I’ve been enjoying fall this year, even more than usual. I grew up on the west coast in places where there was an observable but not spectacular display of autumn color. It wasn’t until I came to northern New York twenty years ago that I got the full experience or spectacular color and charged-up weather. I don’t think this year’s colors are any more intense (though they does vary a bit from year to year) — No, I think I’m more perceptually tuned-in. Maybe it’s just that I’m getting older and slower so that I see more of what’s in front of me — that’s probably part of it, but not the whole thing. Maybe it’s that I gave up drinking alcohol a couple of months ago — not that I was walking around in an alcoholic fog or anything. I suppose it’s all these things that have sharpened my sense of this season, the season of sinking down, which lasts a long time here in the north country. In August some of the leaves begin to yellow and by the end of the month the nights are a little cooler. In September, the maple trees begin to go read and brown, though the birches and many other species stay green or just begin to shade toward yellow; this is also the time of year you begin to notice more activity among the birds. Families of crows begin to congregate and migrating songbirds make stops in the dogwoods. In October the winds come up and rain begins to knock the old leaves off the trees. It is the colors of the trees at this point in the year — just past the peak of their intensity — that give me the most pleasure. Yesterday in my freshman writing class we were talking about Romantic versus Rationalist views of the world and the language we use to talk about these different approaches. It was a good discussion, but i was really knocked back on my heels when one student said, “I took a meteorology class in high school because I’ve always had a deep feeling for the weather and I was a little disappointed to find out how it all worked — it took away some of the mystery.” This is of course what Keats famously said about Newton “unweaving the rainbow” and I told the class as much, then went on to say that I, too, had always had a special feeling for the weather; that, as a child, I had had a little weather station in my room; but then added that I hadn’t found that the meteorology course I took diminished my feeling for the beauty, suggesting that one could sustain both a Romantic and a Rationalist / Realist response. I think that’s true. In fact, I think such a view is at least related to Keats’s idea of negative capability and that learning to sustain a sense of negative capability prevents one from falling either into sentimentality or the aridity of intellectualism.
So I’m sitting around at home this morning looking out on the kind of beautiful fall morning that would usually pull me outdoors. My favorite yard chores are autumn yard chores. But I’m sitting inside because I picked up a head cold & sore throat at school. Colleges are viral breeding grounds. I just don’t have the oomph to get out & transplant perennials. Despite the cold, it has been a good semester so far — across the board, my students seem pretty engaged, though I remain amazed at their meager abilities as readers. And by that I mean, just the ability to get the basic prose meaning of a literary text. “That’s weird,” they say immediately in response to a poem they don’t understand (Stephen Dunn’s “Men Talk,” hardly a difficult text), dismissing it before they have even tried to suss out the meaning of all its words and images. Reading poetry, they tend to not read sentences, even when there are perfectly clear sentences. I guess they are reading lines as fragments. Perhaps it is just a very weak sense of grammar. And by grammar, I don’t mean knowledge of the names of different grammatical entities, but a sense of the way the parts of a sentence relate to each other to create a meaning. I also found out yesterday that I was one of four members of my department who had been nominated to replace our outgoing department chair, though I immediately took myself out of the running. Five years ago I wanted the job & didn’t get it, but I don’t want it now. I’ve passed that particular fork in the road. All my ambitions are literary & pedagogical these days. Inspired by Stuart O’Nan’s visit to campus, I have begun working on a short story — my first attempt in 20 years — & I’m still struggling with my long poem, pieces of which are lying around on my desk, in my notebooks, and on my hard drive like flotsam on the beach after a storm.
The days have been fairly warm, but the nights cooling. The leaves on some of the maples have just begun to shift toward yellow. Cassiopeia rises in the northeast at the end of our road in the gap where the tall trees open on the riverbank. There are still coneflowers & black-eyed-susans in the flowerbeds, but not much else. In the ditches the late blooming asters & fleabane proliferate; the milkweed is setting its alien-looking seedpods. The sounds of geese gathering on the river. Last week the flycatchers along the river seemed to be doing twice as much hunting, gathering strength for their migration; this week, most of them are gone. Now that they have stopped growing, I’ve been trimming back excessive summer growth on some of my bonsai, especially the rosemary, but also the pomegranates & natal plum. Waves of hard rain this morning.