitting end to an attenuated fall culinary celebration.
And all the while, as autumn increases its grip on the land, as fall decorations are placed, fall foods bought and cooked, and fall colors begin to shine, I can’t help thinking ahead. Halloween, and the highlight of my year, is just around the corner…