(October 17, 2011)
I feel held by the fall. This thought comes to me during my morning run along the River Bend towpath, in the lee of the Voss farm, one of the six other dairy farmers in Uxbridge while I was growing up. The Voss farm is no longer a farm. It is a monument—a state park with a long trail along a river canal that now has no purpose except recreational. The canal once was the latest innovation in transportation, allowing the mills to move woolen goods towed by horses along a straight and clear path through the Blackstone Valley.
No doubt the Voss farm was built before the industrial revolution. Its barn is the same size and style as our own, which likely dates it to just pre-Civil War. Before the advent of electricity the animals would have needed the drinking water of the Rice City pond—the broad expanse of the Blackstone River upon which the farm backs up to. The barn was built where the land rises on a slight knoll overlooking the water, in respect to the regular inundations of a flood plain. Those Yankee farmers knew how to site their farms, showing deep knowledge for the rhythms of the land that created the best conditions for farming. The rich soil of a flood plain was the ideal setting for the corn and grain planted in fields still open to this day.
My attention is focused on the ground while I run, because that is where the roots and uneven earth is, but everywhere my awareness is brought to the light of autumn. It is very windy and the leaves are animated above me, casting flickering shadows on the ground that remind me of the patterns waves and sea life cast on the bottom while scuba diving. I feel held, even as I try to keep my balance on uneven terrain.
The smell of the air as I breathe in and out, now running harder, is so clean I can feel it nearly reach my feet with each long draw into my lungs. I can hear my heart beating and feel the rush of blood pulsing through my neck. And then it smacks me. I think of my brother and his last moments, as his heart stopped pounding. It’s a thought I try to avoid, but like all grief, it intrudes on the purest of moments—times when I’m not even thinking. My eyes moisten. I continue running, half crying, half held by the light, which now through my tears is making everything blur and reminding me of white sheets snapping in the breeze on a clothesline.
Fall for me has become less about the blazing color and more about a surrender to the reflected light—a half eaten communion wafer offered to us in candle light. The Voss farm is no more, devoured by the Industrial Revolution, one small bite at a time. Our farm, too, dismantled piece by piece. And so too the mills, a tow path rendered useless by the advent of the railroads, a mill in the northeast supplanted by garment districts first in the south and later in foreign lands with cheaper labor. My own brother Dave, who was here last fall laughing, haying, and drinking beer is now returned to the earth as ashes.
It happens so quickly, each turn of the kaleidoscope. It shows no mercy. As kids, we would call out “Ollie Ollie Oxen Free” ending the game when the thought of one of us being truly lost in our games of hide and seek became too much to bear. But this march of time forward has no such trumpet call of mercy. There is only this sliding sheave of birth, maturity, decay, and death in spiraling cycles that are too easy for us to pretend are standing still because of their predictable repetition.
The edges of the leaves on the trees are browning and bending in the first sign of decay. Some have already given up and are taking their place among the smoldering matter on the ground. It’s a lie that I will smell this spiced residue every fall. It’s as if I am realizing that for the first time.
The Concord grapes just last month smelled swollen and sweet. But today I notice they are now rotting on the vines and sticky on the path. I stop running and bend to watch a line of ants marching from a sugary mess, bringing the life giving final energies of decay back to their nests.
This is why I like fall, I realize. It’s more honest than spring, which seems to suggest that life is an endlessly reckless party. The lines I see on my face, the changes in my body all seem to be mirrored everywhere I look. If there is a blazing beauty to it and equally stunning light it is only that more poignant when the final darkness of winter descends.
That feels right to me, even as I fight against it and strain to integrate it. If there is a redemptive moment when we leave in that final flash of light, I do not know. But I feel certain watching the sugars returned by the ants to their underground cities to feed the roots of endlessly growing and decaying trees that something of my brother remains.
The autumn light spills from a slanted sky in geometric planes. I come upon the gentle fluh-fluh-fluh sound of an impossibly enormous great blue heron taking off. A single leaf takes a circuitous route to the ground. How is it that the mad tiddlywinks game of life pressing forward appears to be fueled entirely by death and change, and yet, still somehow suggests safe passage?