“The year changing its mind”— Embracing Impermanence at the Autumnal Equinox

Cherry Tree, University of Washington.

These are the last days.
Already the stalks of lilies
have withered, and the gold petals
of the rose melt on the grass.

— Patricia Hooper, “Equinox” [i]

Summer has just ended, twenty minutes past noon in the Pacific Northwest. I am always sorry to see it go. The languorous days, granting us license to play and to dream, now bid us farewell. The year’s shadowless noon gives way to the urgencies of time. Poet Penelope Shuttle describes September’s turning point with succinct perfection: “The year changing its mind.” [ii] The autumn may be agreeably mellow at first, but we all know where it’s headed. Every Arcadia must fail in the end, every Paradise be lost.

Yesterday I made my final communion with summer in a tranquil float down the Deschutes River. Ponderosa pines, willows and tall grasses lined the banks. Snowy egrets swept past on radiant wings. An osprey spiraled upward into the blue. My mind sank into stillness. I knew nothing but Now. 

Deschutes River, Sunriver, Oregon.

When I threw some books into my suitcase for an end-of-summer vacation in eastern Oregon, I didn’t realize how autumnal my reading would turn out to be. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account of his epic walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople—before he turned 20—preserves his vivid memories of an exotic world, from shepherds’ campfires in the Carpathian wilds to the sumptuous libraries in the country estates of cultured Austro-Hungarian patricians. But Fermor didn’t write his trilogy until he was an old man, long after the Middle Europe of 1934 had been swept away. The reader feels the shadow of not only lost youth but also a lost world. [iii]

Johan Huizinga’s The Autumn of the Middle Ages documents the passing away, in the cultural imagination of France and the Netherlands, of chivalric dreams of a more beautiful life. Before the sadness of fate and history set the dominant tone, says Huizinga, “in many respects life still wore the color of fairy tales.” [iv] At the end of the 14thcentury, a French poet summed up the spirit of his despondent age: 

La fin s’approche, en verité …
Tout va mal.

The end is truly near …
Everything is going bad. [v]

At a time when so much of our own “reality” seems to be a fading dream—democracy, climate, human health, civic sanity—the poet’s autumnal lament rings true. Happily, I brought a third book, containing a cure for such melancholy themes. In Thomas Merton’s journal of his experiences in the far East, the Catholic contemplative wonders whether he is seeing the “real Asia,” or simply finding “an illusion of Asia that needed to be dissolved by experience.” In a deep valley within the Himalayan foothills, he is instructed by the landscape:

“What does this valley have? Landslides. Hundreds of them. The mountains are terribly gashed, except where the forest is thick. Whole sections of tea plantations were carried away six weeks ago. And it is obviously going to be worse the next time there are really heavy rains. The place is a frightening example of annicca—‘impermanence.’ A good place, therefore, to adjust one’s perspectives. I find my mind rebelling against the landslides. I am distracted by reforestation projects and other devices to deny them, to forbid them. I want all this to be permanent. A permanent postcard for meditation, daydreams. The landslides are ironic and silent comments on the apparent permanence, the ‘eternal snows’ of solid [Mount] Kanchenjunga.”

The landslides become Merton’s teacher. Stability is an illusion. Even the great Himalayan mountain, in all its sublime majesty, is subject to impermanence. Once this is accepted, Merton is liberated from autumnal sadness, and a measure of Edenic summer knowledge is restored. He can live in the given moment, accepting its blessings with a peaceful, unanxious heart.

“The sun is high, at the zenith. Clear soft sound of a temple bell far down in the valley. Voices of children near the cottages above me on the mountainside. The sun is warm. Everything falls into place. Nothing is to be decided … There is nothing to be judged.” [vi]

Photographs by the author.

[i] Reprinted in The Heart of Autumn: Poems for the Season of Reflection, ed. Robert Atwan (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003), 16. This fine anthology is one of a series on poetry of the 4 seasons. 

[ii] From “September,” Ibid., 17.

[iii] I am currently reading the 2nd volume of the trilogy, Between the Woods and Water (New York: New York Review of Books, 1986/2005).

[iv] Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages, trans. Rodney J. Payton & Ulrich Mammitzsch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 9. This more recent translation is much preferable to the one I read in my youth, The Waning of the Middle Ages.

[v] Eustache Deschamps (1346-1406), in Huizinga, 35.

[vi] Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal (New York: New Directions, 1975), 150-151.

A tender doom

UW fall leaves

The fictions of summer are so persuasive: the constancy of fair weather, the treasure of unhurried time, the allure of nature’s green paradise, the willful suspension of care and duty. In hammock or kayak, who can imagine anything but endless bliss and smiling skies?

Summer’s last full day in Puget Sound was as perfect as they come – brilliant light, delicious warmth. Even after sundown, we lingered outside in summer clothes as if it were still August. But the harbingers of autumn had already begun to intrude. Darkness which delayed until bedtime six weeks ago was now arriving for dinner. The clamor of songbirds at our feeders has dwindled to a lonely remnant. And it’s now almost impossible to find a blackberry worth eating.

In the hours before the equinox yesterday, clouds rolled in and the temperature dropped, like a set change between acts – or, in poet Penelope Shuttle’s fine image, it was “the year changing its mind.”

But as John Burroughs noted, fall “comes like a tide running against a strong wind; it is ever beaten back, but ever gaining ground, with now and then a mad push upon the land.” There are still some lusciously brilliant days to come, but we can no longer claim them as our seasonal right. We may only receive them as gifts of increasing rarity, now that the earth has tipped toward winter.

Describing the mechanisms of autumnal change, Peter J. Marchand points out that the seasonal senescence of plants is not simply a matter of loss. The process of dormancy is just the flip side of growth, and there is “as much life as there is death in the browning of meadows and the drying of leaves in autumn.”

If we could sit under a maple or aspen in the fall and observe all that is going on within the plant, we would witness a remarkable communication of chemicals and flow of materials: a bustling hubbub of messenger molecules and hormones directing complex metabolic processes, a train of nutrients and waste materials being shuttled into storage compartments; a clatter of metabolic machinery being disassembled (Autumn: A Season of Change, p. 14).

We each have our own versions of this slowing down, letting go, turning inward, growing quiet. We can’t hold summer forever. The leaf falls, the year dies, the heart submits to a process beyond its control. In Marchand’s wonderful book on autumn, he catalogs the poetics of the season as well as the science, and his citation of Martha McCulloch Williams, a 19th century American writer, makes a lovely overture to the days before us now.

September, she said, is a “fair month, truly – golden fair, spiced with breath of the orchards, the vineyards’ winy smell,” with the earth “smiling peace to a perfect heaven.” But she knew that beneath the exhilarating splendor of early autumn there sounds “an under-note – a wailing minor of loss and waste. Faint, ah, so faint!” So savor this mellow time while it lasts, and when it goes for good, do not forget the promise of returning spring.

Walk afield [then] every day … Whether sun shines, or rain drips, or white frost bites and stings, you should find a liberal education in the hectic beauty of death; not cruel death, but a tender doom, sweet with the glory of full harvest, and spanned with the rainbow of resurrection.