Amidst Swirling Words & Leaves

Yesterday MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I went “leaf peeping,” which is to say we went out for the sole purpose of looking at the changing fall foliage. In this small and excellent adventure, words became a central part—as they often do for me. Because it’s funny how we use words without thinking (and when I say “we,” let me be clear, it’s the universal “we”). In other words, words and expressions become second nature to our daily life—yet others may have no idea whatsoever what we’re talking about.

And so it was with leaf peeping, which (it turns out) is a bit of a New England colloquialism, something I found out when I told Arizona writer friend Melissa Crytzer Fry we were going out to do some of the aforementioned leaf peeping. Thank goodness for Google so Melissa could figure out what the heck I was talking about. Otherwise she may have thought I was peeping through the leaves to spy on neighbors (although if you recall previous posts, I do that too…).

But my story doesn’t end there. Our leaf peeping travels took us to nearby Bowdoin College where once again I found myself thinking of words. This time older ones, because some years ago Bowdoin College graduated some pretty noteworthy writers: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Turns out these two great literary men (along with Horatio Bridge and Franklin Pierce) were good friends and graduated in Bowdoin’s class of 1825.

Bowdoin College’s Massachusetts Hall 

As we strolled and took photographs, we walked the paths they’d walked. And in addition to the leaves, we peeped the original three buildings that comprised the Bowdoin campus during those long ago years: the chapel, Maine Hall, and Massachusetts Hall (that now houses, appropriately, the English department). While we walked, I thought about words these early writers might have used to describe what we were seeing, and when I got home to my computer, I was delighted to learn that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote a poem about autumn.


Thou comest, Autumn, heralded by the rain,

With banners, by great gales incessant fanned,

Brighter than brightest silks of Samarcand,

And stately oxen harnessed to thy wain!

Thou standest, like imperial Charlemagne,

Upon thy bridge of gold; thy royal hand

Outstretched with benedictions o’er the land,

Blessing the farms through all thy vast domain!

Thy shield is the red harvest moon, suspended

So long beneath the heaven’s o’er-hanging eaves;

Thy steps are by the farmer’s prayers attended;

Like flames upon an altar shine the sheaves;

And, following thee, in thy ovation splendid,

Thine almoner, the wind, scatters the golden leaves! 

And while not all the words in Longfellow’s poem are in common use today—Samarcand, almoner, wain, as examples—the verse is clearly English. Still, the language has changed enough over time that I had to read through it more than once and look up some of the words on Google—just like Melissa when I told her we were leaf peeping—to fully grasp its meaning.

This photo reminded me of the descriptions
in Longfellow’s poem.

All this made me realize that whether by distance of time or geography, words can take on different meanings or at times make no sense at all. Yet as writers this is our purpose and daily endeavor: to take words and make them meaningful, to help them take on a life of their own, and to ultimately help others feel the things we felt when we wrote them.

All in all it was a wonderful day amidst swirling leaves and words: “the golden leaves,” as Longfellow said. And as Hawthorne penned (and I can’t disagree):

“I cannot endure to waste anything as precious as autumn sunshine by staying in the house. So I spend almost all the daylight hours in the open air.”

What are some words and phrases (whether colloquial or from another time or language) that you’ve labored to understand? Do you think by exploring and stretching they make you a better writer—like I do? As for autumn, is it autumn where you are? Or do you live somewhere that you don’t experience the changing seasons at all?



  1. E.J. Wesley says:

    Gorgeous, and jealous. 🙂 Leaves won’t change here until December or January, if they change at all. 🙁

  2. I LOVE this post — for so many reasons (I miss the changing of leaves since I’m in the desert), but I also really enjoyed the way you tied together the changing meanings of words over time with the poetry of the notables who attended the campus where you did your leaf peeping… Loved the imagery of “leaves and words swirling around us.” Brilliant – to go with your brilliant photos!

    I have, many times, been viewed with scrunched up expressions, using my born-and-raised western Pennsylvania colloquialisms (many, specifically, originating in the Pittsburgh area). Do you know what it means to “redd up the house”? Did you know that “down cellar” is a place (as opposed to “take the jars to the basement.” Our area also has some other oddities (made known to me when I went to college in Ohio) — we call Mom “Mum” (not sure where the British pronunciation came from; then there’s “Yinz” – as in you guys). Do you know what a neb-nose (or nibnose) is? A jagger? Then of course, there are things I’ve confused you with, such as: “t-boning” another car.. Ha ha.

