At the time of this writing (September 14, 2020) we are, by my count, in our third day of autumn. Without a jacket, the light breeze brings you a small shock, without the relief it might have brought a mere week ago when the humid lake air made your head and skin feel thick and rubbery with sleep and moisture. I can still sit outside to write and grade, and enjoy it more. In spring and summer, all is soused with the cool bright green of chlorophyll. But in autumn the colors are far better. All is clear and distinct, rather than saturated. Autumn air and light is crisp and clear, like the syllogism I taught this afternoon by way of example: “All men are mortal; Socrates is a man…” A comforting thought, too, in its season.
This, at least, is how it is here. The squash and tomatoes are almost all ripe from a very late planting. Wildflowers still abound, and there is still the occasional bee wooing one or two of the yellow roses. But these last are far more tentative, and show signs of being hangers-on rather than the first children of the season. The signs of dotage are various, from the missing petals to the holes and spots that appear in the flowers’ leaves as suddenly as bubbles on the surface of water. No great host of trees has turned color as yet, but there are a few blushes here and there, some mustard blots in the sugar maples and a good deal of maroon among the heart-shaped leaves of the lilacs. The slight chill at the end of our fingers tells us to work a little harder against the onset of atrophy and the retreat of the vital sap. Kenneth Graham said it best when he described, in The Wind in the Willows, the Mole’s response to autumn: “He was glad that he liked the country undecorated, hard, and stripped of its finery. He had got down to the bare bones of it, and they were fine and strong and simple.”
Autumn, in other words, is not only the season’s vespers. It is, if you will, its primitive observance. My grandparents once owned a summer home in Maine. At low tide, I could have walked quite across the harbor, were it not for marsh mud and seaweed. I could clearly see the exposed strata of rocks, the shells of clams and crabs, and, once, a dead seal. “The sea is the land’s edge also.” One gets a similar feeling when, after waking up one fall morning, the bone-tan heads of mushrooms have crept up again from the earth. You are then in the presence of something primeval. Now, you can’t seem to huck a stone into the air without it landing in a brace of mushrooms. As Sylvia Plath once put it, in persona fungi:
We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,
Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:
We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.
Speaking of the Beatitudes, Ember days are here again. Now fasting seems almost like a treat, a moment of ascetic enthusiasm amidst the un-ending Sundays after Trinity (prizes for those who can tell without peeking how many there are.) Fasting makes one feel like the landscape—light, sharp-eyed, and thin.
Other times, I often feel silly singing the Phos Hilaron as translated by Robert Bridges (but if we have a tenor with us, Keble) with its tag about how “now ere day fadeth quite / We see the evening light, / Our wonted hymn outpouring…” In the winter the sun seems to set after four, and be utterly extinguished by supper. In the summer one is utterly fagged by the afternoon, and a cocktail on the lawn is the only possible source of renewal. Only in autumn is there any real twilight at five-thirty to sixish. Then, you get the feeling that there is still time but not enough that you are tempted to waste it, that the days are of moderate length, and that no matter what you must do, it must be done with might.
But vespers is one of those things that cannot be done quickly. As in any piece of stagecraft, speech, or song, the pauses are just as important as the lines. One doesn’t want to drag, of course. But a pause of three seconds is usually sufficient to promote a meditative calm in the small congregation. With beginners there is a tendency to stumble over or before the correct time. In a congregation of adepts, the pauses and starts are like the waves at low tide. They are neither hurried nor drawn out.
At about the witching hour, we heard what turned out to be a screech owl, no doubt returning from his parliament. The shriek was tortured, like the sound of a child in terror. The only perturbed spirit was my own. My wife returned to sleep immediately. I could not, and stayed up till four to console my nerves by putting Hesiod into English couplets and eating cheese. He doesn’t seem to mention screech owls. He does mention (via Chapman) that by the time fall comes around one had better get moving:
— When, I say, all this,
follows the season, and the forest is
sound, being fell’d, his leaves upon the ground
before let fall, and leaving what they crown’d
then constantly take time to fill thy wood;
of husbandry, the time kept is the blood.
[Image: Stoke Poges Church by Thomas Churchyard