Autumn takes such abuse as a moth-eaten metaphor for decline. “Knows’t thou not at the fall of the leaf” and so on. Here in Japan, the poets have done no better. My daughter’s learning an old thing at school that goes, “Deep in the mountains, I hear the cry of a deer tramping through maple leaves. Ah, how sad autumn is!” But from my desk, the curtains drawn against the blaze of late July, autumn looks more like triumph, however transient. What makes you feel more alive than turning a corner into a crisp, giddy breeze that sets your trousers flapping and your hands scrabbling for the collar of your jacket?
Not a season of decline, then, but perhaps one of memory? Autumn seems, somehow, more bound to the past than other seasons. If time is a wheel, autumn is where the rim has bent, giving a slow, steady thrumming to the cadence of the years. These are the months when tradition takes on its darkest, most enchanting aspect.
As a child, knowing exactly what the perfect autumn should look like, I never had one. Every year something was off. News of mad poisoners dosing the Halloween candy, a flush of late heat in November, my mother’s unhappy experiments with the holiday menu (to which novelty is no friend). My gleefully flatulent, Amway-selling cousin at Thanksgiving dinner, with God-knew-what flecking his sandy moustache. Probably Mom’s Ugandan peanut butter stew.
But I never lost faith. I still haven’t. Just as the rest of the world is succumbing to thoughts of death, I always feel most hopeful. This is the year! It’s all coming together! It never does. But within reasonable limits, time renders bad memories nearly as good as great ones, so I shrug and look to next year.
One Saturday in 1987, though, I came very close. I was in Colorado, living with hippies in a town so brimming with hippies that wherever you went the talk was of whether the recent Harmonic Convergence had inaugurated a profound shift in global consciousness or whether it was a total bust and our present hell cycle was poised to roll on indefinitely.
Yes, I know. You had to be there.
Ignoring all this, I had bought a penny whistle. I did not know how to play it, but my housemate Jim Dobkowski suggested that the trees would teach me. That sounded like uncommonly good sense, so I headed up a trail into Boulder Canyon to seek instruction.
I found a likely aspen, and sat beneath it. Jim had sent me off with certain provisions and I availed myself of them now, gazing across the foothills of the Rockies. Aspen leaves, in early fall, tremble at the slightest breeze in colors from gold to glowing reds to a startling orange that makes the hills look as if they were afire. My tree was one such, and I leaned back into it.
I brought out my new whistle and played. I didn’t know what notes the holes made, or how they might relate to one another. I just sort of waggled my fingers up and down the thing and blew. My whistle went, “Noodly-noodly-oodle.” I was happy.
So was the girl who, unexpectedly, now sat cross-legged in the dirt with an enraptured smile. I nodded to her and played. A young Vietnamese man and his wholesome blond girlfriend from California (I know because they talked to me later, asking if I had tapes to sell) were next.
Smiling, swaying people came and went, one woman breaking into wordless song from deep in her belly, and what could I do but play whatever the tree told me to? Noodly-oodly-oo. At one point perhaps nine or ten people lay scattered around me. Overhead, sleek clouds made for the high plains of Kansas with reckless speed. The wind in the canyon set the leaves shivering, and we were all painted in a shifting motley of sunlight and shadow. Someone gave me a dark, massive apple muffin, and it was good. Or so I remember it.
From where I sit, sweating through a brutal summer in western Japan, it’s hard to imagine you in autumn, the wheel come round again. Ah well, I’ll get there. In the meantime, I hope you’re enjoying it.
I hope your mornings have a thrill of cold in them. I hope your hands curl gratefully around the warmth of the day’s first coffee. I hope you’re out the door early enough to watch the sun throw shadows down the east-west streets, and hear the dawn birds call across the long hours to the dusk birds, driving the ancient engines of dark and light. Make memories, good or spectacularly bad. This is the year! You’re on the road! It’s perfect.