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Echoes of lost time

For those of us who find time to live in the moment, amidst the blaze and glory and annihilation of autumn colors, we will remember the historic chaos of these October days

MacLean Gander often contributes to these pages. A longtime educator at Landmark College in Putney, he serves as a member of the board of directors of Vermont Independent Media, the nonprofit that publishes The Commons.

BRATTLEBORO—Autumn is a brilliant and melancholy season in New England — what the poet Delmore Schwartz called “the annihilation of the blaze of fall.”

For folks who travel up here to see the foliage, pick apples by hand, visit the country farmstands, or buy some crafts from the artists in the area, it is a wonderful sojourn, the fulfillment of summer and the harvest.

For those of us accustomed to the turn of the seasons, memory may be interwoven into the immediacy of the beauty of any day in early fall, and the rhythm of the seasons is as much about repetition and anniversaries as novelty.

No season comes without its echo of lost time, and autumn comes with its memories.

It is possible, for example, for me to remember that my father died on just this sort of beautiful night in early fall, many years ago, or what it felt like when my family held a birthday party this time of year for Forrest Gallup of Guilford in 1973.

Yet even with its nostalgia and sorrows, it truly is a wonderful time, with mild, sunny days and crisp nights, and the hillsides resplendent in hues of red and orange and yellow.

It is enough on some of the finest days of autumn simply to lose oneself in the sheer beauty of the trees and fields and hillsides, and savor the moment.

Folks who have lived through these seasonal passages all their lives know the glory of autumn is brief, and that there are colder and darker times ahead. So these days are good ones, not to be neglected.

A warm fire in a fireplace, a mug of hot cider, the scent of cinnamon in the air, harvest tokens on the porch, pumpkins and gourds, maybe a sheaf of withered cornstalks, an apple pie baking in the oven, and a clear sky filled with stars — we can paint a Vermont tourism map straight to that door.

These are not fake images. They are real for some people, whether visitors to this area or those of us who have country homes and the privilege to have these kinds of things be real in our lives, not just imagined or glimpsed in a tourist brochure.

But the reality is that November is on its way, and it will come with a loss of the evening light, gray skies, and the cold iron of nightly frost. All of the leaves will have fallen.

People on the edge of solvency will have the new expense of heating their dwellings. Those with insecure housing will face the cold.

To live in the upper part of the northern hemisphere is to live with the seasons, and it is hard not to argue that what we gain in joy in May and October is a currency paid back in November and March, with fall foliage leading to stick season and mud season before the beauty of the budding spring starts the cycle anew.

* * *

This year, the turn of the season makes anything one might say about the beauty of the autumn days in Vermont seem ironic at best — maybe even just tone deaf. What good is there to say about the state of the world today?

The chaos of this time is far beyond anything any of us have ever known. Comparisons with the 1918 flu epidemic, the Great Depression, and World War II make a certain kind of sense, but now it is all at once and happening faster than we can keep track of.

Beyond the economic disaster and the generational reckoning on racism and white violence, we have a deranged climate.

Fires in the West are burning harder than they ever have, and next year will likely be worse. We are only halfway through the hurricane season and have already blown through 26 storm names that use our alphabet. We‘re already using letters of the Greek alphabet to name new storms.

I have a feeling that we will remember this coming November for a long time. This period will be studied in history for hundreds of years, if history still exists.

For those of us who find time to live in the moment, amidst the blaze and glory and annihilation of autumn colors, we will remember these October days, too — these days before the storm hit.

* * *

Last weekend, my wife and I went to a cabin that has been in my family since 1962, nearly all my life. It is the one place that I ever have called home in any permanent way, and the landscape is engraved in my heart.

We had to be away from internet and cell service for a brief time, and of course we were privileged to have a place where we could go in order to just build a fire, cook some soup and bake some bread, watch the tawny shadows of the firelight flicker on the tall ceiling, listen to the silence of the night.

Simply to live inside our bodies in these times seems like an odd blessing, we are so consumed with the news and the weather of our times. And it seems sad to me that even a brief period of connecting with the natural world in itself is a sort of privilege that most people can’t share.

On Sunday morning, before we packed and came back to town, I sat on the stone terrace my father built in 1965. I was sipping coffee, not thinking much about anything, just watching the yellow leaves drift from the maple trees and listening to the sounds of robins as their flock moved through the terrain.

It was foggy or misty and the sun had not yet risen high enough to burn off the gray scrim over trees that have grown so much taller since I was a child. I thought about the nature of time.

This old Jelly Mill had been built in 1860, when Abraham Lincoln was president. The most brilliant maple on the grounds had been a sapling when I tried to cut it down with my new hatchet when I was 7 years old before my father stopped me. That was 1964, the summer after JFK was assassinated.

At one point, a Cooper’s hawk flew on a straight, clear line across the meadow, silent and dangerous. I don’t know if it is the same hawk I have seen in other years, or a descendent of generations of hawks, but glimpsing this beautiful creature lightened my heart.

I thought about how any period of history ends, in the same ways that each generation gives way to a new one, or how all of the wild beauty around me was a work in progress, with old growth giving way to new sprouts, just on a more gradual timeline.

Someday this period of history will be behind us, in the same way as the 1918 flu epidemic or the wars of the 20th century.

I watched the leaves float in the breezes for a while as the sun slowly burnt through the fog, and then we were packed and headed back to town, where the news was waiting for us.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #582 (Wednesday, October 7, 2020). This story appeared on page B1.

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