    Language is so wonderful for all of those reasons – their changing nature and often multiple meanings. Keeps us on our toes! Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the post and photos, Melissa! Thank you so much for your kind compliments. I think we share that love of words and language — for all the reasons you mentioned. As for the Pennsylvania colloquialisms, I only know one (which kind of surprised me because my grandmother lived very near Pittsburgh in Ohio). She frequently said she was going “down cellar” to do the laundry (on the tub with a wringer believe it or not!). I will turn to Google to check the others out! I am especially curious about neb-nose!

  3. Erika Marks says:

    You Peeped! Good for you! We just got back from a wonderful drive through the beautiful NC mountains and the leaves are on the brink of change–I can only imagine how glorious they are in Maine right now.

    I’ve always loved the phrase “leaf-peepers,” by the way…;)

    • Yes, we’ve peeped and will no doubt do more (believe it or not we’re not peak yet in southern Maine, seems late to me!). I can only imagine how beautiful the NC mountains are; it’s an area I’ve never visited and have seen such absolutely gorgeous photos of. I’m with you on the leaf peeper phrase — so quaint yet vividly descriptive.

  4. Aw, what a lovely post. I love Autumn too, Julia, and I love the term ‘leaf peeping’ – I shall be adopting that now! There are so many words that have stopped me in my tracks, and I can’t let a single one slip through the net. I look up every one in my faithful dictionary or on Google to find its meaning. Having moved from the Midlands, to Yorkshire, to Derbyshire, I’ve also picked up different dialectic words. ‘Offcumden’ is one of my faves, a Yorkshire word meaning ‘not from around here’. I also love ‘nesh’ which I heard first in Derbyshire, which means cold!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it, Abi! And I’m glad you’ll be adopting leaf peeping — let me know if you hear others using it, and we’ll know we’ve influenced language across the ocean 🙂 I know what you mean about moving, and I agree it’s a cool way to enhance/influence our language choices. I love “offcumden” too, that’s cool! In Maine, people use “outer-stater” meaning someone who is not from Maine but is “from away.” Interesting that towns/regions develop ways of identifying people as not one of “us.”

  5. I’ve never heard of leaf-peeping! I expect to see eyes peeking out behind branches. I say things all the time without thinking about where they originated from. I can’t think of anything specific but it’s funny how things roll off the tongue without really thinking about what it means or where it came from. It’s just the way we’ve heard it for so long. I think using various phrases used during a specific time period lends credibility to some historical fiction writing. It gives flavor and spice to the characters.

    It is autumn here as the temperatures have dropped but our trees are hanging on to their green still. I expect that to change this week. Thanks for sharing the pictures in your neck of the woods. Oh look, a phrase I use often and have no idea what it means. 🙂

    • I love the expression “neck of the woods” and use it often — and now you have me wondering where it came from, Hallie! It is amazing how we use things without thinking and I agree it gives characters flavor and spice. What a nice way of putting it! Can’t wait to see some pics of your color changes when they happen!

  6. Oh, I MISS leaf-peeping! The colors were so beautiful in New England in the fall. We get color here if we go up above the Mogollon rim (we like Cottonwood, for foliage viewing), but nothing much in the valley – too hot.
    Regional differences in language are so fun to listen for (and it’s so important for writers). I do recall hearing down cellar while living in the NE, as well as ‘wicked’ having a totally different meaning – kind of like ‘really’.

    • I’m so glad to give you a small sampling of leaf peeping, Cynthia! I remember growing up in Southern California where it was similar to your area and not having any (very obvious) color changes, so I know what you mean about going to a higher elevation. Much like language it changes with region (sheesh, why didn’t I think of *that* when I wrote the post!?)… I’m glad you mentioned “wicked” because it’s something I really noticed when we moved to NE. As in: “You’re wicked smaht.” I remember the first time I heard my son say it (he was ten when we moved here), I thought it was a big milestone!

