Back in Bellevue, Wash., for a long weekend with the family, I’m getting a brief respite from Houston’s muted autumn. Here the maples are yellowing and some have turned red and reddish-orange (the genus Acer is an exotic in Houston), and a roadside line of tulip trees is buttery yellow. The preponderance of conifers with their uncountable shades of green detract from one’s template of how autumn is meant to look. As with Lester Young’s tenor and Shakespeare’s sonnets, we measure each autumn against an exalted standard acquired early.
From the big-leaf maple in the backyard I picked a handful of samaras, tossed them in the air and watched their diffusive descent. I was testing a passage I read on the plane from A Prospect of Flowers: A Book About Wild Flowers (1945) by the poet, botanist and clergyman Andrew Young. The idea is for arboreal offspring to move away from the parent tree so as not to be smothered:
“Trees and shrubs use fleshy, or at least edible, fruits to scatter their seeds. It is not desirable that young plants should grow up beneath their parents; the parents might overlay them with their shade, or, absorbing the soil water, take, so to speak, the food out of their mouths. They too might suffer when the young plants grew up. Rousseau disposed of his children by carrying them out of the house to become foundlings; plants dispose of theirs in much the same way.”
I wasn’t expecting a satirical jab in the middle of a botany lesson, but this one is too good not to share. Like Mrs. Jellyby, Rousseau was a “telescopic philanthropist,” a broadly dispersed species today, sensitive to safely distant suffering and injustice, indifferent to the close-at-hand. The always trustworthy Flann O’Brien seems to have shared our opinion of the author of Émile. In At Swim-Two-Birds his narrator and friends are leaving a pub when:
“a small man in black fell in with us and tapping me often about the chest, talked to me earnestly on the subject of Rousseau, a member of the French nation. He was animated, his pale features striking in the starlight and his voice going up and falling in the lilt of his argumentum.
“I did not understand his talk and was personally unacquainted with him. But Kelly was taking in all he said, for he stood near him, his taller head inclined in an attitude of close attention. Kelly then made a low noise and opened his mouth and covered the small man from shoulder to knee with a coating of unpleasant buff-coloured puke. Many other things happened on that night now imperfectly recorded in my memory but that incident is still very clear to me in my mind. Afterwards the small man was some distance from us in the lane, shaking his divested coat and rubbing it along the wall. He is a little man that the name of Rousseau will always recall to me.”