September 2009

Autumn leaves

The leaves are already starting to turn in both Newton and Keene, as if the first week of September comes and the chemistry of tree and herb alike immediately changes, switching into shut-down mode. It’s a change that’s been a long time coming, of course–in a sense, all any leaf does with its life is prepare to die, accomplishing as much photosynthesis as it can in the summer sun while somehow sensing in its insentient way that the end is mere months away.

Autumn leaves

What would you do with your life if you knew you had only three months to live? Leaves spend every ounce of their cellular selves working, toiling at the drudgery of converting air, light, and water into an energy that will outlive them, stored in miserly roots, stems, and fruit. Leaves don’t see this work as drudgery because they don’t see anything at all. Instead of laboring over complaints and resentments, leaves lead the simplest of lives, simply doing their job and then dying without complaint. Not an ounce of energy is wasted fighting or bewailing fate: when the time comes to change, wither, and then fall, leaves simply follow their situation.

Go outside some bright autumn day, or even on a gray moody one, and listen: can you hear it? Can you hear the sound of leaves bemoaning their lot, lamenting the brevity of their days and the pure tedium of their allotted job with all its mindless chemical transpiration? Do you hear the mournful wail of millions as countless leaves succumb to dessication and then die, their anonymous bodies fed as fuel to the fire? No, leaves don’t fight it; leaves don’t fight anything. They are expert in surrender. Leaves recognize the way the wind blows and fall into it, allowing themselves to be carried aloft without care.

Pollinating butterfly

I wasn’t planning to take any photos on this morning’s dog-walk, but I couldn’t resist the sight of a butterfly pollinating flowers alongside the usual handful of bees. Even on mornings when I’m not planning to take any photos, I have my everyday-use camera in my purse, within easy reach. You never know when or where there might be butterflies.

Grasshopper on flower

The world, it turns out, is full of such serendipity. I wasn’t planning to take any photos across from the Starbucks in Waban Square, but when I saw a single butterfly dancing around flowers that were within easy shooting distance, I walked a few feet out of my usual way, Reggie happy to sniff a few steps this way rather than that. While taking a handful of butterfly shots, I spotted a grasshopper sitting atop the same cluster of flowers: an unforeseen bonus. Had I not taken a few steps this way rather than that, I’d never have seen it.

Some might argue that looking at the world through a viewfinder narrows your vision: there is so much that lies outside your perceptual frame, you run the risk of missing the proverbial forest for the trees. But I say that carrying a camera encourages a depth of vision: zeroing and zooming on one small thing, you see another and another. William Blake was right, and he didn’t even own a digicam. The whole world dwells in a grain of sand, and all of heaven hides in a wildflower.

Ivy clad

I arrived back in Keene on Monday night, just in time to see scattered throngs of students walking home from their first day of fall semester classes. As I unpacked my car and got settled into my apartment, it occurred to me that I’m revisiting my own undergraduate days when I’d move home for the summer then return to campus the weekend before classes began, re-inhabiting a dorm room that felt like an empty shell upon entry.

Virginia creeper

It’s a strange sensation to move back into your own apartment after a summer away. I’d left the place tidy but not immaculate, and all this week I’ve been trying to reacquaint myself with the same old cupboards, closets, and quirks. I imagine this is what it’s like to return to a familiar vacation cottage every year: it takes a few days to remember where you put the colander the last time you used it, and it takes a few showers to remember exactly how hot the water runs. Here is my old, familiar bed, just how I’d left it with a few half-read magazines and a once-worn fleece tossed across the spread. How strange it is to sleep here alone after a summer of sharing a bed with boyfriend and beagle.

This week I’ve felt alien and odd on the streets of Keene as well as in my own apartment; so far, my classrooms are the only place where I’ve felt truly at-home, returning to a teaching ritual that, after more than 15 years of doing it, feels like second-nature. In my office at school, I nearly forgot the combination that opens my basement office, and once inside, I couldn’t remember my computer network password. But once I’m in front of a classroom of students, it feels like I’ve never left, with no fumbling to find a familiar but forgotten doorknob in the dark.


While I was gone, the quiet family across the street has been replaced by a houseful of college guys with pickup trucks; while I was gone, a handful of houses I regularly pass while walking the dog have begun remodeling projects. The houses that first arose as sticks at the start of summer are now finished and occupied, with lawn chairs out front that look like they’ve been there forever. While I was gone, in other words, the rest of the neighborhood has gone on living, not really noticing I was gone. It’s a lesson I should have learned long ago, but I have to learn it anew each year: time waits for no one.

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