Curmudgeons young and old recognize fall as the launching rather than the retirement of the year.

The days don't dwindle down to a precious few, they expand in proportion as the nip in the air sends our fair-weather friends nipping inside, leaving room in the world for those of us who regard it as natural to be soaked or frozen.

Autumn is easily the finest of the seasons. Summer tends to be dull and winter tends to be excessive. Spring is full of promise; but fall delivers.

Consider the wood ducks, how they go: If they make it through the winter, they come into spring lean and ragged and required to make both love and new feathers when what they really need is something to eat. If they find a suitable woodpecker den to nest in, and if the eggs hatch before a raccoon gets them, and if the ducklings make it to the water before a fox gets them, they spend the summer watching turtles and snakes snap up one baby after another.

Comes fall, though, and the woodies and their surviving offspring have no further duty but to get fat. They loll along the river-banks, enjoying the sparkle in the air and the pleasant coolness of the water. They don't even have to get out of the pool to feed, because Mother Nature mails them more acorns than they can eat from the overhanging oaks.

First frost rings down the curtain on the insect world but begins the mammal's tunr. It is the signal for hikers and hunters to get out and get going. No longer harried by chiggers and mosquitos and biting flies, they have the glories of the turning leaves and then the vistas of the open woods when the foliage has fallen. The evenings are brisk enough to jutify a campfire, the nights cold enough to make a sleeping bag a luxurious necessity.

Farmer and wild forager alike sing a song of harvest home as nuts, fruits, seeds and berries rain upon the earth in quantities sufficient to sate the most voracious creature. Only the overcivilized are led to melancholy by the thought that lean times follow; for the good of all it is necessary that some must keep away the winter, some must be sacrificed to sustain others, and some must starve.

In autumn many birds go drab, muting the mating colors that would make them too conspicuous to predators in the time of bare branches and sere marsh, but the mammals put on their finest coats in celebration of the abundant season. Bucks polish their antlers and prance foolishly through the woods, does dress up in bright sleek coats to receive them, fawns shed their spotted sunsuits for the long hair proper to a yearling's estate. Beavers, solemn and busy as always, mix strands and tufts of ratty summer fur into the mud as they rig up their lodges against the day when ice takes over the ponds. The improvident otters, secure in the knowledge that cold fish will be even easier to catch, leave their traces of castoff fur on the muddy slides where they sport away the easy time.

Color dominates the fall, but the finest part of the show comes after the leaves have gone. The eye will tire of a blazing woods, but never of the more subtle hues and shapes that follow. The bones of a tree have as much beauty as its foliage, and more character. Infinite shades of brown and gold in a meadow, highlighted her eby an evergreen shrub and there by a redwing blackbird or a bright berry, are reason enough to while away a full afternoon. The marsh yields new tones almost every day as the grasses decline in the cold, fray in the wind and bleach in salt spray and sun.

The shape of the earth is seen. Our little Eastern ridges flaunt their peaks and flanks, so that we can almost be fooled into thinking them mountains; rivers redefine themselves as their banks are revealed; the features of the fields reappear as the grain is reaped and stored away.

The night air is rich with leafsmoke, and later will be clear enough to remind us that there still are stars. Other nights bring storms, perhaps the fringes of a hurricane, that batter the fields and shatter the woods and drive us gratefully indoors.