Lord: it is time. The summer was immense.
Lay your shadow on the sundials
and let loose the wind in the fields.
Bid the last fruits to be full;
give them another two more southerly days,
press them to ripeness, and chase
the last sweetness into the heavy wine.
Whoever has no house now will not build one anymore.
Whoever is alone now will remain so for a long time,
will stay up, read, write long letters,
and wander the avenues, up and down,
restlessly, while the leaves are blowing.
Autumn Day by Rainer Maria Rilke, Translated by Galway Kinnell and Hannah Liebmann, “The Essential Rilke” (Ecco)
Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem, Autumn Day, gives us insight into the universal wisdom of the Metal Element in Chinese Five Element acupuncture.
“Lord: it is time. The summer was immense. Lay your shadow on the sundials and let loose the wind in the fields.”
Chill winds and rain return to my Oregon home, and faint grey light greets me in the morn. Chestnut and oak trees are still golden with the last flush of autumn color, but every breeze brings more leaves to the ground. Nuts and acorns clatter on the damp pavement with each passing storm, and the musty smell of rotting plant life hangs in the air.
“The summer was immense.”
Summer (the Fire Element) and Late Summer (the Earth Element) are seasons of immense activity and productivity. Hot, sunny days of Summer bring vines and fruit to full size and ripeness. Summer’s heat gives way to the gentler warmth of Late Summer, the harvest season. Nature hums with activity as we take in the bounty. Now, the warmth and sunshine have given way dramatically as the decline of Autumn (the Metal Element) sets in. While we mourn the passing of gentler days, something in us knows, as Rilke says, “It is time.” A new tiredness tells us that the activity and productivity of Late Summer have gone on long enough, and it is time to turn in and rest.
“Bid the last fruits to be full; give them another two more southerly days, press them to ripeness, and chase the last sweetness into the heavy wine.”
Fruit farmers, grape growers and vintners hold out hope for a few more days of sun, yearning to capture the last richness, ripeness and sweetness in the fruit. The harvest is always a race against time, knowing that whatever cannot be taken in and stored will rot in the fields. It is never possible to take it all in, and we grieve what we lose of the bounty. Chinese Five Element theory wisely sees grief as the emotional aspect of the Metal Element.
“Whoever has no house now will not build one anymore.”
In Autumn, everything in nature is letting go and dying back. This is not a time to build a new house — not only your domicile, but also the house of your body and soul. You may not be able to push the body to do what it did a few months ago. You may feel you need more rest. Aches and pains, old depressions may resurface unexpectedly. We become more porous to our inner world. As the leaves fall from the trees and reveal the structure of branch and limb, so too are we revealed. We can no longer distract ourselves with leaf and flower and fruit.
“Whoever is alone now will remain so for a long time, will stay up, read, write long letters, and wander the avenues, up and down, restlessly, while the leaves are blowing.”
Who among us is not alone? To be human is to be alone, even in the midst of community. Paradoxically, we are at once alone and completely interdependent. As the energies of body/mind/spirit turn inward, we contact intimately the only person we can ever truly know, one’s own self. The opportunity that Autumn brings, as the life force moves inward, is to introspect and regain balance with our inner lives. We can realign ourselves through creative work, reflection and spiritual practice.
Nature wastes nothing. The decomposition that happens in Autumn is not pointless destruction. It is part of a cycle. A process of refinement is occurring when dead leaves rot, returning essential minerals and nutrients to the soil. Autumn lays the groundwork for Spring, when the richness in the soil feeds new growth, and the cycle starts anew. The breaking down of old structures into elemental forms happens also in creative process and inner work. The Metal Element within our energies is what allows us to recognize the value and quality of the rich, pure essences existing in the compost of the soul. Break down is disorienting, and we may feel uncomfortably called for a time to “wander the avenues, up and down, restlessly.” Nothing lasts forever, however, and this is only a phase in the cycle of life. Moving through it without resistance, we ready ourselves for new creativity.
References Rainer Maria Rilke, Autumn Day, translated by Galway Kinnell and Hannah Liebmann, “The Essential Rilke” (Ecco) J.R. Worsley, Classical Five Element Acupuncture, Vol. III: The Five Elements and the Officials.