Friday, October 21, 2011

`I Think of All the Sleeping Seeds'

One need not be a feckless optimist to see spring in the coming of fall. It’s among the rewards of age, I suppose, perceiving the bigger cycles, not mistaking now for forever. Even in Houston, where the temperature recently topped 100 degrees for thirty-six consecutive days, we’re basking in the forties overnight. Leaves don’t change color, except to turn a little browner, and winds gusted all day Wednesday. October in Houston felt like April in Cleveland. This latency of the seasons, the correspondence between opposing equinoxes, is distilled by the Scottish poet Andrew Young (1885-1971) in “Autumn Mist”:

“So thick a mist hung over all,
Rain had no room to fall;
It seemed a sea without a shore;
The cobwebs drooped heavy and hoar
As though with wool they had been knit;
Too obvious mark for fly to hit!

“And though the sun was somewhere else
The gloom had brightness of its own
That shone on bracken, grass and stone
And mole-mound with its broken shells
That told where squirrel lately sat,
Cracked hazel-nuts and ate the fat.

“And sullen haws in the hedgerows
Burned in the damp with clearer fire
And brighter still than those
The scarlet hips hung on the briar
Like coffins of the dead dog-rose;
All were as bright as though for earth
Death were a gayer thing than birth.”

Younger readers may find Young's final lines baffling. Spring, after all, represents birth and rebirth, right? Young titled his 1933 collection Winter Harvest. A similar imaginative grasp of the seasons and mortality is expressed by H.E. Bates in Through the Woods: The English Woodland—April to April (1936):

“Autumn slips a finger into August, but Spring has a revenge in December. Winter blows on September, but October still remains, with May and June, the loveliest month of the English year, a kind of second spring, uncertain but exhilarating, sunny and snowy, hot and frosty, bright and dark by turns, a sort of autumnal April.”

Nature supplies its fecund opposites. In another poem, “Autumn Seeds,” Young reminds us of the “sleeping seeds”:

“Although a thoughtful bee still travels
And midge-ball ravels and unravels,
Yet strewn along the pathway lie
Like small open sarcophagi
The hazel-nuts broken in two
And cobwebs catch the seed-pearl dew.

“Now summer’s flowers are winter’s weeds,
I think of all the sleeping seeds;
Winds were their robins and by night
Frosts glue their leafy cover tight;
Snow may shake down its dizzy feathers,
They will sleep safely through all weathers.”

My brother posted a picture he titles “October 18th,” though he might have called it “Halloween.” He shot it earlier this week at four o’clock in the afternoon in suburban Cleveland. It’s a Kentucky coffee tree growing between his house and the driveway. When I last lived there, more than forty years ago, it was treeless grass.

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