Seattle’s autumn has an instanaeity. One day the sky is robin’s egg blue, cloudless, the air cool with the warmth of northern places. Then you wake up and the clouds are back, thick as beams, and the almost-rain just smears under the wipers.
Why do the light and clouds affect us so? Temperature is cooler, but not much. Light is about as bright, even if muted, the color shifted. Nothing much has changed from the day before but everything is different–just ask someone. So much for summer, they say. Not like we had much of one. Who knows what the winter will be like. They say this as modern city people lacking fundamental concern for winter, ignornant of all of human history when worry about a bad winter must have sent the uncommitted to an early grave.
Is that what we feel when the sky clouds up and we lose three daylight minutes a day? Not so much the end of summer lounging and kid memories of running through daytime-deserted neighborhoods but a more primal worry about cold as an invasion? What was it like to stand in a hayfield in that tenuous, delicious Indian Summer warmth and know, just know, that your older neighbor’s cough doomed him when the snow came? Even now we can stand on streetcorners and hear the wind’s hollow center. It sends us inside where the light is, where all the machines sustain us.
A key plank of the American myth is that education lifted us up and built freedom’s foundations. Kids went off to schoolhouses when the harvest was in so they could sustain the great experiment, boning up on what they would need for the pursuit of happiness. I have never quite bought this. Standing in the great dusty cavern of my grandmother’s barn I could feel the seasons. Flakes of winters remained trapped under square nail heads, and summer glimmers hid under layers of crumbled hay. When the barn was new the best people could do was look to caterpillar fuzziness or Poor Richard’s and just hope that rains came, the sun didn’t burn, the snow didn’t bury. Autumn was the first taste of driving rains and then arresting snow, the hold of winter so tight that one too few logs laid up meant freezing. What you see in paintings from centuries past when farmers rest their hands on handles and stare out at the horizon is not rest or ease but searching the sky for what horror could come.
In the present, it’s just autumn: grey and indeterminate, the traffic bad from a closed bridge. The great existential threat of climate change sits on the sidelines like all things too big to contemplate, and the immeidate problems are all artificial contrivances wrapped up with who owes what to whom. Every corner has a man with a sign, it seems: veteran, homeless, anything helps, God bless. I hope God does bless them. Rain gets under overpasses too, but the sun will come out again this week.