  7. I wish our leaves were changing here in Texas, but we still have some time to go before that begins–and it goes pretty quickly when they finally do. I love autumn; my favorite season, and Longfellow is one of my favorite poets. What an evocative post. Lovely!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post! And here’s to a slower than usual leaf changing in Texas. I agree, Autumn is a favorite season (although here in Maine, spring is much anticipated…). Have a lovely Autumn, Annie!

  8. Leah says:

    What a beautiful post! Autumn is my absolute favorite season. I love the change is weather and foliage. I do wish I experienced more of it here in California like you do in Maine though. I envy you and your fall outings, and being among nature where Longfellow’s words really come alive. Sigh … one day I’ll make it to the East Coast during fall.

    • So glad you enjoyed the post, Leah! I admit, the fall outings are pretty special, and you would love “leaf peeping season” in the east, I’m sure. We certainly have a bump in out of state traffic during these beautiful days. Here’s hoping for a lovely fall season in California too!

  9. Lovely post. Thank you for sharing the Longfellow poem. Ahhh, autumn…

  10. I found you by way of Melissa Crytzer Fry. Great post – I’ll be back!

    • Hi Laurie, So happy you found my blog via Melissa’s — she’s a wonderful writer friend, and I’m glad she inspired this post. I am happy to meet you and look forward to seeing you again!

  11. What a beautiful post, Julia, both in images and words. It’s barely starting to feel like fall here in Austin, but the leaves are still green (some have gone straight to brown) so I find the pictures you took absolutely breathtaking. It must be like walking through a sun (not as warm, but you know what I mean)! It’s really fascinating to see how place influences the words we use. I’ve learned several new phrases since moving to Texas. Did you know “y’all” is singular and “all y’all” is plural? I’m still trying to wrap my head around it.

    • Thank you, Natalia, so glad you enjoyed it! I’m glad you liked the photos, too. It is incredible when the sun is shining, as you say — brilliant. Someday you’ll have to visit during leaf peeping and have a look! I love the regional differences, too — and I’m so glad you used that example. I always wondered about y’all and all y’all! It is perplexing, though…haha.

  12. I’m hoping to take a leaf-peeping trip one of these years. I do miss the crisp fall days I grew up with, but it’s worth the sacrifice since I don’t have to shovel snow anymore. 🙂 I’m happy to visit the changing seasons.

    We usually get some fall color in our yard (not yet, though) because we have quite a few sweet gum trees. In SD, people call them liquid amber trees. Botanical terms definitely have regional differences and I always find them charming.

    • I know exactly what you mean about the impending snow. That is probably the sole reason I am not as wild over fall as I could be. I am dreading the winter… although it will be a little easier to be cooped up writing! I love the liquid amber trees, so beautiful! I agree, charming!

  13. Every leaf speaks bliss to me, fluttering from the autumn tree. ~Emily Bronte.

    Lovely post, Julia! Now I’m off to eat some delicious apples. 🙂

  14. Lisa Ahn says:

    I love to collect words — my favorites, recently, are “tesselation” and “shambolic”. I think both came from The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce (great book!).

    Check out this RadioLab podcast on Words — I think you’ll love it!

    • I love the words tesselation and shambolic (good ones, I agree!). Thank you also for pointing me in the direction of a great book! As for the radiolab podcast, I will definitely listen soon. I had never heard of radiolab until this week — when first you then another friend both told me about it. So cool!

  15. CMSmith says:

    Another beautiful and enriching post, Julia. I love historical places and walking along where someone famous once trod. We have so little of that here in the midwest. There is a local inn nearby called the Golden Lamb where past presidents reportedly stayed as they traveled through on horseback. But much of our early history here is not about Englishmen, but native Americans, and they left behind little to mark their place and time on this planet.

    You’ve caused me to wonder if I should write a poem. 🙂

    • Please let me know if you do write that poem, Christine! I’m so happy you enjoyed the post and found it inspiring. I’m with you — I love walking the trail of others’ and thinking about how they saw and thought about the same things I’m seeing. The history of the native Americans fascinates me too, and even what little was left behind is so fascinating, isn’t it!?


  1. […] spending more time on social networking in general. I looked back at my autumn post from last year, “Amidst Swirling Words & Leaves,” and not only does it have three photos (taken with a real camera) but it also has a full poem […]