This morning, the sky’s autumn blue was the richest I’ve seen so far this year–electric-looking, stung with freshness. It was a morning in which I’d like to have been hiking. The word “brisk” comes to mind (if we can separate it from mega corporate-peddled iterations of iced tea). Yes, I’m reclaiming “brisk,” taking it back from convenience store shelves and returning it to the kinds of things it used to describe, like walks on chilly mornings, or breaths that tighten and tickle the lungs. I acknowledge I may be out-of-touch with consumer trends. If the word “brisk” conjures in my mind bottles and cans of iced tea, then I may be the one with the problem and not the consuming public or the marketing and advertising firms that promote the brewed (hopefully) beverage (I envision machines mixing water with a patented “tea syrup” in giant vats, with tasters on the side determining the degree to which the substance mimics iced tea). Is Brisk Iced Tea still around? I guess my next trip into a gas station might answer this burning question, which I truthfully don’t really care to know the answer to, if I’m being honest. I don’t care. This is just the direction this blog happened to go.
It’s clear to me now, though, that the problem is at least partially mine. Maybe on some level, it’s society’s problem, but I’ll just own it for now: I resent the way companies hijack legitimate words for the purpose of making money. Like “monster” and “wrangler.” I guess the logophile in me resents that consumer products come to mind when those words are used, often before their original meanings come to mind. I know–first-world problem. But culture hinges on language, and associating a word with a mass-produced beverage before associating it with what it actually signifies has a way of easing us up the slope and into the shallow end, intellectually speaking.
This very blog is an example of how this phenomenon works. All I wanted to do, when I wrote the first sentence of this post, was praise the quality of the autumn sky’s blue. I found it inspiring. It had been cold when I was walking outside, but it was that sunny kind of cold that seems more palatable than the cloudy kind, so I was inclined to find it invigorating rather than uncomfortable. And the intense shade of blue that served as a backdrop for the trees struck me as a uniquely autumnal thing–particularly late autumn, when trees are almost bare but a few orange-brown oak leaves still stubbornly cling. And what’s the perfect word to describe a cold, invigorating breeze? You guessed it: brisk. Except when I landed on that word, I also landed on the idea of that rather unsavory form of tea that exists in bottles on convenience store shelves and in twelve-packs of cans in grocery stores. It then became difficult to separate the meaning of “brisk” from the marketed product that bears that same word as its name. But it didn’t stop there. Soon, one of the beverage’s slogans came into my consciousness: “That’s brisk, baby!” Except it’s not! It’s high viscosity tea syrup in a can, and tastes of chemicals and artificiality. I’m not a fan.
Before sunrise this morning, there was a briskness which I breathed deeply. It reminded me of fall. Late fall, to be exact. Maybe even post-Halloween, when temperatures surprise you with their lowness. The kinds of temps which, in Tennessee, one doesn’t expect until December. I worried my flannel-shirt-and-hoodie combo wouldn’t be enough, but I also knew the temperature was going to rise at least twenty degrees, and I was only going to be outside from the garage to the car.
When I rounded the back-left corner of my RAV4, moving to the side where no light from the house reaches, a pale sliver of white—incorporeal-seeming in the pre-dawn black—scurried off soundlessly down the grassy alley formed by ours and our neighbor’s fences. It was as if a fuzzy rectangle of moonlight had freed itself from the ground and broken into a full sprint. I decided it must be a rabbit. We know they’ve birthed at least two litters in the backyard, if nests found while mowing count as evidence. Once on a separate night, I walked out into the backyard and was startled, as something apparently alive shot off in a blur from the shadows behind my boys’ swingset. This, too, had to have been a rabbit.
The odd thing, however, is that despite all evidence these dark encounters were with rabbits, I still felt that little rush of a touch with the unknown, because I couldn’t see them well enough to make a positive identification. On both occasions, all I could sense were fast movements and pale blurs. Perhaps a primordial fear of the supernatural tried to overcome my good sense, but I resisted it by telling myself they were only rabbits. Or perhaps the unseasonably cold temperature had me in a spooky frame of mind, mentally somewhere in the vicinity of Halloween, which is a place I tend to hang out anyway.
Flitting, twirling, and fluttering are words used to describe what leaves do in a strong wind. But not only are these terms limited and worn from overuse, they’re a bit dainty. They could just as well describe a ballerina. By contrast, what happens to leaves in November is more violent: the ones still clinging to their branches undergo quite a thrashing.
Yet any alternative description I can muster is either too wordy or inaccurate: thin, dry wafers oscillating on threads (Wafers? that’s not right; oscillating? too grandiose.); medallions spinning and flashing (too clunky and metallic, though a little poetic); ripples baring their pale undersides at lightning speed (awfully wordy and more suggestive of water). But these are leaves I’m talking about! All my metaphors imply something other than leaves. Do you see the challenge here?
Writing creatively about wind in trees is hard. One could zoom out and take in the larger form, describing how a great tree sways: somnambulantly from side-to-side, as if dragged back-and-forth through water; bowing in obeisance to Aeolus, the keeper of the winds. (Bow is a good way to describe what a bough does in a strong wind—wink, wink.) One could toss about words like bluster and gale. But now we’re talking more about wind and less about leaves.
One could try and capture the sound, likening it to the hiss of a hundred streams, sustained in the undulating branches above. But there’s that recourse to water again. Or maybe a host of small pages flapping in the breeze. But do pages suggest leaves?