Sunday, September 13, 2009

`The Rich Fume of Autumn'

A warm dry late-summer afternoon. We tramped around Luther Burbank Park on Mercer Island, on the shore of Lake Washington. Burbank the botanist and proto-bioengineer was once as famous and revered as his friends Edison and Ford, and his industry was heroic. Between 1873 and 1925, Burbank grafted, hybridized and cross-fertilized more than 800 new varieties of fruits, vegetables, flowers, nuts and grains. His legacy lives on in Luther Burbank Park: Acres of it are covered with dense thickets of Himalaya blackberry, hybridized by Burbank in 1885. Some of the thorny stalks measure 12 feet or longer. Most of the berries have shriveled but I picked and ate a handful.

A fallen cottonwood lay in the water, and out of the exposed roots grew a patch of Aster chilense – the Pacific aster with delicate flowers of pale lavender, a harbinger of autumn. I picked a blossom and tucked it in my wallet. Many times in the middle of winter I’ve found a flattened flower among the IDs and credit cards – a dried-out memory of summer. I picked the spiky fruit of the sweetgum, a Southern import. Some of its leaves have turned tomato-red. Many of the park’s trees are invasive species – European hawthorn, horse chestnut, European mountain ash. The Alaska cedars, however, look impressively tall and shaggy. I saw one butterfly – a common cabbage white, still flitting despite the chilly nights. David Ferry’s “An Autumn Afternoon” captures the in-betweenness of the season:

“The rich fume of autumn rises from the ground
In light and odor as the leaves rot marvelously

“In the hot autumn sun in the brilliant afternoon.
What was green is turning to light before my eyes.

“The hawthorn leaves have not yet fallen away.
The squirrels are fat. The winter is coming soon.

“There’s something frantic in birdflight. The shadows of wings
Print and unprint erratically on the little

“Porch roof that I look out on from my window,
As if to keep taking back what has just been said.”

Ferry often turns scenes, human and natural, into pages. We read the autumnal world as we read a poem, as a hybrid.

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