I used to think we could commune with nature, like the way that Ralph Waldo Emerson suggests in his writings on Transcendentalism; that by virtue of simply spending time in it, with ears, eyes, and mind attuned, something spiritual might pass between us and it.
At some point a break occurred, however, and I find the notion of communion with nature increasingly difficult. Indeed, the word that presents itself to me over and over now is ‘indifference.’ Nature is indifferent to us–I can’t seem to shake this feeling, though I want to. I want that innocence of my twenties, when the woods buzzed with mystery; when a gust of cool wind contained echoes of ancient rituals; when the deep red-orange of autumn maples burned with knowledge of species long extinct; when the molecules of magnificent events lingered inside the furrows of ashes, behind the peels of shagbark hickories, or tight against the rippled trunks of beech trees. But now it all seems like mere vegetation–no less beautiful, just void of the visions it once held; no less a fertile ground for the imagination, just no longer offering transcendence.
Perhaps I’ve been reading too much Modernist literature, or perhaps it’s an effect of age. I do miss seeing nature through those younger eyes. Oddly, though, the loss is not all that sad. In fact, it feels pretty natural.
Look at your world. Anticipation hangs round the trunks and low branches of hillside trees. Behind the laboratory, up on the steep slope, which spends its day much in shade now, fall has come. Everyone always guesses at the reason–some say shorter days; others say cooler weather; still others say moisture. Whatever the cause, it begins gradually in mid-August with a shy, suggestive fading of the green, which few seem to notice; then it waits; time must pass–elusive, insomniac time, falling away at the moment we would seize it.
Then on a traffic-addled September morning, one on which time has willfully mobilized against you, bringing tardiness, despite your efforts, and its attendant threat of reprimand, a spray of red pierces the leaf curtain at your left, followed by scattered assertions of pale yellow. A drowsing, purpling vine sways affably from an oak. And for a moment already passed, time was almost a thing to be grasped.
“Now it was a cool night with that mysterious excitement in it, which comes at the two changes of the year.” –F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Fall is my season. Somehow–and this is something I cannot quite put my finger on–the artistic/intellectual interest I developed at a tender age lined up with the changing of the seasons, and autumn took on a significance which has grown steadily in the years since. The whole range of fall’s attributes are attractive to me, from the loss of leaves to metaphysical meditations on the waning season of life. Halloween plays a part, too. The trappings of the Halloween season have sparked my imagination from earliest childhood. In the decorations and colors and allegedly haunted things, I see mystery. And it is mystery that draws me, not evil or gore. It is the mystery of what is behind these things, hidden and nameless, the unknown. Non-creative explanations that anything Halloween-related is evil are not sufficient. That is simply a shortcut to thinking.
Something about this time of year draws me aesthetically, intuitively, and intellectually. The imagery of fall serves as the vehicle for a sense of mystery that will enhance our lives if we let it—a way to hold on to younger sensibilities. There is something inviting about the color orange when it is found in nature, whether on a pumpkin or a leaf–especially orange deepening into red, and its inherent contrast with darkness, such as you see in a sunset. There is mystery in a sunset, a summation of what the day gave us and a curiosity about what the night is bringing, whether that sunset be viewed through the branches of trees or reflected off the backs of ocean swells.
To be honest, I became enamored of both fall and winter, but fall edged ahead on the strength of its sensory accoutrements. For sight, there are the changing leaves and ripening fields. For smell, there are smoky bonfires and pumpkin-scented candles. For taste, there are various hearty, spiced, and sweet edibles. For sound and touch, there are cool breezes bending branches and twirling leaves. The artistic education taking place at that impressionable age merged with the pleasanter aspects of the changes taking place in nature. The exhilaration of a brisk day that whispers of winter–under a lustrous blue sky, with leaves at peak color and twigs barely clinging to their trees–commingled with the elation achieved when a painting from the pages of an Art History textbook would suddenly reveal itself as a thing of complicated beauty. Every year, when this finest of seasons rolls around, my excitable imagination becomes even more so, and I cling to each day in a vain attempt to make it last longer.